By Gregory Jordan, an author and journalist
I remember standing with Willie Mays Aikens outside his halfway house in a hardscrabbled corner of Kansas City as night fell in June 2009. I was there to write a book about his life; he was merely trying to make sorts of his life. He would be late for sign-in in two minutes, but showed no urge to rush. He never rushed - his innate cool and Southern style made rushing inconceivable. But that night he seemed unnerved. Not nervous – never that, either. But unnerved at how he would provide for the woman who would soon be his wife, for a daughter at an expensive college, and for her younger sister who had her eyes set on other expensive colleges.
He was an ex-con, a month out of the slammer after learning the hard way what mandatory minimum sentencing is, and he had been offered a job on a road crew fixing potholes. He had two bad hips, two bad knees, an empty bank account, and a used car that broke down every other day. But he also had something he hadn’t had in over 14 years: freedom. And one more thing: spiritual cleanliness. He was not only drug free, not only did he have that cursed addiction tucked in under his hat where it belonged, but he also had what he called “a spiritual life.” He correlated it with God and churchgoing; I equated it with his boundless hope and joy.
As I walked him up the steps of the big brick building that night, I looked at my watch. He walked through the swinging doors, signed in, and the second hand on my wristwatch hit twelve as he put down the pen. 9 p.m. on the nose, and Mr. Cool Faith Hope Joy was heading to his bunk bed.
I walked to my rental car, and thought: if I were a betting man, I’d bet on him. He wants it. He can taste it. Even though they set him up and locked him up and came close to throwing away the key, he had somehow corrected himself. Not cured himself, but set a right and steady course, destination pending.
And he did it: he got married; he had another baby with his wife; he stuck with the construction job, proved his character, and got hired by the Royals as a hitting instructor; he testified before Congress on the unfairness of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws; indeed, he has become perhaps the best spokesman for the racial and socioeconomic injustice inherent in the whole crack cocaine sentencing scheme; he is, in general and in the particular, a contributing American citizen.
Yet, had he served his full sentence, had the government not slowly begun to decrease the huge disparity in sentencing between cocaine and crack and slowly let men and women go home who had served far too much time for their crimes and addictions already, he would only have gotten out of jail this summer. He would still be at that halfway house at dusk. He would likely not have seen his oldest daughter graduate from Grinnell College this week, felt the dazzling sun all over his face as he looked to the sky when her name was called, would not have been able to stand and clap his hands into mash as she walked to the podium to receive her degree. He would not have yet restored his relationship with her, felt her forgiveness come over him like that sun a few days ago in Iowa. He would not, either, have felt her hug and soft kiss, her first true I-love-you-Daddy kind of kiss, after he had limped and run and twisted toward her after the students had marched in recess.
And he asks now, in so many words, on the radio and on tv and in op-eds, he asks the question of friends and ballplayers and lawyers and people who come up to him at book signings in Arizona and Kansas City and New York: don’t you think most of those men and women who are still in jail, whose mandatory minimum sentences haven’t yet been commuted like mine due simply to the maddening molasses of bureaucracy, don’t you think those men and women, mostly addiction free now, mostly ashamed and begging for love and so, so, so eager to give love, don’t you think they would be contributing American citizens today, too?