PATERSON, N.J - Albany is engaged in its spring chess
match, the legislative session's endgame where bishops and knights
plot their strategies. But let Melita Oliveira's story speak for all
the pawns, as she moves one space at a time toward home.
Ms. Oliveira left home 15 years ago to visit her sick father in Peru
and hasn't really returned. An acquaintance there asked her to carry
a small package back to New York. She says she thought it was diamonds.
The police at Kennedy International Airport found cocaine.
Ms. Oliveira was a seamstress working two jobs here and a single mother
raising five children. She had no criminal record and swore she had
no idea she was carrying drugs. But she was found guilty and sentenced
to 15 years to life under New York State's Rockefeller-era drug laws,
which carry some of the nation's toughest sentences.
Ms. Oliveira, a small woman now 58, told the judge that the sentence
would be "an indirect crime" against her children. He gave
Ms. Oliveira the minimum allowed, 15 years, and she remembers him
saying, "I can't change the law."
The children were torn from one another; some were placed with relatives
or guardians and some were left on their own. "We were incarcerated,
too, just on the outside," said one daughter, Liz Muñoz.
The youngest daughter, Julie Colón, was 9 at the time. In visits
and phone calls, "She would say, `Mommy, when are you coming
home?' " Ms. Oliveira recalled. " `When are you coming home?
I need you.' "
Julie's grief turned to teenage anger. "I was very depressed
and suicidal," Julie said. "I would slam the cabinets. I
would break glass. I would carve on myself, I guess just to feel pain."
Now a 23-year-old college junior with a 2-year-old son, she is a vocal
advocate for changing the Rockefeller laws. She said: "I never
understood. Fifteen years. Why so long?"
Gov. George E. Pataki and Democrats in the Assembly have long agreed
that the 29-year-old laws are unduly harsh and rigid, imposing longer
minimum mandatory sentences for some first-time, nonviolent drug offenses
than for rape and manslaughter. The November election is forcing the
issue. Lawmakers want to remain tough on crime while appealing to
Latino and black residents, who are heavily represented in prison
and the object of wooing by the Republican governor. Everyone agrees
that judges need more discretion and that sentences are too long,
but not on how much to ease the laws.
Just as the laws that held her for so long appear to be inching toward
change, Melita Oliveira is inching toward home. With a perfect prison
record, she won clemency 18 months ago. Then the Immigration and Naturalization
Service threatened another punishment: deportation. Amid news media
and political attention, a judge interceded to stop that. Now she's
living in Queens but can't move back to her family here until clearing
another hurdle transfer of her parole case to New Jersey.
Ms. Oliveira guided her children from prison. She had been a teacher
in Peru and stressed education. She told her son Esly Panduro, "Never
leave your brothers and sisters; stand behind them."
About a decade ago, as a 23-year-old veteran of the Persian Gulf war,
Esly began reuniting his siblings in their old house in a frayed Paterson
neighborhood. "We pushed each other," Julie said. One sister
is a nurse, another is a sales representative at a bank. Esly is a
police officer and a Rutgers University student. Another brother works
for a towing company. Julie is studying literature and drama at Jersey
Ms. Oliveira is allowed to visit her children. Sometimes, she's like
Mom of old. Julie says that when she comes home from school and her
mother is there, "She'll say, 'Are you hungry?' "
"I say, `No, Mom,' " Julie said. "She says: `You have
to eat. You have to eat.' I think she wants to fill that void."
The lost time is an open wound. One day in the kitchen, Ms. Oliveira
suddenly started weeping. "She said: `It was my fault. I left
you when you were a baby,' " Julie said.
On Friday night, Julie picked up her mother for a weekend visit. Ms.
Oliveira told her she hoped to be home for good by September. In Paterson,
Ms. Oliveira settled into the living room. She remembered her recurring
jailhouse dream. "I saw myself coming up the stairs and you were
all here," she said.
The house was alive with Ms. Oliveira's children and grandchildren.
"And we're here," Julie said. She smiled at her mother.
"Pinch me," Ms. Oliveira said.