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Changed Forever: American Families Respond to the War on Drugs

By Paul Lewin, External Relations Associate, Common Sense for Drug Policy

(After attending a rally for Kemba Smith on Capitol Hill, which opened his eyes to the anguish experienced by the Smiths, Paul felt it was important to examine the subject scientifically. With the help of a professor at The George Washington University who guided the development of the project, Paul conducted a pilot study on the experience of parents whose children received long, mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes. This article describes the results of that study.)

 I was nervous as I walked up the steps to her house. Although she had volunteered to be interviewed, I realized that I didn't know what to expect. After all, I had never known anyone who had gone to prison­­I had never met anyone who had lost their child to the penitentiaries of America. Until this moment, prison had always been something that was fairly abstract to me, but Mrs. Black, and others like her over the coming weeks, was about to make the realities of our legal system brutally clear to me.

Mrs. Black's teenage son received a sentence of 40 years for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. "They had them making millions of dollars! I don't know how he made millions of dollars," she said. Looking around the well-kept, but modest home, I wondered the same thing. But surely he done something else­­beaten someone, robbed a bank, something to get such an enormous sentence at the age of 19? No, she assured me, he just refused to turn in his friends to the police, and so they estimated how much drugs were ever sold by his crew, and charged him with the full amount. A tear began to fall as Mrs. Black began to talk about her grandchild who was born while her son was behind bars, about having to retire early to deal with the emotional strain of the trial, how her family was terrorized when the police broke down her door in the middle of the night, guns drawn and ransacking the house looking for "evidence."

My conversation with Mrs. Black was the first of many evenings, sitting with parents who described for me, with shocking similarities, the violence, abuse and destruction that rained down upon their families when the police decided to take their children in the name of the War on Drugs. All of the parents acknowledged that their kids must have been involved in some fashion or another, but they also knew that their kids were decent people. People who would return a wallet if they found it on the street, people who would stand up for what was right, people with promise and a future that was now permanently changed.

What became chillingly clear to me, is that it is not just the young man or woman who is put in jail that pays a price. It is the whole family who suffers. And these parents, who mostly didn't think about the War on Drugs and believed in the basic legitimacy of this country's legal system, undergo a permanent change which bodes ill for the future of our society.

The first thing I realized, was that these parents all saw the government as an agent of harm. By that I mean, they realized that the government wasn't trying to help society, or protect the innocent. They were, as Mr. Green put it, "being goddamn punitive, against people that they shouldn't­­against everybody but real criminals." Or, as Mr. Gray said, "The longer we got into the situation, the more I began to truly understand that this was not about my son, and it was not about fairness, and it was not about justice. It was about prosecutors trying to demonstrate that they were arresting people and dealing with the drug situation." Mrs. Brown, who grew up believing in police and America said, "I see police, and I remember being thrown to the floor. I remember the way I was treated." After reading the search warrant for her house, Mrs. Brown said, "I realized that they had cut corners, I realized that they fudge and lie to meet their objectives."

After letting out some of their anger, the parents began to tell me what it is like to witness the government abduct their children under the guise of law. Mr. Gray told me, "I left the jail in tears. For the first time in my life having encountered a situation, other than death, where there was absolutely nothing you could do about it." Mrs. Brown told me how she cried for almost a year and couldn't eat. Mr. White told me about waking up in the middle of the night, under the strain of spending his small pension on jail-visits that are two states away, and buying a few thing for his granddaughter that was left behind. "Can I keep this up?" he asks, "Why am I being punished like this? My life is as dreadful as any one man's can be!"

Underneath the pain, the cynicism and the anger, the parents exhibited a quiet strength, that perhaps only a parent knows. They all said that they would not give up, that they would do their best to keep their kids from growing bitter, and that they would do whatever they could to help stop this insanity from happening to others. Mr. Gray said, "It makes me more determined to get out and work with young people... so that if I have anything to do with it, this will never happen to another kid in this country."

 Over the course of the study, it became clear that these parents and family members are the best allies that truth and freedom have. They speak from the heart, and they are telling others what its like to think that it only happens to someone else. Because it doesn't. Millions of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers are victims of this endless conflict called the War on Drugs. When they speak out, their words are undeniable, and their message irrefutable. The madness must end, families must be reunited, and healing must begin.

To those who must bear the worst oppression, it must seem that this will never end. But it will. History shows us that seemingly permanent abominations like slavery and Nazism could not last­­they buckle under the weight of their own hypocrisy and the collective efforts of those who will not tolerate injustice. When things seem their bleakest, it often means that change is coming­­after all, midnight is where the day begins.

Paul Lewin is a graduate student at The George Washington University completing a masters degree in International Development. As the External Relations Associate, he is the newest staff member of Common Sense for Drug Policy. He firmly believes that when the people lead, the leaders will follow.

You can download Paul's entire study, Mandatory Minimums and Parental Attitudes, in PDF Format here.

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