SARASOTA, Fla. (Feb. 09, 2018) – Humiliation. De-humanization. Deep regret for the sadness caused to her parents.
Kemba Smith, a nationally known speaker on racial injustice and the prison system, experienced all of those painful feelings and more when in 1994 she was arrested in connection with her boyfriend’s crack cocaine business and sent to prison.
Smith addressed about 200 people Thursday at USF Sarasota-Manatee to share her experiences of prison life and “put a face” on the issue of harsh sentences for non-violent, first-time drug offenders, particularly women and people of color.
Perhaps the most difficult and enduring emotion, she said, arose out of the time spent apart from her son. While serving out her sentence, first in California and then in Connecticut, Smith’s son was raised by his grandparents in Virginia.
The regret cuts two ways, she said. Robbed of those early years together, she was unable to form a mother-child bond as he developed, causing her to miss out on his early childhood experiences – and memories together. But worse, she said, their separation triggered emotional scars that still run deep in her son.
“Prison is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” she said. “What families go through, to have a family member incarcerated, is heart-breaking. And when you think of children who have a family member incarcerated, can you imagine how different their lives are after that?”
Despite being seven months pregnant, a first-time offender, having only limited knowledge of her boyfriend’s drug business and being violently abused by him, Smith was sentenced to 24 years in prison. After 6½ years, she was pardoned by President Clinton and released. Smith went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work and attend law school at the Howard University School of Law.
Smith frequently lectures about sentencing laws’ disproportionate effect on African-American communities and women, in particular, including those raising children.
Pregnant at the time she entered jail, Smith gave birth at a nearby hospital, but moments afterward was shackled to a hospital bed and a day later transported back to her cell.
Women of color are often subjected to harsh penalties, even when they’ve played limited, if any, roles in their partner’s criminal enterprises, she said. Many remain in those relationships out of fear or misguided loyalty. But because of minimum sentencing laws, prosecutors and judges often give short-shrift to their circumstances, or ignore them altogether.
“Never did I imagine being seven months pregnant and going to jail and not knowing what my fate was going to be,” said Smith, who endured physical and psychological abuse from her boyfriend.
“I know women who have served over 20 years and have a life sentence, and now you have an administration that doesn’t want to do commutations for first-time, non-violent drug offenders,” she said. “We need to have sensible policies that are fair.”
Smith’s story has been chronicled by major media outlets, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. She’s been invited to the White House and has testified about criminal justice issues before Congress and the United Nation’s Human Rights Council.
Her lecture Thursday was sponsored by USFSM’s Advisory Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Multicultural Affairs Committee in celebration of Black History Month.
“Understand, you as an individual can make a difference, as long as you know you’re fighting for what’s right and you’re persistent,” she said.
Many in the audience were moved by Smith’s comments and she was interrupted several times by applause.
“This event is a spectacular reminder of the power that lies in each of our stories,” said Dr. Phillip Wagner, chair of diversity and inclusion initiatives and a faculty member in USFSM’s College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences.
“I am so thankful that we were able to host Kemba and hear her emotional and inspiring story,” he said. “This event is unlike any other we’ve hosted and I’m excited to see how our campus will continue to hold conversations on tough topics like these and connect our academic programs to community activism and action.”