(NNPA)—Whenever I see Kemba Smith or her parents, Gus and Odessa Smith, we embrace. Our hugs are long and say everything without either of us saying anything. In those deeply-personal moments, we celebrate what the family has overcome. And we mostly celebrate Kemba’s freedom and the long, bumpy road that led to it.
We got in our hugs last week at a forum Rep. Maxine Waters organized to honor women such as Kemba at the Congressional Black Caucus’s 41st annual Legislative Conference. Like thousands of young women, Kemba felt the brunt of the U.S. criminal justice system, a flawed system that unfairly punished women who had the misfortune of falling in love with a drug dealer.
As editor of Emerge, we placed Kemba on the cover twice. The first time was May 1996. It was the photo of a smiling Kemba in her white cap and gown, clutching her freshly-minted high school diploma. In large, bold letters were the words, “Kemba’s Nightmare: A Model Child Becomes Prisoner #26370-083.” The story, written by Reginald Stuart, was a riveting account of Kemba falling in love with Peter Hall while she was enrolled in Hampton University. Her association with the drug dealer led to her being sentenced to a mandatory 24 years in federal prison with no chance for parole. She was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, lying to federal authorities and conspiracy to launder drug money.
Kemba, who was 22 years old at the time was sentenced in 1994, became the poster child for a national movement against mandatory sentences. Elaine Jones, then head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, read our story in Emerge and agreed to represent Kemba. Eventually, LDF filed a petition for clemency, which was granted by President Bill Clinton shortly before Christmas in 2000.
Although the initial story on Kemba was published 15 years ago, we are still learning about the impact it had on others.
At the forum hosted by Congresswoman Waters, Serena Nunn, whose story is very similar to Kemba’s—and like Kemba, was pardoned by President Clinton—said: “When Kemba’s story came out, I can remember being in prison in Pekin, Ill. “…I can remember being there, sitting on a bench with 10 other women and everybody just passing that magazine around. It was the same time Julia Stewart’s newsletter came out from FAMM [Families Against Mandatory Minimums]. Everybody there felt like there was starting to be this ray of hope, that people would get the word and realize that there were a whole bunch of us sitting in prison with these draconian sentences.”
Gus Smith told me about a graduate of the University of Maryland who wanted Kemba to autograph her diploma. When Kemba hesitated out of respect for what the document represented, the woman told her, “You don’t understand. I wouldn’t have this diploma if it hadn’t been for you.”
Today, Kemba Smith lives in Indianapolis, Ind. She had a son, Armani, during her first months of incarceration. After her release, she married Patrick Pradia and they have a 17-month-old daughter, Phoenix. She has written a book about her ordeal titled, Poster Child. The cover line notes, “It was easy falling in love with a drug dealer. The hard part was paying for his crime.” (The book can be ordered from www.kembasmith.com).
Kemba acknowledges that it’s difficult to balance her role as a wife, mother, book author and activist.
She dedicated her book to her supporters and to “all my brothers and sisters who are currently incarcerated under mandatory minimums, drug conspiracy and crack cocaine sentencing laws.” Kemba said, “My soul aches knowing that others should be home, too.”
Because of the work of CBC members, some others may come home, too.
Last year, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, a retroactive measure that increased the amount of crack cocaine that triggers mandatory minimums sentences. Approximately 12,000 federal crack offenders sentenced prior to Nov. 1, 2010 may be eligible for reductions that average 37 months. However, the reductions are not automatic and will have no bearing on prisoners sentenced under state mandatory minimums laws.
Waters and Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree reminded supporters that while the federal law represents an improvement, the campaign to eradicate mandatory minimums must continue.
Kemba Smith vowed to remain a central part of that movement.
“I have to tell you about a friend of mine, Michelle West,” she told the audience, with tears in her eyes. “She is in federal prison. Michelle West is 50 and is serving two life sentences, plus 50 years on conspiracy to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to commit murder. Basically, she is being charged for the crimes of her boyfriend.
“She had been separated from the abusive boyfriend for three years when the feds came after him. After being saved by her family many times, she finally got the courage to break away from him and taking her daughter [with her]. She opened her own beauty salon. When police came after her ex-boyfriend, Michelle got word that if she talked, her daughter would be killed. Police offered her a deal to be an informant. Michelle said, ‘It was my life or my daughter’s and I chose to save my daughter.’ An informant who actually admitted to committing the murder named Michelle as an accomplice.”
Kemba continued, “The murderer never served a day. Michelle went to prison when her daughter was 10. That was 17 years ago. Michelle has had an exemplary record in prison and had never been in trouble with the law before this case. I am committed to continuing to share stories about Michelle and continuing to be a face for those who are left behind in prison.”
After Kemba’s words, I had to hug her again.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)