Similar to the millions of women around the world who are currently in violent relationships, Kemba Smith Pradia never imagined herself involved with a partner who could become physically abusive. A freshman in college and on her own for the first time, Pradia says that like most domestic violence scenarios, her boyfriend displayed issues with control. Looking back, the Richmond, Va. native now sees with perfect vision all the signs that led to her not only becoming a victim of abuse, but an inmate serving over 24 years in federal prison.
“Initially he was my knight in shining armor,” says Pradia of Peter Hall, the man who would later become her boyfriend and the father of her son. “My first semester went well but the second semester I started to have issues with self esteem,” said Pradia, who now travels the country speaking to young women across the country about the dangers of domestic violence.
A prominent drug dealer in the Hampton area, Hall was popular on the university campus and appeared to be capable of everything but the mental and physical abuse he would later inflict. “I wondered who he was because it seemed like everyone wanted to be around him at the time,” said Pradia, who was misled by Hall’s character in part because students who were “successful and on the Dean’s List” often associated with the cocaine dealer.
Pradia soon found herself entangled not only in an abusive situation, but involved with a drug dealer turned murderer who would later force her on the road, while pregnant, as he fled punishment for killing his best friend.
“People don’t take time to get to know their partners. What you see in the beginning is a mask,” said Pat Thompson, director of Family Services, a state program that offers comprehensive help to women and their children in situations of domestic violence. “Because we don’t get to know people, the real person surfaces about thee to four months into the relationship.” Along with answering domestic violence calls with police, the program also boasts a 24-hour hotline, emergency shelters for women and children, legal resources, and individual and group counseling.
As with almost all cases of domestic violence, Pradia’s situation escalated and spiraled out of control. After weeks of the transient lifestyle on the run, Pradia begged for permission to return home, which Hall eventually allowed shortly before being found dead in the apartment the two had shared, the victim of a brutal homicide. With their lead suspect for murder and drug trafficking dead, all police attention focused on Pradia.
“I was sentenced as a first time non-violent drug offender to 24 ½ years in federal prison even though the prosecutor said I never handled or used any of the drugs that were involved,” said Pradia, who believes she was sentenced so harshly to set an example and because money was used to search for the couple while on they were on the run. “I believe my crime was falling in love with the wrong person.”
Bringing to light the ongoing struggle against mandatory minimums, Pradia became another statistic in the growing trend of women being harshly sentenced under conspiracy charges for crimes committed by an intimate partner or family member. Mandatory minimums, or automatic sentences handed down for crimes such as drug trafficking and gun possession, began with the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act as the Reagan Administration desperately tried to combat the wave of crack drowning inner cities and suburbia alike.
While mandatory minimums were set in place with the best of intentions, the law essentially shifts power from judges to prosecutors, who decide whether or not to charge a suspect with a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence. The current system of mandatory minimums also allows prosecutors to go after addicts and low-level participants with the same charges as the leader of an operation.
According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the law has created prisons over run with women, where 66 percent of all female offenders are serving time for drug related crimes.
According to reports released by the Justice Policy Institute, 89 percent of all persons serving mandatory minimum prison time in the state of Maryland are African American, which fuels arguments that mandatory minimums have been funneling minorities to prison cells for years.
Now, with talk of a movie to follow her first book, Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story, Pradia warns women of all ages to take action if they feel uncomfortable in any relationship. “If you see certain signs that just aren’t right- that are red flags- pay closer attention to them. Don’t just brush those signs under the rug.” Released in December 2000 with a pardon from President William Clinton, Pradia was finally able to mother her child, as well as complete her degree in her new found calling of social work.
With Maryland’s violent crime rates the lowest since 1978, victims trapped in violent situations are not without resources to save themselves and their children. Maryland currently has a choice of 20 domestic violence programs that provide service to all jurisdictions in the state. The 2010 legislative year alone saw the passage of 10 bills supporting anti-domestic violence measures by the Maryland General Assembly.
While new legislation provides more protection for victims, Thompson, who considers the healing of women her life’s work, believes satisfaction won’t be guaranteed until there are no women in need of shelter from a loved one. “Domestic violence is a part of the overall cloth of violence. This is just one aspect of it. Until every human being learns how to treat other human beings with dignity and respect, there will always be room for domestic violence.”