It was 1995, October 2nd to be exact, when I took 23 steps and entered federal prison. The world I knew was behind me as I entered a foreign world – one in which I had no experience and, frankly, wanted none. I didn’t want to be there.
But, every choice has a consequence. And, I was on a journey to experience the consequences of the choices I had made almost ten years earlier. I became – 11642-058 – an inmate in federal prison for the crimes I committed when I was much younger and certainly more foolish.
Federal prison is an education in and unto itself. While I was placed at a minimum security facility, I expected to be surrounded by a host of other white collar criminals. WRONG! 70+% of the inmates that were there were convicted for drug related crimes. Most were black, some Hispanic – the minority were white and across the board the crime of choice – drugs.
There were two things I was to learn from first hand experience while there: (1) without fail – crack – convictions carried a substantially longer sentence and were found among black inmates; and (2) in those days gun related charges were common and tacked on an extra 5 years.
I heard over and over – “it’s just not fair.” The issue of “fairness” in federal prison at the time, was not over black vs white, but rather over the difference in sentencing guidelines related to the form the drug “cocaine” took – powder vs. rock (crack).
Let me say, for those of you who are consistent readers, I don’t do drugs and don’t condone drugs. What I do focus on are the choices that we make and the consequences that follow. My cellmate – Buck – was convicted for crack and a gun charge. For that he received 10 years.
Here’s the interesting part – toward the end of his sentence, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of changing how the issue of guns play into ones sentence. In Buck’s case, there was an old shotgun in the house (his grandfathers) where he was arrested. Since it was there – he got a gun charge which added 5 years. The gun was not used in the commission of any crime. But in those days, just being around a gun was enough to get extra time. In Buck’s case – his sentence was reduced due to the Supreme Court’s ruling – of course, he had served most of his sentence by then. Had the decision come down sooner, his sentence would have been cut in half. Buck’s sentence for Crack was 5 years. Had he been convicted for cocaine (powder) he would have received 18 months – the same sentence I received.
So where does race come in? Well, it doesn’t but it does. It isn’t that the law is targeted to blacks (I know some will disagree with me on that – please comment), but rather the law is targeted to the substance. Crack, while a form of cocaine, is more addictive and destructive than it’s powder cousin. Hence, the law was, initially designed to punish those who created more destruction with the substance. Where the disparity comes in is – crack is cheap and hence more readily used in the black community. Cheap, easy to transport and available means that those who sell and use get arrested – hence, more blacks in prison.
Well…as reported in many areas – all that changed with a new Supreme Court’s decision (details here) back in December. So here we are in March 2008 and the first of what could be many federal inmates will be released as their sentences are being reviewed.
There are those who say that this is wrong – that many hardened criminals will be released back into society to continue to do harm. Others point out that many are first time offenders and should never have had the time they were given in the first place. Some say that prison is what makes them hardened criminals. I must say that I learned more about crime while in than I ever would have known otherwise.
Here’s a reality check. Buck was sentenced to 10 years for crack and a gun. When I entered federal prison by luck (at least for me) he was my cell mate. Buck was a mere 18 when he was placed into the system. He sold crack on the street because he could make more as a young black kid selling than he could working at McDonalds (assuming they would hire him). But, Buck had more integrity than most people I did business with before joining the ranks of federal prisoner.
Buck taught me how to survive in prison and I taught Buck how to speak so that when he got out he could get a real job. I got out before Buck. After the first Supreme Court’s decision related to gun charges, Buck found his sentence reduced and freedom his. We maintained contact and I helped Buck get his first job on the outside.
We are both marked for life. But, to those who say that a bunch of criminals well be freed to wreak more havoc, I disagree. Sure some will – it might be their nature. But, I am free today and a productive member of society. So is Buck! My hat is off to him, because if it were 10 years later he would have only had to serve a few years to pay for his crime.
Final Comments: To those who are released or to those families who receive back into society your loved ones. Give them time to heal and re-enter society. It isn’t easy. Likewise, if you’re getting out…remember – Every choice has a consequence. MAKE GOOD CHOICES!
Ethics and White Collar Crime Speaker – Chuck Gallagher – signing off…