Karen Garrison had never considered herself an activist. In 1998, she was a cosmetologist and make-up artist. She was also the proud mother of 25-year-old Lamont and Lawrence Garrison, identical twins in their final year at Howard University. That May, Lamont and Lawrence were scheduled to graduate. They were not only their mother’s pride and joy, but also the pride of their DC neighborhood. “Everyone knew that they were going to Howard University and they were going to be lawyers,” Garrison recalled.
One month before the twins donned cap and gown to walk across the stage and receive their diplomas, police showed up at the family’s home and arrested the young men on charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. The evidence against them? The word of an informant who had named them in order to reduce his sentence and phone records from the garage where they had brought their uncles’ car to be fixed.
Lamont and Lawrence went to trial. “They believed in the criminal justice system and that they’d get justice,” Garrison explained. Instead, the jury convicted them. Lawrence was sentenced to 15.5 years in federal prison. Because he had testified, Lamont was given an additional 46 months for obstruction of justice, bringing his sentence to 19.5 years. “If you testify and then are found guilty, everything you say is considered a lie,” explained his mother.
“When they said ‘Guilty,’ I passed out,” Garrison said. She went home and lay on the floor. Then she picked herself up and decided she needed to do something.
Before her sons’ conviction, Garrison had limited her newspaper reading to the style section, keeping up with the latest trends so that she could discuss them with her clients as she styled their hair. But now Garrison was determined to learn about the system that had entrapped her sons—and how she could change that system.
She began watching the news regularly and buying magazines with articles about the criminal justice system. She stopped reading the style section and began reading the front page news and the metro section. She taught herself how to use the computer and how to navigate e-mail. She connected with groups working on criminal justice reform.
She began learning about similar cases of conspiracy and mandatory minimum sentencing that sent so many Black people to prison for years, if not decades. She attended conferences about the criminal justice system. She began connecting with others whose loved ones had been entrapped by the war on drugs, sharing what she had learned and rallying them to band to change these policies.
When people go to prison, their absence often devastates families. While the plight of the millions of children growing up with parents behind bars has been gaining more attention, the pain and devastation of parents with children locked away has been less visible. But, like Karen Garrison, parents across the country have been galvanized by their children’s ordeals not only to advocate for their own children’s freedom, but to band together to challenge and change the policies that have taken their children away.
Some have joined existing organizations. Others have started their own. Still others have acted independently, at times working in coalition with groups and organizations as well as on their own. But one thing unites them all—they’re not waiting for someone else to make the changes needed to stop the destruction of mass incarceration. They’re going to do it themselves.
Barbara Fair is another mother who isn’t going to wait for someone else to make needed changes. She describes herself as a concerned citizen. She is also the mother of eleven children—seven sons and four daughters. All seven of those sons have been to prison because of the country’s drug laws. “I can’t remember when I haven’t been impacted by the War on Drugs,” Fair said.
Fair’s first encounter with prison came in the 1960s when she was 17. She was in the courtroom when her 18-year-old brother was sentenced to prison for larceny. Not understanding how the judicial system worked, she panicked when the bailiffs moved to handcuff her brother. “I tried to run up to the front and asked the judge what he was doing,” she recalled. “I didn’t know that was what would happen.”
Though she wasn’t successful in stopping the bailiffs from cuffing her brother and leading him away, Fair decided that she needed to do something. She connected with Citizens for Humanizing Criminal Justice, a support group for families of people imprisoned in Connecticut. At that time, Connecticut had one prison for men and one for women. At both, visiting was limited to the visiting room. But the group pushed for—and eventually established—trailer visits in which family members could spend more time with their incarcerated loved ones in a more home-like environment than the prison visiting room. Fair still counts that first success as one of her top three victories during her decades of prison work.
Fair didn’t continue with prison reform after her brother’s release from prison as a teenager. Instead, she moved on to adulthood, marriage and motherhood. Then, in the 1980s, prison intruded on her life again with the arrest and incarceration of her eldest son, followed by the arrests and imprisonment of her other sons.
Fair once again jumped into prisoner rights organizing. She learned about prison policies and how to navigate advocating for her son. She shared this knowledge with the other mothers she met during visits. Behind bars, her sons shared her contact information with other men, who began writing to her about conditions inside. “They call me ‘The Prison Lady,’” Fair said.
In 1999, “The Prison Lady” began getting letters from men at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Stone Gap, Virginia, where Connecticut had transferred nearly 500 men to ease prison overcrowding. Most of the men were African-American or Latino. They reported racist treatment and brutality at the hands of the nearly all-white prison staff. In 2000, 20-year-old David Tracy hung himself. Shortly after, another man, David Frazier, died after being tasered by guards.
Fair joined the fight to bring the Connecticut prisoners home. She and other family members, including Tracy’s family, organized protests in Hartford, Bridgeport and Stamford, the communities hardest hit by incarceration. They collected letters from the men at Wallens Ridge and presented these descriptions to legislators.
When Connecticut lawmakers prepared to visit Wallens Ridge to see conditions for themselves, family members successfully urged them to talk not only with prison officials and staff, but to the prisoners as well. They teamed up with the ACLU to file suit against the prison’s brutal conditions and the state’s continued use of the Virginia prison.
They succeeded. In July 2001, lawmakers announced plans to remove Connecticut prisoners from Wallens Ridge.
Neither mother ever imagined that they would embark upon a decades-long struggle for criminal justice reform. But when incarceration hit their families, neither was willing to wait for someone else to make change. Garrison, who had to teach herself how to use the computer and navigate email, now hosts Mommie Activist and Sons, a weekly blogtalk radio in which she talks about criminal justice policy and highlights people serving life sentences under the war on drugs.
“I was a cosmetologist. I know hair. I didn’t have nothing to do with this big racist [criminal justice] system,” she reflected. But with her sons’ lengthy sentences, she began to learn.
Though she had lived in the nation’s capitol, she had never attended any of the hearings on Capitol Hill. “I had thought you had to be a lawyer or something to attend these sessions,” she remembered. But when she learned that the sessions were open to the public, she began going and learning about the policies that had entrapped not just her sons, but thousands across the nation.
She also began attending meetings around criminal justice organizing, meeting people from organizations that were working around sentencing and prison policies. She also began receiving calls from mothers in similar situations. Together, Garrison and other family members banded together to fight for change.
But that work isn’t always easy, Garrison acknowledged. Two weeks before any hearing, she would get on the phone and call people, urging them to attend. “If you can’t come, send your aunt,” she remembered urging. “I’d tell them, ‘You don’t need to worry about breakfast.’” On the morning of the hearing, she, her mother and another woman would whip up a big breakfast for everyone before they headed to Capitol Hill.
One of her favorite memories is of a 2008 day spent in Congress to push for ending the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity. Twenty-two years earlier, Congress had passed the 1986 Anti Drug Abuse Act, which carried harsher penalties for crack cocaine than it did for powder cocaine. A person who was convicted of five grams of crack cocaine faced a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence; in contrast, a person convicted of powder cocaine faced the same sentence only if he or she held 500 grams. The disparity became known as 100:1.
In 2008, Garrison rallied family members to testify before the U.S. Sentencing Commission to push them to reduce the 100:1 disparity. She gathered 50 family members to spend the day inside the Thurgood Marshall Judiciary Building waiting for their chance to speak. Some, like Garrison, had taken the day off. Others rushed in after work.
Garrison recalled one man arriving in his coveralls straight from his job as a mechanic. He apologized profusely for his appearance, noting that his brother would be embarrassed to see him standing before Congress in his dirty work clothes, but he hadn’t wanted to miss the opportunity to tell them about the devastating effects of the 100:1 sentencing disparity on his brother, who was in prison, and the rest of his family.
Every family member brought a picture of their incarcerated loved one. As each person spoke before Congress, the others gathered behind them and held their pictures up to show lawmakers why they were there. Their words carried some weight. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act which reduced the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1. That reduction allowed both Lamont and Lawrence to come home years earlier.
Barbara Fair’s sons are now home as well. But neither mother is giving up the fight to change the policies that tore their sons away from them. They’re also urging others to get involved. “We all have the power to do something,” is what Fair tells others. “We all have a voice. Nothing is going to change if we don’t demand it.”
Both mothers also know firsthand the power of numbers—both to enact change and to support each other. “When you think you’re by yourself, that’s bad,” reflected Garrison. “You can’t do it by yourself.”
Victoria Law is a freelance journalist focusing on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. She is also the proud parent of a NYC high school student.