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December 29, 2004 - The Amsterdam News (NY)
Fighting For Reform
Bronx Woman Victorious In Fight Against Rockefeller Drug Laws
By Jamal E. Watson, Amsterdam News Staff
For the past six years, Teresa Aviles bas been on what seems to be a lonely crusade.
Six years ago, her 33-year-old son Isidro, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, died while in the custody of prison officials.
Devastated by his death, Aviles began to call for reforms in the draconian sentencing guidelines, pointing out that the harsh sentences didn't meet the alleged crimes.
She began testifying before state and federal legislators and started a New York chapter of the November Coalition, a national nonprofit group that calls for drug reform.
But what has helped her to get through each Christmas season without her son Isidro, who prison officials say died from AIDS in 1998, has been the Christmas party that Aviles has been hosting for dozens of Black children across New York whose parents are currently serving long prison sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
At this year's Christmas party, held at the National Council of Negro Women Day Care Center in the Bronx, there was reason for Aviles and many of the women who brought their children to the event, to be a bit more hopeful.
Two weeks ago, Governor George Pataki signed into law a bill calling for reforms in the way that the Rockefeller Drug Laws are implemented.
"I've very hopeful," said Aviles, 56. "You have to have hope. Seven years ago, no one was talking about this. We've come a long way."
Among the 50 or so wide-eyed children who attended Aviles' annual party, most have not lived with their biological fathers, who they've only come to know through weekly visits to the prisons, surrounded by dozens of other visitors.
Aviles recounts the devastation that her 13-year-old granddaughter felt when she went to visit her father in jail before his death.
"It was really sad," she said. "She would say ,'Dad, I want you to come home,' and he would just say that he couldn't."
Aviles said that her son never used or pushed drugs. He happened, she says, to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. A neighborhood drug dealer fingered Isidro, and without much evidence, she said that he was prosecuted, convicted and shipped off to prison to serve out his lengthy sentence.
When he fell ill, Aviles said, Isidro was withheld medical treatment and was later transported to Minnesota for 22 days, though she said that she had no contact with her son during that time.
Shortly thereafter, she was informed that her son's health had taken a turn for the worse, and within days, he was dead.
While Pataki's new bill will help to reduce the sentences of some inmates, Aviles and other activists say that change is not likely to be immediate. She points out that many were given long sentences in the face of court-appointed attorneys who were ill-equipped to deal with complicated cases.
"I think this gathering is a terrific benefit to families and children so that they don't feel so isolated during the holiday season," said Paul Bennett, a community organizer who helped to start the New York based organization called Partnership for Responsible Drug Information
Bennett said that racism in the criminal justice system has been one of the reasons why African Americans and Latinos have received stiffer sentences than whites. While he thinks that Pataki's reforms are a good first step, he says that much more needs to be done.
Tania Thomas' husband, Antoine Thomas, has been incarcerated for the past six years Soon, the self-published author, who has written two books, may be released.
"I think this is a beautiful event," Thomas said of Aviles' Christmas party. "I think it's an important event."
After all of the Christmas presents were handed out to the children, Aviles summoned the youngsters and their parents into a circle, where they held hands and said a prayer for Isidro
"You have to have hope" she said later. "This is not just about changing things on the state level, but also the federal level. People are tired and are no longer going to go for these unjust laws."
Jamal E. Watson ran be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photography by Tonya Leigh
For more on Teresa Aviles' activism, Click Here.