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This Fourth of July, I’m in My 26th Year Behind Bars for Cannabis

A victim of the “war on drugs” reflects upon watching the fireworks from prison.

When the clock strikes 10:00 pm, I’ll be sitting in the darkness gazing out a grimy, metal barred window. Miles away, the starlit sky will explode with cheerful colors. Two seconds after each rocket reaches its apex point, the blast will resonate through the walls. The city of Talladega, Alabama, will be celebrating, and in 10 minutes it will be all over. The illuminating colors will turn into an ashen graying smoke, disappearing into the night sky.

For the past 26 years, I’ve watched this same so-called Independence Day celebration from afar, staring out a barred window and wishing I was free. But my days go by with no hint of freedom: without a patriotic flag to wave, eating the same cold mystery meat, the stale bread and over-sugared cereal, using the same aerobic exercise equipment and cheap rubber basketballs and soccer balls which keep me playing like a pet in a cage to stay fit, surrounded by metal fences topped with razor wire and armed guards surveilling the perimeter of the ground I’ve learned to call home.

This 4th of July feels exhausting, heavy and hopeless. Family and friends have been blown away by the winds of time. Some used to visit, but that stopped seven years ago. And who could blame them? Prison visits are oppressive and uncomfortable for the prisoners and those who come to see them. The visitors are led into an over-crowded room the size of two school classrooms. They have to raise their voices to be heard. They aren’t allowed to hold hands or have any physical contact other than a hug when the visitor first enters. The children cannot play with the adults they are there to see, the way a family should. And prison guards make sure the visiting rules are followed “to promote safety under penological interests,” they say.

This is what prison does. It diminishes family ties. It engenders an emotional gulf between you and your loved ones.

This breakage of the family nucleus may be the most punitive aspect of prison life. Your absence when your family needs you the most. When your ex-wife is almost beaten to death by an assailant at no fault of her own, and you can’t help; when your mother suffers a heart attack nearly taking her life, and you can’t be there; when your son, Austin, keeps roaming the streets unhoused due to a mental instability, and you can’t go find him.

The 4th of July celebration, just like any other holiday, only amplifies the longing for your family, to love them, to care for them; to spend family time with them.

On more than one occasion I’ve found myself sobbing in the middle of the night, laying down on a metal bunk, curled like a baby, facing a white faded wall, regretfully saying, “This is all your fault! This is all your fault!”

This is one of those nights, when the silencing darkness triggers traumatic events from my past. This time the memory that arises against my will is the last day of my trial back in December 1998, in Houston, Texas. Before proceeding to trial I had inquired from my court-appointed attorney, “How can I be charged and tried to sell marijuana, when no weed, drugs or money were found during my arrest?

“This is the way the federal system works,” he had said. “All they need is the hearsay testimony from others to prove you were part of a conspiracy to sell marijuana.”

During the trial I remember standing in front of my wife, Sara, a wooden balustrade separating us – an invisible impassable barrier enacted by a court system that’s about to decide my fate. My attorney asks the judge if I can hold my newborn baby, named Austin. He refuses.

Teary-eyed, I am ordered by the U.S. Marshals behind me to sit back down. The excruciating trial resumes. A Houston Chronicle reporter, my family, a court bailiff, three U.S. Marshals, two prosecutors, my court-appointed attorney, the jury, and the judge presiding from a high bench are the spectators and playing actors of the justiciable play unfolding, a jury trial accusing me of possessing and distributing marijuana to the highest bidder.

“Where’s the justice in this!? Where’s the fucking fairness!?”

Soon the trial will be over. The jury will believe the cooperating witnesses testifying against me. The prosecutor will put the finishing touches on the canvas she’s been painting for the jury to believe. But not before I brusquely stand up, sending the chair I am sitting on toppling backwards. “Where’s the justice in this!? Where’s the fucking fairness!?” I say louder than intended.

“You need to sit back down!” the judge booms in response.

“Is it the color of my skin!? This is not …” I pause, suddenly aware of what I am doing. I haven’t slept for days. I am emotionally drained.

The judge continues to order me to sit back down. “I need to tell my side of the story,” I plead. The judge orders the U.S. Marshals to handcuff me and remove me from the courtroom. In no time, the jury comes back with a guilty verdict.

A year later, in the same courtroom, the judge pronounces my punishment: “I hereby sentence you to 40 years in a maximum-security penitentiary.” My legs feel like lead. The U.S. Marshals grab me by each side, but this time they lead me out of the courtroom, down an elevator, and into an awaiting transport van en route to the “big house” to serve out 40 trips around the sun, carrying the stigma of the 13th Amendment established in 1865, which permitted chattel slavery for those convicted of a crime.

This painful memory always makes me question my fate. How long will I have to spend in prison for cannabis prohibition? How long do I have to bear the cross of shame while others profit from the same product I am confined for? How long must I keep living in a lifeless place plagued by gang violence, drug use and psychological torment?

This Fourth of July will be just like the past ones I have spent in federal prison: grim and hazy. The very first one was the most difficult. I couldn’t comprehend the severity of my punishment weighed on the scales of the lady of justice. I couldn’t fathom the reality of being harshly punished for a victimless crime in the land of the free.

But despite how I feel about my unjust situation, the years will keep on mounting. The gavel that struck judgment will keep on pounding the depths of my soul, denigrating and pulverizing my psyche and self-worth, until I am damaged goods, until I’m unfit for living out in a society that chose to warehouse me for decades on end under the name of the “war on drugs.”

Regardless of my painful memories, I need to keep on breathing. I need to keep on believing that my punishment is for something greater, that this tragedy will ultimately find redemption. That somehow President Joe Biden will fulfill the promise to set us cannabis prisoners free. That somehow this 4th of July day could come to stand for justice and equality and redemption.

But these are the wishes I keep asking for, that are never granted.

The silencing darkness overwhelms me. The torturous fireworks are over, and I find some small solace in the emptiness of the starlit sky. My eyes finally close and I sink into sleep, along with the same dreams and nightmares I have been experiencing for the past 9,520 nights. I hope this Fourth of July it will be a dream. A dream outside these walls — walls that have been punishing me day in and day out without end.

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