For 22 years, Father’s Day was an aching reminder that I was missing the life of my daughter, Rajean. She was 8 when I was sent to prison. I missed her birthdays, her first boyfriend, helping her through school.
I was destined not to see her as a free man until she was a grown woman.
In 1992, I was convicted for possessing and selling 29 grams of crack cocaine and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Mine was a nonviolent offense, but sentencing standards of the time called for three decades in prison.
Under today’s laws, I would have gotten less time. Back then, there was a 100-to-1 disparity between crack- and powder-cocaine sentences. This disparity had come under fire from the public and the U.S. Sentencing Commission as racially discriminatory. It had imprisoned a generation for decades. Congress reduced the sentencing difference to 18-to-1 in 2010, but, because it was not retroactive, there was no relief for me.
Organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums are trying to change excessive mandatory-minimum sentences like mine. For almost two decades, FAMM was a lone voice. But recently, there has been a sea change in attitudes toward prison and punishment. Many people, conservatives and liberals, agree that holding low-level drug offenders in prison for decades is counterproductive. Our nation spends $80 billion annually incarcerating people, many of whom are nonviolent offenders who pose no threat to public safety.
The District still has some mandatory minimums, but Maryland has become an example for the nation. Last month, the state repealed most of Maryland’s worst mandatory-minimum drug sentences. The change will reduce Maryland’s prison population and save millions in tax dollars. If Maryland’s experience is like that of states that have ended or reduced mandatory minimums, crime rates will fall.
Society doesn’t owe me anything for the decades I spent locked up. I owe society for selling drugs. As a teen, I was in and out of jail for nonviolent offenses. I had odd jobs, but, because I made very little money, I still sold crack. I deserved to pay for that crime. But who was helped by incarcerating me for 30 years?
I remember the despair. I worried that my daughter would suffer from the common ailments seen in many children with an incarcerated parent: stress, trauma, stigmatization and separation problems. Sadly, Rajean was not alone: An estimated 2.7 million children have a parent who is behind bars.
I tried to make the best of that time for my daughter. I took a 4,000-hour course as an electronics inspector, made furniture and packaged recyclables and had only three minor disciplinary violations in 22 years. I spent hours in the library learning federal drug law, trying to find a way to be released.
Finally, I learned of the Obama administration’s clemency program. I fit the requirements: model behavior while serving at least 10 years for a low-level, nonviolent drug crime. With just one signature, my nightmare was over. “Dear Rudolph,” the letter from President Obama read, “I have granted your application for commutation.”
When I left prison on July 28, I wore a jacket I made of hand-stitched, varicolored leather scraps over six months. It was a metaphor for piecing my life back together. And I am. I am working two jobs and am engaged. Most important, I can hug my daughter and be there for my grandchildren. No one can imagine how fulfilling it was to help my granddaughter fix her Barbie house.
This Father’s Day, pause to remember the fathers in prison trying against all odds to maintain ties with their children. We are all better off when our sentences fit our crimes and our kids can have us at home when it might make a difference.