Soft-spoken and reserved, you would never be able to tell Kemba Smith served six and a half years in prison. At 30 years old she does not look a day over 20, escaping the rapid facial maturation and bitterness serving time can bring.
Smith isn’t trying to hide her past but instead shares her story with thousands of men and women on the Tampax Total You Tour in hope that students learn from here mistakes.
The tour travels to 10 cities and 20 historically black colleges and universities promoting health and well-being of young women.
Smith’s story begins as any normal college student’s would. As a freshman at Hampton University, Smith said she could not wait to get out of her parents’ sight and as a result became involved with the wrong crowd.
“I wished I’d just observed people, then I chose who I hung with. Back then, the in crowd was respected, but not a lot of people knew they were dabbing in drugs.”
Peter Hall was one of them. Although not enrolled at Hampton, Hall made his presence known around campus. Smith said she was drawn in by Hall’s reputation.
“Because of my low self-esteem, I got caught up in the hype that he liked me.”
Smith dated Hall for three and half years, but during most of that time she did so out of fear. Smith said Hall abused her and even threatened to kill her if she ever left him. Smith knew he would be true to his word after he killed his best friend and drug partner.
“Because of fear, I did whatever he wanted me to do,” Smith said.
Now residing across the country in Seattle with Hall and pregnant, Hall persuaded Smith to turn herself in to authorities.”
“I thought it was the best thing for me but Peter only wanted to find out what the authorities had on him.”
By the time Smith decided to fully cooperate with the law, it was too late. Hall was found murdered in Seattle. With her boyfriend dead and law enforcers looking to punish someone for illegal drug activities, Smith said prosecutors focused their attention on her.
“The prosecutors put the drug weight on me. The system doesn’t care if you’re pregnant or what kind of family you come from.”
On April 21, 1994, Smith was sentenced to 24-1/2 years in prison.
“At first it really didn’t hit me because the judge said that I had been sentenced to 294 months. My mother began screaming. I had two attorneys, one of each side of me and they clutched my hands and said ‘it’s not over.’ I knew then that I would be serving a lot of time.”
Smith was another casualty of the mandatory minimum drug laws. Enacted in 1986, these laws require mandatory sentences for crimes related to cocaine distribution.
Immediately after sentencing, Smith was escorted to a holding cell where she encountered another woman, Camille, who was going to trial for similar charges.
After Smith told Camille how many years she had been sentenced to, Smith said Camille started crying hysterically and asked, “If they gave you 294 months, imagine how much time I’m going to get?”
“My immediate focus was now trying to console her,” Smith said.
Smith said that Camille is currently serving 15 years in prison.
In December 1994, Smith gave birth to her son. Immediately after delivery, Smith said federal guard shackled her feet to the bed and nurses gave the newborn to Smith’s parents.
“That was the hardest thing I ever had to go through while I was incarcerated.”
While serving her prison time, Smith said she never lost hope that one day the truth would come out and she would be released.
“I kept thinking, ‘God knows my heart.’ I had to have hope.”
Smith’s story became national news when Emerge Magazine featured her in an article. Since then Bet Talk, Glamour Magazine, Nightlin and other media have covered her story. In addition, Smith’s parents toured the country for their daughter’s release from prison.
“So many people rallied behind me including the Congressional Black Caucus, the Links and other organizations.”
Despite a denial for a new hearing in August 1999, Smith walked out of a Connecticut prison, where she was serving time, on Dec. 22, 2000 after former President Bill Clinton granted her clemency.
She now attends Virginia Union University and is expected to graduate in May with a degree in social work. Her son is well aware of his mother’s ordeal.
“I decided to tell him about everything because I didn’t want him to go to school and be teased that his mother was in jail.”
Although Smith seems to be putting her life back together, constant reminders of her past resurface. She is on five-year probation and cannot vote.
“When you get out of prison, there are a lot of rights you have to fight for to get back. There’s trouble finding housing and getting your kids back.”
There is hope, however, for those sent to prison under the mandatory minimum drug law.
U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, D-Calif., introduced the Major Drug Trafficking Act of 2001 on May 23. The bill calls for the elimination of the mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws.
At a press conference where the bill was introduced, Waters said, “These laws [mandatory minimum drug laws] do nothing to discourage drug-related crimes. In fact, statistics reveal that mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately increase the number of women and minority first-time, non-violent drug offenders serving lengthy sentences intended for major drug offenders.
“Even more alarming, the number of women sentenced to state prisons for drug related crimes have increased ten-fold since the enactment of mandatory drug sentences. Ninety-five percent of female arrests from 1985 to 1996 were drug-related and over 80 percent of female prison inmates are incarcerated as a result of their association with abusive boyfriends involved in drug-related activity,” Waters added.
Smith had strong words of encouragement for the audience.
“Every choice you make affects the rest of your life. Be careful because curiosity killed the cat.
“Sometimes it’s emotional for me to talk about the bad choices I made in life but this is what God intended for me to do and I’m being obedient to Him. Each one of you has a purpose. Seek and find it while you are here.”