Freedom Fighters

An Unlikely Group of Prisoners' Relatives Battles the Rockefeller Drug Laws

Ed Garcia, 38, quickly scanned the crowd as he and about 40 demonstrators marched through South Street Seaport on their way to a recent $500-a-plate fundraiser for Pataki. Dressed in a pinstriped suit, Ed had come straight from his job at a Wall Street brokerage firm and wondered what might happen if he bumped into any of his clients. "A few of my select friends know my father is in prison, but the people who work with me don't," he says. "It's not something I would parade around telling people."

Ed was 28 and had been a stockbroker for only a year when his father was arrested for selling narcotics. According to Ed, his father was a mule delivering cocaine for others. Jose rejected an offer of a four-year sentence because he would have had to snitch on his friends. "I think he was maybe scared for himself or his family," says Ed. After losing at trial, his father got the mandatory sentence of 15 years to life.

While on Rikers Island, Jose suffered a heart attack that left him in a wheelchair. Now 68, Jose is one of the oldest inmates at Green Haven. "Even though he made a mistake late in his life, that didn't stop my father from teaching and showing me the right way of doing things," says Ed, who grew up in Washington Heights. "I don't know where I'd be today if I didn't have my father being strict with me. I could be in jail, dead, a crackhead— like a lot of my friends."

Ed estimates that he has been to a couple dozen drug-law rallies over the last year. His 72-year-old mother Hilda has been to far more. Both vow to keep fighting. "Did he deserve to go to jail for what he did?" Ed asks about his father. "Yeah, he did a crime. But I don't feel he deserved to go for 15 years to life. We're seeing people get six, seven years— for attempted murder, rape. Amy Fisher is getting out and she almost killed somebody."

Lisa Oberg, 10, is the unofficial spokeschild for this movement. She gave a speech to hundreds of demonstrators at the March rally in Albany. And when protesters spotted State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno leaving a Pataki fundraiser in April, Lisa ran over to lobby him. "He said, 'Hi.' And I said, 'Hi,' " Lisa recounts. "And then he said he was interested in my mommy's case and then he left."

Lisa's mom, Arlene, is in her 10th year of a 20-years-to-life sentence at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for selling eight ounces of cocaine. When she was arrested, Arlene was a 22-year-old coke addict whose weight had plunged to 90 pounds from 130. She gave birth to Lisa in jail. Now the fourth-grader sees her mother only a few times a year. Lisa's grandmother, Gerry, is raising her in the same split-level house in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, where Arlene grew up.

Having a mother who is incarcerated has not been easy. Lisa decorated a ceramic flowerpot for Mother's Day, but knew she could never deliver the present to her mother because prison officials would not allow it. When she rides the school buses, she hears taunts: "At least my mom's not in prison. At least I have a mom."

Lisa can deliver a critique of the laws as well as any adult activist. "It's ruining lives, destroying people's families, and it's really, really hard for the kids because they can't see their parents," she says.

At the May 7 rally at Rockefeller Center, however, Lisa had lost her spunk. It was raining and chilly and Lisa had a headache. Her grandmother had let her skip school to attend the protest, but Lisa stood apart from the other demonstrators, shivering under an umbrella and badgering Gerry about leaving. She said she was tired of chanting about the drug laws' injustices. What she wanted was her mom. "I really, really want her home," Lisa says.

Research assistance: Hillary Chute

Lisa Oberg and her grandmother Gerry are campaigning to bring Lisa's mother, Arlene, home from prison. Arlene is serving a prison sentence of 20 years to life for cocaine possession and is eligible for parole in 2009.

Relatives of drug prisoners: Ed Garcia (above), Joseph Sorce, and Regina Stevens (below)

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