This week a DVD screener for the documentary “Lockdown, USA” arrived in my mailbox at the same time as the news that the horrible Rockefeller Drug Laws were on the verge of being repealed in New York State. Directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Michael Skolnik, the movie describes the struggle by activists against this draconian law and the impact it had one family.
The two primary actors in the struggle featured in the movie are hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Randy Credico, a former stand-up comedian who became a full-time activist in 1997. Holed up at the time in a Florida motel trying to kick a cocaine habit, he happened on a television news report about people victimized by the drug laws and realized that it could have been him serving a fifteen year sentence. (Although I recommend this documentary without hesitation, its main flaw is not providing some background information on the principals.)
I have very fond memories of Randy Credico from the 1980s when he was a frequent guest on WBAI radio shows skewering the Reagan administration’s war on Central America. A peerless impressionist, he got the wretched gipper nailed down better than anybody on the comedy circuit, so much so that he was a guest on the Johnny Carson show, a sure sign that you had “made it”. He was never invited back after taking the opportunity to lambaste American foreign policy, just as Harvey Pekar became persona non grata on the David Letterman show after denouncing General Electric for high crimes against society. These are my kinds of people, needless to say.
In contrast to Credico’s rumpled, wisecracking demeanor, Russell Simmons is the consummate power-broker and deal-maker. Throughout the film, he is seen in a leather chair that looks like it costs as much as Credico’s annual salary with the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. Although Simmons is not averse to mounting a rally against the drug laws, his main activity seems to be talking on the phone with Governor George Pataki or other powerful officials.
Eventually, Pataki sponsors a “reform” bill that neither eliminates mandatory minimum sentences nor allows the vast majority of the 14,000 victims languishing in New York prisons to be resentenced. This provokes Randy Credico into telling the film makers and anybody who will listen that you cannot reform such a law, it can only be repealed. Likening the Rockefeller Drug Laws to slavery, he says that the only honorable demand is for its abolition.
The movie documents the suffering and the fighting spirit of Darryl Best, a father of five who received a 15 year sentence as a first time nonviolent drug offender after signing for a Fed Ex package containing under a pound of cocaine. His wife Wanda and their children are seen consulting with Credico and Simmons as they wage their struggle in their various ways.
Although the movie has an obvious orientation to the overwhelmingly African-American victims of the drug laws (crack violations, which predominate in the Black community, get much harsher sentences than those for typically middle-class powdered cocaine violations), the law sometimes drags the unlikely victim into its net like my cousin Joel Proyect.
The New York Times
July 12, 1992, Sunday, Late Edition – Final
On Sunday; Tend a Garden, Pay the Price: A Legal Story
By MICHAEL WINERIP
By all accounts, Joel Proyect is an enormously talented, humane man, a small-town lawyer who gave a great deal. He’s a recent vice president of the bar association, a legal guardian for children in family court.
He took court-assigned clients who could not afford lawyers. “One would think he is being paid thousands of dollars the way he represents indigent people,” said Tim Havas, a legal aid lawyer. When his neighbors, the Friedlanders, had a baby, Mr. Proyect plowed their driveway without being asked, so they could get home safely. He shoveled his pond so nearby kids could skate, though he doesn’t.
After he was divorced, Mr. Proyect, 50 years old, raised his two daughters until they went off to college. He banned TV and made the girls speak half an hour of French to him each day (he also speaks Spanish and Russian). He taught law at a local prison and community college.
It took nine years, but he built his magnificent wood and stone house himself, hammering every nail. He heats it with wood from his 30 acres, makes jam with blueberries from his bushes. He grew his own pot.
He’d smoked marijuana for 20 years. It was well known. “Everyone in the court system knew, judges, people at the bar association — they’d tease me,” he said. “I grew for myself and my girlfriend. If you came to my house I’d offer you beer or a joint, depending on your tastes.”
Last August, after scouting with helicopters, Federal agents raided Mr. Proyect. He thinks that the raid was initiated by a local police officer he’d had a run-in with in court.
You didn’t have to be Elliot Ness to catch Joel Proyect with pot. “They found some plants and I showed them where the rest were,” said Mr. Proyect. “I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t think it was that serious.” Growing pot is a misdemeanor under state law. There’s no evidence he ever sold any of it. But he was charged under Federal law. His house and 30 acres were forfeited to the government. On May 29 he was sentenced to five years in prison.
No one, not even the prosecutor, will say this is fair. Judge Vincent Broderick of Federal District Court said his hands were tied by a 1988 mandatory sentencing law. He says he hopes he is reversed on appeal.
Law-enforcement agents don’t have the resources to catch most of the truly venal drug offenders. So what the Government has done is to invoke strict mandatory sentences to serve as a deterrent. The law says anyone growing more than 100 pot plants serves a minimum of five years. Agents, with Mr. Proyect’s aid, found 110.
No reporters attended the sentencing, but the judge’s anger is plain from the transcript: “I’m very unhappy about imposing this sentence. I frankly would not impose it if I saw any way that, consistent with my oath, I could impose a different sentence.”
“I’ve had people before me constantly during the last three years charged with distributing dangerous drugs on the streets,” he said, “that I’ve been able to sentence to far less than I’m sentencing Mr. Proyect to.” The judge, a former New York City Police Commissioner, called mandatory sentencing “a vice” and allowed Mr. Proyect to remain free, pending appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Second District. “I would be delighted,” the judge said, “to have my brothers on the 17th floor of the Manhattan courthouse find I was in error.”
Ronald DePetris, Mr. Proyect’s lawyer, said that in 25 years, “this is the most unjust sentence I’ve seen.” Kerry Lawrence, the prosecutor, said the law required it. But did the sentence fit the crime? “No comment,” he said.
Mr. Proyect is using his freedom to make money. His legal fees are $115,000. The other day he came out of a bail hearing for a client charged with armed bank robbery. “The prosecutor’s offering him a plea of four years,” said Mr. Proyect. “He’ll serve less time than I will.”
He drove home. The Government is scheduled to evict him in two weeks. He has the option to buy his house back from the United States for $170,000 and says if he got a short sentence and is allowed to practice when he comes out, he could raise the money.
He says he used to smoke five joints a day. Now he has that many drinks. Like many of his generation who inhaled, Mr. Proyect believes pot is a safer drug than alcohol and misses it. He is angry that in a conservative era, when government is supposed to stay out of people’s personal lives, his has been invaded, though he harmed no one. “If I knew I was coming back to this,” he said, standing on his deck, “it wouldn’t be so bad. Everything you see is mine. I own that hill. I own that hill. Isn’t it beautiful? I say it without conceit. I didn’t build it, God did that.”
This fall, the brothers on the 17th floor will decide if Joel Proyect deserves this.
My cousin ended up spending more than four years behind bars and was forced to repurchase the house that he had built with his own hands and that had been seized by the government. I visited him at “minimum security” prisons in Connecticut and Pennsylvania and you can take my word for it that these places are no country clubs.
“Lockdown, USA” should be available from Netflix before long, but you can order it directly from the producers here.