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Freedom Fighters

One is a Wall Street stockbroker. Another attends fourth grade. A third serves lunch in a high school cafeteria. And a fourth was once a street cop in queens. What draws these New Yorkers together is that each has a relative in state prison serving time for a drug crime, and all have recently transformed their private anger into political activism.

The four joined the daily protests held last week to mark the 26th anniversary of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which were named after their creator, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. For years, the war over these laws belonged to politicians and drug-policy activists. But now those most directly affected by the laws— drug prisoners and their families— have added their voices to the debate.

Over the past year, drug prisoners' relatives have been a fixture in front of the city's courthouses, on the sidewalk next to Rockefeller Center, and outside Governor George Pataki's fundraisers. Sometimes only a handful of demonstrators show up at these protests, which are organized by the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. But the numbers can swell to many hundred, as they did for a March rally in Albany.

Thousands of New Yorkers have relatives in state prison for drug crimes. About one-third of the state's inmates— 22,386 at the end of 1998— are drug prisoners. "I thought I was the only person suffering, but there's a lot of people suffering from this law," says James Gantt, a 79-year-old rally regular whose son is serving 20 years to life.

This year, some family members finally have a reason to hope. Pataki has proposed to allow inmates doing time for drug possession under the laws' strictest provisions to file appeals that could shrink their sentences to 10 years. State legislators may actually pass such a reform bill this session, but the family members who flock to drug-law protests say they will not be content until the laws are repealed.

As visible reminders of the laws' harshest consequences, the relatives of drug prisoners play an important lobbying role. "Some families are really ashamed," says Assemblymember Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Queens Democrat who has sponsored a bill to repeal the laws. The steadfast demonstrators, Aubry says, are willing "to expose their pain. It makes a real difference."

Joseph Sorce, 65, often makes the trek from his Nassau County home into New York City to rally against the Rockefeller drug laws. But he never brings his wife. "My wife is home crying all the time," says Sorce, who retired in 1980 after 20 years with the New York City Police Department. "When you have a relative in prison, you know who suffers most? The parents."

Sorce's son, also named Joseph, lived near his parents in Valley Stream in 1991, when the cops arrested him for cocaine sales and possession. At the time, the 28-year-old was earning more than $40,000 a year driving delivery trucks for Wise potato chips and a milk company. "My son felt he was set up," his father says. The son refused to accept a plea bargain for a prison term of three years to life. Instead, he went to trial, lost, and got the mandatory sentence of 15 years to life.

Since the younger Joseph went to prison in 1993, his mother has never visited. "My son doesn't even want my wife to see him," Sorce says. "He'd be embarrassed because his mother would be hysterical and it might set him off and he'd start crying." So the father makes regular trips to Green Haven Correctional Facility, then reports back. He also sends politicians a handwritten letter or two every week on his son's behalf. And he has had to put on hold his plans to move to Florida or California. "He's locked up and the parents have been locked up too," Sorce says.

Last week, Sorce joined about 25 protesters at a lunchtime rally outside Rockefeller Center. He stood in the rain, clutching a plastic- covered photograph of his son. "I'm not soft on crime," says the former street cop. "People who do things wrong should go to jail. He was offered three to life. Double his time— give him six years. Isn't that bad enough? Anyone would say that's not soft on crime."

Regina Stevens, 49, marked the 26th anniversary of the state's drug laws on a Harlem sidewalk. "Too much time for nonviolent crime!" she shouted at the May 8 rally, as she waved a poster of her son Terrance. An Erie County jury convicted him of cocaine possession in 1993, and he got a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years to life.

There are hundreds of drug prisoners with similar sentences, but Terrance's case stands out. Terrance has muscular dystrophy and has been confined to a wheelchair since junior high school. Regina rattles off her son's ailments to anyone who will listen. Since being imprisoned, she says, "He's fallen three or four times. He lost partial hearing in one ear. He wears a back brace. He has two herniated discs. He's a 'total care' prisoner. Before, he could shake hands and feed himself, but he can't anymore. He can't even wipe himself."  

Regina does what she can. For a month preceding the March 2 rally in Albany, she spent every weekend evening at Columbus Circle, handing out fliers to inmates' relatives, who flock there to catch buses headed for upstate prisons. Before she landed a job in the cafeteria at Norman Thomas High School, Regina showed up at every drug-law rally, including three in Albany and one in Buffalo. Now she comes as often as she can, and she always leads the chants. "She's a loudmouth," says Randy Credico, the rallies' organizer. "She's great."

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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