KEMBA'S STORY ~ HOLIDAY SEASON: BITTERSWEET
A MOTHER’S LOVE:
First, I would like to thank Ebony Underwood, for her strength, passion and vision. As I write this letter, my connectedness to her and many others in this struggle is understanding her pain and her father’s pain. A child being separated from a parent who is incarcerated for a significant amount of time. There was a time when the holidays were painful for me and there was a wound that was so deep that I would try not to drown in the trauma of my situation.
At 23 years old, on December 12, 1994, I gave birth to my son while in federal custody. This was my first non-violent offense and I turned myself into the authorities. I was denied a bond, and I had been in jail for over 3 months while pregnant. During this chaos and pain, my only source of light was God and the few hours I had to gaze into my son’s face in looking for hope for the future. Four months after I gave birth to him, I was eventually sentenced to 24.5 years in prison. And let me be clear, the prosecutor stated that I didn’t handle, use, or sell the drugs involved in the conspiracy, yet in still, 24.5-year sentence and I had not touched, held or smelled my newborn son since he was born. I’m going to stop there because that is the root to my pain and trauma.
I eventually spent almost 7 years in federal prison. During that time there was a movement, in an era of no social media, I was the Poster Child to the War on Drugs gone wrong. In December 2000, my sentence was commuted by President Bill Clinton and I was free.
Thank God for my parents who took on raising and loving my son in my absence. I thank God for everyone’s support and efforts in making sure my case saw justice, but during my immediate hours after my release no one understood my pain and my heartache. I was happy to be home and I was finally reunited with my son, but I had missed so much. I kept reliving walking out of prison alone and leaving everyone behind and that emotion was overwhelming. When I hear my Sister, Ebony speak her truth, my heartaches because I know how I felt being the parent on the inside, and it has only been over time where I have witnessed the effects of not being there during my son’s most formidable years. So, this prison experience that we have tries to break you and your family.
If I was honest with myself, there were moments where I was broken, but in that brokenness, I chose to get myself together and to fight for not only my freedom, but for the many others, too. We choose to fight and use our voices, our stories to hopefully shine a light on the need for change in ending mass incarceration in our country.
In the 90’s, Kemba Smith Pradia went from college student to drug dealer’s girlfriend to domestic violence victim to federal prisoner; and was sentenced to 24.5 years in prison. Kemba’s case drew support from across the nation. Often labeled the “poster child” for reversing a disturbing trend in the rise of lengthy sentences for first-time, non-violent drug offenders, Kemba’s story was featured on a variety of television shows and featured in several publications. The support prompted then President Clinton to commute her sentence in December, 2000.
Today, Kemba is a wife, mother, author, public speaker, advocate and consultant. She has spoken on panels, testified before Congress and the United Nations regarding a variety of criminal justice issues. In 2015, Kemba was appointed a member of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliff.
Along with being an advocate for criminal justice reform, Kemba is the founder of her 501(c) 3, The Kemba Smith Foundation. She believes in sharing her story as an educational tool to prevent other youth and women from going down a similar path. Ultimately, Kemba knows that there is a lesson in each experience in life, and she has embraced her experience, learned from it, and is now using that experience to teach others.