30 years of friendship, 30 years of pain

By Kemba Smith Pradia

Today is hard. Today is the 30th anniversary of my sister Michelle West’s life sentence. 31 years ago, Michelle had never been arrested. She had no criminal history. She had never committed any violent act. Still, the judge had no choice but to give her two life sentences plus 50 years without the possibility of parole due to the mandatory minimum sentences that bolstered the war on drugs. Michelle’s only hope for return is clemency, and we need your help to get her home.

I’m especially disheartened because last month, the Bureau of Prisons announced that it is closing the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, CA where Michelle has been for the past few years. More than a half dozen correctional officers and the former warden have either been charged or convicted of sexually abusing the women incarcerated there. Michelle wanted to be here to be close to her daughter, Miquelle who lives in California. 

FCI Dublin is where the US Marshals first assigned me to serve my sentence. I’ve gone through being transferred to and from this facility. Trust me, it’s not for the faint of heart. It is sad and frustrating because the process of being transferred to another facility is humiliating, traumatizing, but more importantly it puts people’s families in a state of panic when they have no idea where their loved one is going, and it’s not like you can pick up the phone and tell your loved one you are okay.

As a part of the Kemba impact campaign so far, I’ve walked into two federal prisons, one state prison and one jail to facilitate screenings and discussions with the men and women inside. When I purposefully walk into a prison, I see myself, I see Michelle West, and I’m grateful for the opportunity, but I hope when the men and women look into my eyes that they see themselves FREE and the unlimited possibilities that they possess to impact and lead in our communities, too. 

We tried to get into FCI Dublin because I wanted Michelle to have the opportunity to see the film before it was released, but it was impossible and now I see why. Today, Dublin has transferred or released all the women who were at that facility. I’ve read a couple of articles about how the women were transferred and I can only imagine the fear, confusion and trauma that they experienced. 

As we approach Mother’s Day, Michelle sits in a cell in Minnesota, half a country away from her daughter. So many mothers, who are no threat to public safety—women who’ve undoubtedly faced some form of victimization, and trauma leading up to their incarceration—will be locked away from their children for this year’s holiday. 

Last week, I marched as a member of The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, in the #FreeHer Rally in Washington D.C. Our message was clear—bring moms home for Mother’s Day. I marched for Michelle and the many other women who are survivors of abuse who deserve a second chance like me. We will continue to fight until Miquelle and other children are reunited with their mothers.

The ask is simple – sign the petition today to join me and the over 200,000 people who support Michelle’s immediate release! It only takes a minute. Collectively, if we make our voices heard, there’s no doubt in my mind that Michelle will be home soon.