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Attending President Obama’s last State of the Union Address as a guest of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard was a night to remember. The invitation came as a big surprise while I was on my way to a Criminal Justice Briefing at the White House. I received the call from Congresswoman Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and she shared with me that she had been having difficulty deciding who she wanted to be her guest. She expressed that she wanted to invite someone special who believed in and fought for some of the same issues that she is most passionate about. Some of the #cut50 team met with her earlier that day and shared my story with her. #cut50 is a national bipartisan initiative to reform the criminal justice system. When she asked me if I would be interested in coming, my response was “of course.” Then I spent the rest of the day asking myself, did that just happen? Mainly, because God knows how significant January 2016 is to me. Ever since January 2015, when I was unexpectedly appointed to the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, I have been anticipating great things. This is the month that I would have been released from federal prison had I not received executive clemency from President Clinton 15 years ago.
I acknowledge that I made poor decisions in college that led me down a self-destructive path, landed me in federal prison, and could have also culminated in my death. However, I walked out of prison after serving 6.5 years seeking redemption not only for myself, but for the ones I left behind in prison. I have survivor’s guilt and believe that no other first-time drug offenders should be sitting in prison with a LIFE sentence, especially if they didn’t murder anyone.
Since coming home, I’ve had the opportunity to create beautiful memories with my family. I’ve become a national and international public speaker, domestic violence spokesperson, and criminal justice advocate. I’ve chosen to be committed in sharing my story as an educational tool for young people so they can make healthier choices. As a person affected by the criminal justice system, I have to continue to be the voice that can humanize the issues in the fight for change in drug policy. Although everyone tells me that I’m doing a wonderful job and how much of a difference my voice makes, I often struggle to accept the fact that I don’t live a normal life. I’m not complaining because I know where I could be. If it were not for public speaking, my employment opportunities would be limited due to my felony conviction. Therefore, I am grateful for this platform.
After receiving the invitation from Congresswoman Gabbard, I went online to find out more about her. I discovered that in 2002, at 21 years old, she became the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaii State Legislature. She is in the military and was deployed to the Middle East twice. In 2009, after her second deployment, she offered to serve on the Honolulu City Council. Then in 2013, she took her official oath of office in the U.S. House of Representatives. Knowing more about her made it an even greater honor to have been invited as her guest to the SOTU.
While waiting to meet with Congressman Gabbard on the night of the SOTU, I decided to stop by Congressman Bobby Scott’s (D-Virginia) office to say hello. I will forever be grateful for his influence and support during my journey to Executive Clemency and ultimately my freedom. His Chief of Staff escorted me to Congresswoman’s Gabbard’s Office. I had brought a few copies of my book, Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story and autographed them. From there, her team ensured that I was taken care of until she finished a meeting. I sat waiting in the U.S. Capitol Member’s Only dining room. She walked in and as I stood up to greet her at our table, I was in awe. She is an intelligent, ambitious and strong woman, and her beauty and confidence was a compliment to what I already knew about her. So as we sat down, I immediately began to thank her for the invitation and to congratulate her on her many accomplishments. Before I could finish what I was saying, she thanked me, but shook her head to say “no, look at all of what you’ve done.” She thanked me for my dedication and for speaking out about the issues pertaining to my story that are helping to change lives and policy.
The conversation took off from there and as we began to get acquainted, she shared something with me that I will always remember. Her father told her when she was younger, “The only way to be truly happy in life is to live a life of service.” As we discussed how we each lived that life, she helped me realize that my life of service is equally as important to her life of service despite the fact that I’m reminded of my past every time I share my story.
After dinner, we headed to Democratic Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi’s office for a meet and greet. Along the way, I bumped into Representatives from the Congressional Black Caucus and they were all excited to see me there and happy that Congresswoman Gabbard had invited me. Once we got to Leader Pelosi’s office, I immediately went into advocacy mode and shared my story with everyone I met. Each and every person I came in contact with was very sympathetic and agreed that there was a true need for a change in drug policy.
As 8 p.m. approached, I pulled out my ticket to see where my assigned seat was located. There was so much security that Congresswoman Gabbard wanted to walk me to my seating area to ensure that no one questioned me. We agreed on a location to meet afterwards and I proceeded to my seating area. My thoughts were running in many directions while we waited for the people who govern this country to take their seats on the floor. I looked across the room and both Tulsi and I waved at each other so we could know where each of us was in the room. I began to introduce myself to the people seated around me. One person was a Legislative Correspondent and a Congressman’s wife. I realized that the Executive Seating Area was to my left so when I saw First Lady Michelle Obama walk in, I felt proud and relieved for her that this was President Obama’s last year in office. I can’t even imagine her life as a mother, wife and First Lady Of The United States throughout the presidency.
As President Obama entered the room, with everyone standing and applauding, I thought about how in 2012, I fought to get my voting rights restored in Virginia so that I could vote for him. As he walked down the aisle, I was overcome with the anticipation of what he would say regarding criminal justice reform. Within the first few seconds of his speech, he said,
“And I understand that because it’s an election season, expectations for what we will achieve this year are low. But, Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the constructive approach that you and the other leaders took at the end of last year to pass a budget and make tax cuts permanent for working families. So I hope we can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform — and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse. So, who knows, we might surprise the cynics again. But tonight, I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead.”
Right when he said that, I knew that criminal justice was not going to be a focal point of his speech. As I continued to listen, I was moved by his words, but I wished he would have talked a minute longer about the need for criminal justice reform as it relates to drug laws and sentencing. Placing criminal justice reform in the same sentence with prescription and heroin drug abuse implies that those are the focal points. However, I would’ve liked to have heard the President use stronger and specific language to address criminal justice reform. Problems such as over-criminalization and mass incarceration are some of the high priority issues that Congress needs to focus on over the next 5 to 10 years, if they truly desire to right some of the wrongs within our broken criminal justice system.
I quickly realized that President Obama’s message wasn’t centered on the powers that be in the room that night. The focus was on me, you and I, us as a people when he said,
“– our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. We need every American to stay active in our public life — and not just during election time — so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day…It is not easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white, or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born, not as Democrat or Republican, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love. And they’re out there, those voices.”
I sat there proud and fully aware that my mission was to continue to be one of those voices.
After the address, as we were waiting to be granted permission to leave our section, I turned around behind me and saw a little boy. He was dressed neatly in pants, dress shirt and tie, but he had no arms. My heart immediately ached and I was hoping that he wasn’t a Syrian refugee. I started a conversation with the woman sitting with him and began discussing certain aspects about President Obama’s speech. I asked her what their story was and she began to share. I could tell that she was happy with President Obama’s remarks on Syria and Muslims and I shared in her happiness. Please visit their Facebook page to read more about them.There are so many stories and so many issues to fight.
Overall, my experience as a guest at President Obama’s final State of the Union Address has left a mark on me for a lifetime. A mark that will forever inspire me to continue being a voice for all of our issues so that we may one day achieve the good and equality we desire to see in our country. After all, the only reason why I received executive clemency 15 years ago is because of those same voices, so it is my calling and duty to pursue happiness not only for myself, but others too.
– Kemba Smith-Pradia
Yesterday, President Obama did something I thought he should have started doing in 2010 after he signed the Fair Sentencing Act to limit the harsh mandatory minimum sentences associated with low-level crack cocaine offenses. Progress was made then and now 5 years later, he is trying to make a statement in a big way. He commuted the sentences of 46 people with drug offenses in federal prison. This is something that wasn’t too much of a shocker because I have been working with several criminal justice organizations including NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Clemency Project 2014, The Sentencing Project, FAMM, ACLU, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and others in this clemency effort ever since President Obama has been in office. We’ve had monthly conference calls, panel discussions at CBC, submitting editorials to national publications, lobby days and briefings on The Hill, today, I finally have a renewed sense of hope.
Early in 2014, Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked attorneys around the country to help the Department of Justice (DOJ) find men and women serving time for non-violent, low-level offenses and it was stated that there may be a possibility that President Obama will grant mass commutations before he goes out of office. When I heard of the news, I admit, I was skeptical due to his track record with commutations and no other President has exercised their power like that concerning people with drug offenses. Today, I stared at the TV with the CNN headline at the bottom of the screen reading, “President Barack Obama commutes sentences of 46 drug offenders.” My response was “Thank you Jesus! They are getting a second chance, too!” I am so grateful that President Obama is beginning this process. I’ve read some comments and it amazes me how ignorant people can be without knowing each individuals circumstance or taking the time to find out. Even though I am free, I can’t help, but take some comments personally.
After I got the news, my next thought was who are the 46 people?Was Michelle West, Danielle Metz, Santra Rucker or Ramona Bryant one of them? These are women who I was incarcerated with, all of whom have non-violent offenses, all of whom are mothers, all of whom have served over 15 years, all of whom were originally sentenced to LIFE! I know that since the Obama administration announced last year that it would grant clemency to nonviolent offenders, more than 35,000 incarcerated people — about 16 percent of the federal prison population — have applied to have their sentences shortened. YES 35,000!!! Granted, I am not so liberal to believe that all those people should go home, but I know that President Obama won’t be able to free all of those who deserve a second chance at life. Even though there has been a big push with minority male incarceration rates, don’t forget that the female prison population in the United States continues to grow at an alarming rate. The number of women in prison, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. These women often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse…Large-scale women’s imprisonment have resulted in an increasing number of children who suffer from their mother’s incarceration, which is tearing families and communities apart.
So when I googled to find out whose sentences were commuted, out of the 46 people, only 5 were women! My emotions spiked. In the next dozens batch of commutations, the majority of them need to be women! Women who can be reunited with their children and families! All of the women whose sentences were commuted by Clinton, Bush and Obama, none of them have gone back to prison! Like my friend Michelle West, stated in a letter to Maxine Waters, Clemency is supposed to be an act of mercy, now it has been turned into a competition or an effort to win the lottery. The US Congress needs to create legislation to handle this situation, maybe even create a committee that can truly take the time to look at all the statistics and individual stories in an effort to provide relief to all of those that they determine to be a risk to society and deserve a second chance. The overall objective of this overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system with the early release of federal inmates is to reduce the enormous costs of overcrowded prisons and address drug sentences handed down under old guidelines that U.S. officials now viewed as too harsh.
Maybe one day, politicians on the hill can come to a consensus that there should be sensible drug policy and resources should be appropriated to identify and address the systematic problems in underserved communities that cause people to go to prison in the first place. Until then our fight continues…
I was incarcerated with Danille Metz years ago when I was in Dublin Federal Prison. Our cases were similar with the exception of I was sentenced to 24.5 years with a release date of 2016, while Danielle was sentenced to LIFE with a release date until DEATH!
She has been in prison for over 21 years on her first offense ever.
This is Danielle’s daughter.
Danielle has 2 children. Her daughter was 4 and her son was 8 when she was taken away from them. Now they are both over 25 years old.
Her address: Dublin, FCI Danielle Metz, #24803-013 Unit A, 5701 – 8th St., Dublin, CA 94568
Please read more about Danielle Metz.
For Freedom Fridays, the next few weeks, I’m going to focus on women who I was incarcerated with who deserved their freedom NOW!
#survivorsguilt #freedomnow #MrPresidentYouCanDoClemency
Years ago, I was incarcerated with Amy Ralston Povah in Dublin, CA. She received executive clemency a few months before I did in 2000. Since our release, we have worked on a couple of projects together where we were lobbying at the US Capitol and at the Department of Justice for sensible drug policy and pushing for the Pardon Attorney to grant clemency to other women who have cases that were just like ours. Women who we left behind in federal prison who deserve to be given a second chance at life, too. Some of who we know have already served over 20 years of their sentence with a life sentence. They have no release date.
Please go on her website http://www.candoclemency.com/ and read some of their stories and find out how you can be involved.
At the start of a New Year – 2015 – I’m very grateful for what I have accomplished thus far in the 14 years since my release and how my story has influenced so many people. God knows my heart and desires in moving forward to do even greater things.
On a personal note, I’m blessed. I have a loving husband and two beautiful children and two parents who have my back 110%. With the exception of God being the head, my family is my world. Often times, the demands of being a public figure and speaker, which is my occupation, has had me missing out on some memorable occasions and limited in building relationships.
Never in a million years would I have ever thought I would be a public speaker, especially since my personality leans more towards being an introvert. People tell me all the time, “please keep telling your story because it is helping so many people.” Not all the time, but on occasion, I get tired of telling the same story and I often wonder what’s next for me, since I’m on this non-traditional path. This year, I had a spiritual sister be brutally honest with me when she said, “Get over you being tired, it’s not about you, but doing God’s work and changing lives.” It was if I just got smacked in the face, but I truly felt as if that was God’s response. Fortunately, not only does God want me to keep telling the story, but this has become my occupation and my primary source of income since my release.
In 2014, I took my third trip to Geneva, Switzerland as part of an NAACP Delegation. This trip kind of set a frustrating tone that would last throughout the rest of the year because we were part of a coalition of human and civil rights organizations with various issues that we were advocating against. The most monumental moment was being in Geneva and hearing a high official from another country question The State – the United States – regarding current drug laws and sentencing, the death penalty, police brutality and specifically questioning the laws, outcomes and the injustices in the Trayvon Martin case. I sat through the hearing troubled, but not knowing what was in the not so distant future.
With the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner, my heart has been heavy especially since I have a son whose life does matter. I’ve been proud of the peaceful protests and marches. I’ve heard some people say marching and protesting in 2014 “doesn’t do anything” and “it’s a waste of time.” I strongly disagree because I know what marching, protesting, signing petitions, writing letters, organizing and strategizing to gain support from influential individuals and the media can do from my own situation. Justice can prevail! Unfortunately, we are dealing with something bigger than my individual case. People and organizations supported me because they hoped that justice in my case would affect others. They felt as if the “War on Drugs” was more of a “War on People,” and not just people in general, but People of Color. As we continue to see injustices each and every day within our communities, we know that we are not just discriminated against racially in the areas of drug enforcement, prosecutions and sentencing, but with many other social justice issues and it does lead one to question, “Do Black Lives Really Matter in the US?”
As I ponder this question, it forces me to ask myself what can I do to help educate our youth to let them know that they do matter?
What can I do to convince a community or congregation that we have to go back to the “it takes a village” philosophy while raising our kids and looking out for each other?
We can’t look down and criticize other communities who are frustrated with being mistreated and undervalued on a daily basis and compare them to us and our knowledge of how to get ahead if they just don’t know or haven’t had the same opportunities in life.
Without question, we must be on one accord in getting everyone to understand the importance of voting, not just in national elections, but with each and every election. After my release from prison, I wasn’t able to vote due to my felony conviction and disenfranchisement laws in Virginia. Despite this knowledge, I still helped in get out the vote efforts. I thank one of my mentors, Cynthia Downs-Taylor for always keeping me in the loop politically because she thought I had a voice that mattered. In 2012, I was able to vote for the first time after my rights were restored by former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. In 2013, I was able to vote for our current governor, Terry McAuliffe. While he was on his campaign trail, Cynthia invited me to a Women’s Roundtable discussion in Hampton, where I was able to personally meet him along with Lavar Stoney, who was heavily involved with McAuliffe campaign. Despite my introverted personality, I expressed my concerns and experiences I have had in different states that, if implemented, could make a difference within the state of Virginia.
During another McAuliffe campaign stop in Norfolk, I was able to meet former President Clinton and take a picture with them both. Of course, I thanked him for commuting my sentence – our conversation was priceless. Because of protests, marches and organizational support, I witnessed a President grant me my freedom and I witnessed a Governor restore my voting rights. This enabled me to vote for Gov. McAuliffe and he won. Voting does make a difference! Although many in this country would just see me as an ex-felon – who doesn’t deserve the second chance that I’ve been given – but because of who Virginians elected, I’m able to be so much more than just that.
At the end of December, Gov. McAuliffe appointed me to the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission where my voice can possibly make a difference. I thank Gov. McAuliffe and Secretary of the Commonwealth Lavar Stoney for this appointment, but most importantly I thank God for this opportunity.
2015…I believe will be the year of transition! I have no idea why God has allowed me the opportunity to experience and see the things I have seen and I have no idea what’s in store, but I will continue to have faith and rely on Him to help me move from where I am to where He wants me to be.
So much excitement, anticipation, anxiety and fear of the unknown. Who would be elected president? My husband and I both woke up to my two year old daughter crying around 4 a.m. and Patrick, my husband, brought her in bed with us. We both knew that we would have to get up really early in order to avoid waiting in line for hours because we live in a “urban” community. The dilemma was how were we going to be able to vote together when Phoenix was out of school that day. I thought I would go first and at 5:15 I started to get out the bed to get dressed so I could be in line by 6:00. My husband quickly stopped me and said I’ll go first and I’ll call you to let you know how things are. After he left, I got up to get dressed and just prepared myself for the likelihood of having to stand in line. Then Patrick called and said there were like 150 people ahead of him and I told him I would call him when I was leaving the house. I ironed Phoenix’s clothes and packed her backpack with snacks and juice. Eventually I woke her up and told her that it was time for us to go vote. She was excited because she voted the day before at her school for a mock election. When we were out in public, after I picked her up from school, she was proud to tell people that she had voted and that she voted for President Obama. Every time she said it, I was beaming with pride and joy, not only because I was a proud mama, but also because I knew this time around I was actually going to be able to vote for the first time in a presidential election. I recall when Armani, my son, was 13, and it was seven years after my release from prison, I had to explain to him Virginia’s felony disenfranchisement laws and why Mommy couldn’t vote. He just couldn’t understand why his Mom was different from everyone else who was voting. This year a few days before the election, I received my voter registration card and I knew that on election day I would be emotional and grateful because there are still 4.4 million other formerly incarcerated people whose voting rights haven’t been restored.
Patrick called as I was walking out the door with Phoenix and asked where we were I told him on our way. I had Phoenix in her heavy coat, hat and gloves and was preparing myself mentally for the worst as far as the wait as I was driving to our polling precinct at an elementary school that was in the heart of projects in Norfolk, VA. I thought of my grandmother because Norfolk was were she was from and the neighborhood is not far from where she use to live. Now here is where, Gods favor and having a good husband kicks in…as I was pulling up to the school there was an open parking space right in the front and Patrick was standing in line at the front of the school. When I got out of the car with Phoenix and walked over to him, he shared with me that he had talked to the people in the line behind him and asked if they minded me joining him and they all said okay since we had Phoenix. I have to be honest, I was shocked that everyone was friendly and even was talking to Phoenix. Eventually within about twenty minutes we walk inside the school and there were only six voting machines and two people checking people in. I thought to myself, something has to be done about this whole election process. Patrick was in line at 6 a.m. and it was after 8:30 when we voted. After I checked in and got my card to insert in the machine, Patrick looked at me and asked if I was okay because he saw me tearing up. I was tearing up because of the circumstances of how I was voting for the first time and how meaningful it was for me and obviously also to the hundreds of others who were waiting to let our votes be counted. We all knew just how critical this election was.
After I walked out of the school, Patrick took Phoenix to his car and we decided to meet back up for breakfast, but as I was driving, I had to call my parents to share with them my experience, my happiness and disappointment regarding the process. After all if it were for their commitment to see that their daughter was freed and supporting me traveling the world to advocate on a variety of issues who knows if I would have made it to where I am and who I am today. When Patrick, Phoenix and I got into the restaurant, I looked around and saw others inside wearing their “I voted” stickers. I proudly pulled out my sticker and felt a personal resolve as I stuck it on my shirt.
All evening my husband and I stayed tuned to CNN and eventually when I heard continuous updates about Virginia and how the Norfolk/Tidewater area would be a determining factor as to whether Virginia would go blue, I became more anxious. Even though I had a 6:00 a.m. flight the next morning, not only did I stay up to see who won, but I couldn’t go to sleep until I heard President Obama give his re-election speech. Needless to say, I was elated and used a couple of tissues.
The next morning I was on a flight to San Diego, California for a People of Colour Conference. I looked at the conference program and saw the opening plenary would be focused on the election and the speaker was Les Payne, founder of the National Association of Black Journalist. Immediately, I thought of what I was doing the day after the last presidential election in 2008. My dear Grandmother, who was 95, was living in a nursing home in Richmond. My dad and his sister moved her closer to them because the neighborhood in Norfolk had started to deteriorate and wasn’t safe. I remember dropping my son off at school and stopping by her nursing home to have breakfast with her. I was sad the day before because I couldn’t vote, but I figured I would cheer my spirits by going to see my grandmother. I took two newspapers with me and I showed her who was elected president because she didn’t watch TV as much as she use to. She looked and said, “a colored man is really president?” Her next question, still keeps me smiling to this day, “Well, does he have a black wife?” I remember laughing and saying, yes grandmother and she is a real black woman, brown-skinned and all with two beautiful daughters.
I’m so glad that we have another four years…but it is a must that we all continue to move forward and don’t be complacent. There is too much we have to get done! As Obama said,”The best is yet to come.”
Sunday night after the Dallas v. Miami Championship game, although I was rooting for Miami, I was happy for Jason Kidd. He was finally able to receive a championship ring after 17 years of playing in the NBA.
I watched him as he was being interviewed after the game and the reporter asked him one question:
Mr. Kidd, you’ve been on a few teams for a few years in this league. What set this one apart and enabled it to win a championship? JASON KIDD: I think adversity.
Adversity…is something that we all have experienced, some situations worse than others. It has taken me over ten years to finally get my story of adversity out and in print. Ultimately, my release from prison was like Jason Kidd said last night, “”Man, it’s a dream come true.” Regardless of the situation, if you are able to stay afloat, move forward, allow your misfortune to build character and have faith that things will get better, whether you’re Jason Kidd or someone like me, you will always come out a champion!