Jan Warren Photo: Steve Schapiro
The majority of prisoners in New York are there because of the Rockefeller drug laws. Passed in the 1970s, these laws carry a minimum sentence of 15 years to life for first time drug offenses. So strict are these laws that they often mean that someone with a drug conviction spends more time in prison then someone who is in for murder. These laws have been duplicated across the country.
On the 30th anniversary of their passage, about 250 people gather in a nasty drizzle in front of Gov. George Pataki's New York City office to call for their demise. "The rock laws are a disaster. They are unfair, unjust and an inefficient waste of money and of human life..." shouts one protester.
Opponents say the laws only succeed in filling the prisons with small-time drug users and street dealers while ignoring big time traffickers.
Women have been deeply effected by the drug laws. Jan Warren is white, middle class, 52 years old, and a registered Republican.
It was 1986 and Warren was trying to get out of a bad relationship when she discovered she was pregnant. Desperate to get home to California, she made a mistake. She agreed to sell cocaine for her cousin. It was the only time Warren sold drugs and it turned out to be a police sting.
"They battered in the door," remembers Warren, "they came in both front and back and in less then ten minutes I had seven guns pointed at my head. And I was at the stove picking up a potato, picking up a French fry or something, to eat, it when that happened."
Warren was given 15 years to life. But the irony of the situation didn't really hit her until one day in the prison yard.
"On certain holidays of the summer-- because the yard season was Memorial Day to Labor Day-- basically that was the best sunny weather," explains Warren. "For a moment, you weren't in prison, you were in 'any park U.S.A.' Except, on those holidays I realized that there was something missing, and that was the American flag. And then I realized there was no flag anywhere to be seen for us. Those of us that were American citizens, those of us that felt that we were part of society. It was gone, we couldn't see it. And that should have been my first clue that I wasn't a citizen anymore."
Eventually Warren wrote to Governor Pataki and after serving 12 years, she was granted clemency, but not the right to vote. Unlike Jazz Hayden who will be able to vote again when he completes his parole, Warren is tethered to a lifetime parole and can never vote again. For Warren this only makes an uphill battle to re-enter society that much more difficult.
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