This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
During the tough-on-crime 1980s, Congress eliminated parole and increased the number of federal offenses subject to mandatory minimum prison sentences, including for federal drug offenders. Three decades later, three quarters of mandatory minimums in 2012 were for drug offenses, with the result that almost 50 percent of the federal prison population is now serving a sentence for drugs, compared to eight percent for robbery, burglary, and other property offenses. A third of drug offenders got a 10-year mandatory minimum.
When Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenders it intended those sentences to punish major traffickers and kingpins. But because the sentences are triggered by the type and quantity of drug involved in the offense and not by the offender’s role in drug hierarchies, even low-level offenders receive them, with judges powerless to exercise their traditional role of ensuring sentences are crafted to take into account of the unique circumstances of each case.
For example, more than two-thirds of street-level dealers, defined as those who sell directly to users in quantities of less than once ounce per sale, received at least a mandatory minimum sentence, serving an average of almost 6 and a half years.¹
There are no photos posted of the man below, as he’s in hiding.
The man’s voice floated from the black basement of the abandoned house. He lumbered up the stairs, right hand against the wall, head down. Hungover. Overindulgence of Cobra Malt Liquor.
The man was released from jail the day before on two years of probation. Months ago, he made a direct sale of a couple of bags of heroin to a cop. It was his first arrest, drug-related or otherwise. After six months in Rikers Island jail, he is now to be a stand-up citizen or face three to nine years of prison time.
Stand-up means no drugs, no homelessness, no panhandling, no lawbreaking.
“I’m standing here with you, but I’m property of the state,” he said.
Now, being in the condemned house, having returned to the life from which he was arrested, he’s violating his probation.
“They gave him just enough hope to hang himself. It was a trap off: they knew he was going to fuck up….and he did. He got high with me this morning,” his friend said.
The man believes he can still appear in front of his probation officer, lie his way through check-in tests. He talks a good game. The man’s voice can convince anyone of anything in its forcefulness. The weight of it demands compliance, his temper a spontaneous reaction to follow.
…or maybe he can get off the drugs enough to have clean urine. He hasn’t screwed up everything. He hasn’t predestined a wedge of the next decade.
He and his wife can get clean and go somewhere.
While gripping a doorjamb in the unlit room of the house’s dusky morning he proclaims her to be the love of his life. This woman, the mother of his four far-spread children in foster care, the one with whom he often engages in street-to-window screaming matches. His announcement of passion is loud, reverberates off the holed, pipe-exposed walls. He says it again outside while hefting a found-stolen wooden ladder over his shoulder: I AM SO GODDAMN LUCKY.
No, he didn’t enjoy his time with men in jail… at least not that much.
His wife, alone, has been living under a bridge with a band of Mexican men, panhandling, making exchange insinuations to strangers by touching their arms in such a way. “If you need anything at all…”
While her husband was in jail, the apartment they shared, the drug-dealing one, at times appeared mysteriously closed, boards and plastic masking its windows. When standing in her foyer, shapes of men moved in the hallway’s shadows.
She left the apartment while her husband was gone to avoid debt to the sellers.
“I’ve haven’t been sleeping with her or anything. When her husband’s on crack, he gets paranoid and loud and thinks we exchange looks. But I don’t know what he’s talking about,” his friend said.
The man is confident in piecing together his future: wife back, a while without heroin. He has a skillset. He can build anything and is good with people so long as they give him respect. The charges are stupid, and they don’t know what they’re doing anyway. He can cut two years.
In the disheveled hallway, over piles of trash, nearer to the window without the window (it missing glass and panes), the man moves in a haze of drug residue. “What did you just say?” Closer. “Why did you need to say that about the drugs, man?” Too close. “Nobody knows nothing about what’s going to happen.”