June 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's declaration of a "war on drugs" — a war that has cost roughly a trillion dollars, has produced little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the United States, and has contributed to making America the world's largest incarcerator. Throughout the month, check back daily for posts about the drug war, its victims and what needs to be done to restore fairness and create effective policy.
To spend a few short moments on the phone with Hamedah Hasan is to understand why she is exactly the sort of person we should not be locking up in America. Even over the phone, it is impossible to be unaffected by the gentle courage, quiet strength and steadfast faith that embody this mother and grandmother serving the 18th year of an unjust 27-year sentence inside a stark federal prison camp in California’s high desert.
To hear her story is to become fully conscious of just how our nation’s war on drugs has ravaged lives, burning ruinous paths through individuals, families and entire communities.
She tells it in a quiet voice, a voice that is not shameful or angry but stoic. A voice that despite her confinement is imbued with the hope that one day she will be free to be the mother and grandmother she yearns to be, to her own children as well as others whose own mothers remain behind bars.
She was 21 years old and in a horribly abusive relationship with a man in Portland, Ore. who beat her and robbed her of any sense of self she ever had. She was repeatedly cursed at, slapped, punched and kicked. Already the mother of a 5-year-old girl, she bore a second child to this man but knew in her heart she could not and would not raise her children in the midst of such violence and disease.
So she fled to a cousin in Omaha, Neb. where she found sanctuary — a safe place to live that was hundreds of miles from her abuser. Her cousin, though, was involved in dealing crack cocaine, and she made what she readily admits were some poor decisions that she still regrets to this day. Feeling out of options and indebted to her cousin for helping her escape her abusive relationship, she agreed to run various errands and transfer some money. Never once did she ever use drugs herself. Knowing this was not a place for her two young girls, she found the strength to move back to Portland, hoping to get away from the drug operation and to create a life where she could model for her daughters a mother who earned an honest living. She enrolled in a welfare-to-work program and began to get back on her feet.
But her past, and our nation’s drug war — a front for what has been a war against communities of color that has left our jails and prisons packed full of brown and black people — caught up with her. She was indicted and convicted of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine during her time in Omaha. Despite her previously clean record, her sentencing judge found his hands tied by a combination of mandatory minimums for crack cocaine and the then-mandatory sentencing guidelines based on those minimums. Hamedah received a life sentence. Her sentence was later reduced to 27 years, but had she been convicted of an offense involving powder cocaine, she would no longer be in prison at all. Her judge has publicly urged that her sentence be commuted and the ACLU last year filed a petition asking President Obama to do so.
As she wrote in a letter she sent to the president in February 2010 begging for clemency, she has, during her more than 17 years of incarceration, “taken long, hard looks at myself. I’ve done everything in my power to redeem myself and to demonstrate through deeds that upon release, I will be a community asset, not a community liability.”
But for now she continues to be jailed in the California desert, faced with yet another decade of separation from her family and the outside world. The day will come when she will be able to realize her dream of starting a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing community services to the children of incarcerated parents. But until that day, she remains one of countless victims of our government’s failed and costly war against its own people.