I came home on Sunday from my granddaughter’s bridal shower and was shocked to find an inbox full of emails sent to my non-profit, CAN-DO Foundation regarding an article that was published in the Washington Post about the recidivism of Carol Denise Richardson; an Obama clemency recipient. The article by Amy Wang, entitled “Obama granted her clemency. Less than a year later, she’s going back to prison,” stirred up a plethora of emotions ranging from pure hatred to a spattering of lucid comments. The vitriol, however, drowned out any rational response to a story about a woman suffering from drug addiction.
To be clear, Carol did not hurt anyone, other than herself, so what is truly at the bottom of this story and the hostility coming from the public? Is Carol a political football being kicked around by those who dislike President Obama because he departed from his predecessors “zero tolerance” policy toward anyone associated with drugs that in turn earned our nation the inglorious title as the world’s leading incarcerator? Or is this another example of misogyny toward women who are held to a different standard than their male counterparts? The number of women I met in prison who were serving longer sentences than their male co-defendants is staggering and deserves more scrutiny. Carol fits that description. She was the only person in her case who received a life sentence even though her husband was identified as the main dealer. There are details about Carol’s case that deserve our thoughtful contemplation instead of knee-jerk comments laced with contempt by people who presume to know so much, yet know so little.
FACT: Carol suffered from addiction to crack cocaine and admitted she was a “daily user.”
FACT: Carol’s deceased father suffered from addiction, which is often genetic.
FACT: Carol did not qualify for the 500 hour residential drug treatment program provided in the Bureau of Prison because they do not give people serving a life sentence access to the program.
FACT: Toward the end of the clemency initiative, President Obama started commuting sentences with the condition that clemency recipients must take the very drug program that Carol never had access to.
FACT: Carol Richardson was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and reported that as long as she stayed on her meds she was able to cope with her well documented history of depression.
FACT: A family member confirmed that Carol had lost access to her medication prior to her decline that led to probation violations stemming from behavior associated with addiction.
FACT: Many people who suffer from bipolar disorder self-medicate, especially when they are trying to auto-correct a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. People who suffer from poverty often go undiagnosed and therefore lack the knowledge and/or access to medication necessary to treat bipolarism and a host of other disorders.
FACT: I met an alarming number of people who suffer from bi-polarism in prison who had used illicit drugs - primarily “uppers” such as meth, cocaine or crack cocaine to help them cope with the erratic bouts of depression that would send them into a downward spiral that could be debilitating. Low income individuals typically cannot afford doctor visits and therefore go undiagnosed and without prescription meds. Therefore, the natural tendency to fix drastic mood swings with street drugs will, in turn, cause them to catch a drug case that can easily land them in prison or to associate with drug dealers.
FACT: Carol tried to commit suicide due to depression on two occasions.
FACT: Her prosecutor and U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison was made aware of Carol’s condition before she was convicted and given a life sentence without parole in 2006.
FACT: In 2002, Carol married Eskico Garner who was 37 years older and a major drug dealer. His drug trade exposed Carol to other drug dealers and access to the highly addictive drug. She was clearly a subordinate like most women who are in a relationship with a drug dealer. This environment fed her habit.
FACT: Post-clemency, Carol was doing well and according to her mother held three jobs. Then, she starting seeing a guy who was a bad influence. It wasn’t long after meeting him that Carol started using drugs again.
FACT: Many people who are addicted to alcohol and who have remained sober for decades have relapsed, yet our society treats them far differently than we treat individuals suffering from an addiction to an illegal drug.
Am I making excuses for Carol? No. I am simply making the case that it is our behavior and our attitudes that must change unless we are willing to lock up tens of millions of people who suffer from addiction and behavior associated to addiction. If Carol had been born into a white, affluent family, it’s doubtful she would be in this current situation.
This begs the question ― who have we become in this nation and who is responsible for creating an atmosphere of such contempt toward anyone who associates with drug activity, or falls prey to drug addiction? When I came of age in 1978, illicit drug use was referred to benignly as “recreational.” George W. Bush referred to his own drug use as “youthful indiscretions.” Cocaine in the 1980s was as common as cigarette use in the 1950s. Indeed, it was glamorized and many of us found ourselves singing along to Eric Clapton’s hit song “Cocaine” during one long massive party that paired well with the disco-tech era. Around 1988, the lights went out and a dark cloud landed squarely over this nation that has yet to dissipate and shows no sign of lifting. While it may be true that recreational drug use was out of control, we needed a campaign similar to the one launched to combat cigarette use, but instead, we got Pandora’s box of demons that historically accompany prohibition.
Our current drug war policy is based in fanaticism fueled by racial bigotry, but it was not ignited by some wing nuts in a basement. It was ignited by well-educated people from the upper class, including those who sat in the oval office who intentionally pandered to the lowest common denominator in this country to whip up hysteria, hatred and reprehensible prejudice toward our fellow Americans. Press clips from President Reagan and George H.W. Bush refer to drug users as a “scourge” with promises to put an end to drug use, once and for all. This led to bipartisan support from a two-party system that tried to out stage one another in an effort to see who could sound the toughest. Shame on our leaders with their ivy-league diplomas. And shame on Americans for taking the bait that still clouds this topic with hate-speech and ignorance.
The bully pulpit of the ‘80s and ‘90s with regard to how we view drug use in this country has run its course. It’s time to evolve and treat our fellow Americans with the dignity that is expected from a civilized nation run by responsible leaders and not demagogues.