President Obama, with the sweep of a pen on May 5, helped resurrect a tiny, family-owned hair salon in a Maryland suburb.
That’s not the usual outcome of a presidential pardon, but that’s what happened here.
The backstory of the resurrection began decades ago. Jamal Hanson was the first of Teresa Dawkins’s four children to help out at her salon in Prince George’s County — sweeping hair clippings, doing shampoos.
When he went to college, Corey stepped in. But eventually he left to start his career at a car dealership.
Then Charles took over. He left, too, for work as an electrician.
Finally, Terhea came in, doing all the administrative work after she finished graduate school at NYU.
And then one by one, Teresa Dawkins lost them all.
First it was Jamal.
He was bright, skipped a grade and started at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore when he was 16.
Too young, it turned out. Smart but immature for college life, he dropped out and returned home to Temple Hills. Not to his mom’s salon, but to the streets. It wasn’t long before he was dealing drugs.
He got locked up the first time in 1993, when he was 19, did 2½ years, then got out. He got locked up again in 1999 after being recorded outside Verizon Center selling a paper bag full of drugs to an undercover police officer for $1,600, according to court records.
This time, it was a federal charge. It wasn’t his first. And it was crack.
Federal laws passed during the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s mandated a 10-year sentence for anyone caught with 50 grams of crack — about the weight of a 9-volt battery. If Jamal had been dealing powdered cocaine, he’d need to be caught with 5,000 grams — about the weight of a gallon of paint — to get that much prison time. It was called the 100-to-1 rule.
“I was going in for 22 years, and I was only 25,” Jamal said.
While he was locked up, Teresa’s second-born, Corey Hanson, was killed in a robbery outside his apartment on Valentine’s Day in 2002. He was stabbed and shot. The case is unsolved, she said.
Two years later, on May 15, younger son Charles Dawkins was on his way over to his mom’s house — the family was gathering to watch the Antonio Tarver vs. Roy Jones II boxing rematch — when he was hit by a car and killed.
Meanwhile, Jamal was being moved farther and farther from his family. The prison in Lorton, Va., closed, so he was moved to Fort Dix, N.J. Then Allenwood, Pa. Then Milan, Mich.
When his brothers, grandmothers and father died, Jamal asked to attend the funerals. His family even offered to pay for the marshals who would have to escort him, he said.
“Never. They never let me out,” he said. “And I think they all underestimate the toll this all takes on you, your family slipping away like this.”
He read thousands of books — law, finance, nonfiction, novels. He took every course he could in prison. Taxes, law, ceramics, sketching, bond trading, Spanish.
“I learned that what I needed to work on was my impatience,” Jamal said. “So I took on things that required patience.”
Terhea seemed to be beating the odds. Given just two years to live when she was born with a congenital heart defect, she was the survivor of several open-heart surgeries. She thrived in college. She attended St. Mary’s College of Maryland, did a culinary arts program in Switzerland and went to New York University for graduate school. She and her dedicated fiance, David Smith, had big plans.
But then her health began failing, and she had to slow down.
Terhea and David returned to Prince George’s and helped Teresa relocate the salon to College Park. And they spent hours at hospitals.
Terhea contacted Margaret Love, a lawyer who is well known in the District for her work on presidential pardons.
The sentencing guidelines for possession of crack cocaine had been changed in 2010, years after it became clear that the 100-to-1 rule created huge racial disparities in America’s war on drugs. Terhea thought there might be a chance that her brother could get out.
When Love logged into the court system archives to look up Jamal’s case, she came across numerous civil cases — all well-argued and meticulously presented torts — that Jamal had been filing on his own behalf. She told the family that she’d consider taking on his case.
Then Love stopped hearing from Terhea. After six heart surgeries and the diagnosis of a rare, genetic disorder that caused the walls of her blood vessels to be fragile and rupture, Terhea died.
Love vowed to keep fighting for Jamal, and the students at the Samuel Jacobs Criminal Justice Clinic at Yale Law School took his case.
About a year after Terhea died, Obama commuted 58 prison sentences. One of them was Jamal’s.
On June 28 — 17 years to the day after he first walked into a federal prison — they let him go. He didn’t call home. He got on a bus near Detroit and rode it for hours.
“You go in and you’re leaving all these people behind — brothers, cousins, grandmothers, a sister, my father. And you think, someday, you’ll see them all again,” he said. “But when I got out, they were all gone. All of them.”
When the bus pulled into the District, he called a cousin to come pick him up and surprised his mom at home.
There were tears and exclamations. Teresa was able to hold one of her children again.
And with his help, Teresa could have a salon again. It opened last month — A Shar Salon in College Park.
They were there over the weekend — three people left in that once-sprawling family. Jamal had a short pass from the halfway house where he will live until Friday. He immediately fell into the rhythm of sweeping up the clippings, tidying the shelves.
Teresa did a customer’s hair in big, fat curls. And David — Terhea’s fiance, who became like a son to Teresa — was running errands and fixing things around the salon.
When Teresa spoke about the children she had lost, Jamal put headphones in.
And when it was about Terhea, David darted into the bathroom and closed the door behind him.
At the end of September, Jamal will go to Yale to talk to the class that worked on his case. Someone from the program suggested he apply. He’d have a shot. He speaks powerfully, passionately and eloquently on any subject — politics, law, financial markets, congressional action, prison food.
He looked at his mom as she waved that big curling iron.
“Right now, my goal is to prove that she did her job as a mother,” he said.
And Teresa smiled at him, as whole as she can be.
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