Essay: Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Almost Destroyed My Family

Forgot my lunch. Can you bring me something?

I got the message when I’d been home eight, maybe nine, days. Less than two weeks out of prison. I remember I stood there and stared at that little screen, grinning like a fool.

It was a text from my daughter Inahaya at school. I slid the phone into my pocket and got her a chicken sandwich from this place she likes, BBQ chips on the side. At the school office I had to tell them what I was doing there and sign my name on a clipboard. Next to my name I wrote in big letters “FATHER” so they’d know who I was to her, that I was there.

I don’t think I stopped grinning all day.

On August 3, 2016, President Obama granted me clemency for my life sentence on a nonviolent drug offense. I was in a halfway house for a while, and then I finally got to go home.

I was away for more than 12 years.

And beneath the inhumanity of all those days was this one enormous truth that never seemed to go away: Because I sold 60 grams of crack cocaine, I was supposed to die in prison.

Image: Evans Ray and his family
Evans Ray, third from left, stands with his mother Gwendolyn Bell, from left, daughter Thea Ray, granddaughter Perseus Harrison and son Evans Ray IV. Courtesy Evans Ray / Courtesy of Evans Ray

I’m a grownup. I made a horrible decision, and I did the time. For more than a decade, my children had to grow up knowing their dad was in prison and probably never coming out. That the world they were growing up in—where they learned in school about right and wrong, about common sense and big ideas, justice and hope, painting posters about Reaching for the Stars—was the kind of world where they had to suffer for way too long because of something I did.

And at the end of each day they sat down at a dinner table with an empty seat where I should have been, because of sentencing laws that have nothing to do with common sense, justice, mercy, or hope.

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There are people who say, Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. I understand that, and I agree that I should have been held accountable for my mistakes. But shouldn’t the time fit the crime? Couldn’t I have repaid my debt to society without separating me from my kids for the rest of my life? Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that drugs can destroy your life. That’s true, but Mr. Sessions, mandatory minimum sentencing laws are destroying a lot of innocent lives, too—just ask my children.

This will be my first Father’s Day at home in 13 years. It has been pure joy getting to know my kids again. They’re teenagers, so we have our bumpy patches. But getting through those rough spots makes me confident that my mistakes and my prison time did not make me less of a father. I’m trying to be the best role model I can be, dealing with transition and stress.

I’ve kept my promise to President Obama that I would make him proud and work as an advocate against bad sentencing laws with groups like FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), and I’ve been out there talking to anyone who’ll listen about how to fight for commonsense criminal justice reform.

Related: Essay: Black Fathers, Fight for Your Right to Parent

And I’m not letting anyone forget about all the guys still locked away serving absurd sentences. The needle has stopped moving on their rehabilitation, they’re costing taxpayers a bundle, and their children are suffering. These kids are going to grow up to be adults nursing unhealed wounds—caused by the sins of their fathers, yes, but made even worse because of lousy sentencing laws that make no sense.

I’ve been back to my kids’ schools plenty of times since I brought in that chicken sandwich for lunch. I’ve met with each of their teachers. I’ve made friends with the custodial staff, I’ve watched who comes and goes.I’ve seen what classes my kids are signed up for next year. I’m their dad, and I’m here.

And I will never delete that text—it still makes me smile.

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