In an effort to address the effects of the War on Drugs both locally and nationally, students have formed their own chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at Mills College.
The club, founded by four students — seniors Claudia Cinelli, Marlene Hurd and Latasha Wamsley and junior Keri Lynn Thorpe — evolved out of a service-learning project started in professor Julia Sudbury’s class “Race, Gender and the Criminal Justice System.”
The new club is a chapter of a larger international grassroots organization called Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). Founded in 1998, SSDP encourages young people to “participate in the political process, pushing for sensible policies to achieve a safer and more just future, while fighting back against counterproductive Drug War policies, particularly those that directly harm students and youth,” according to its mission statement.
The organization was created in response to the a policy of the Federal Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) which prevents students with any past drug convictions from receiving federal aid to pursue higher education. The Mills chapter is the first at a women’s college.
Although club members said they will focus on issues facing the Mills community in particular, the chapter’s basic tenets are the same ones upheld by the group at large.
“The entire premise is that the War on Drugs is failing our generation,” said Cinelli, the club’s president.
At their first meeting March 2, the group screened a documentary addressing the soaring numbers of women in prison and other consequences of the government’s crackdown on drug convictions. Titled “Perverted Justice,” the film said that in the last 20 years, the number of women in prison has multiplied by 15, rising from around 12,000 to more than 180,000. As of the film’s making, more than 1.5 million children have a parent in prison.
The short documentary tells the story of a woman named Hamedah Hasan currently serving a 27-year prison sentence for a drug trafficking conspiracy, demonstrating how women are the fastest growing population of prisoners, disproportionately of which are women of color. Many are serving time due to mandatory minimum sentencings — a policy implemented by then President Ronald Reagan.
“Hasan is an example of the unequal application of these laws. Even the sentencing judge and the lawyers were against her imprisonment — you know there’s something wrong with a law if even the judge is against it,” said junior Terrilynn Cantlon after the meeting.
Sudbury, the club’s faculty adviser, said it is important for groups like SSDP to exist.
“All of us are affected by the impact on the state and federal budget spending millions of dollars on policing and imprisonment, spending that takes funding away from education, health and social services,” she said. “Those most directly affected are students, staff and faculty who may come from the communities — mostly that are targeted by racial profiling, overzealous policing and high incarceration rates. Students who may have struggled with drug abuse and those who have family members are also affected because the War on Drugs funding goes predominantly to policing and punishment, not treatment and support.”
The Mills SSDP chapter hopes to work with many other organizations, including Critical Resistance, a nationwide organization working to dismantle the prison system and California Coalition for Women Prisoners and Justice Now, whose many projects include providing legal services to women in prison. Through their alliances with these organizations, members said they hope to bring about real change through student activism.
“SSDP is about young people being activists. That’s why it’s at colleges and universities,” Cinelli said.
“It’s like connecting the dots,” said Mills SSDP Events Director Hurd. “The major dot that needs to be connected is our community.”
The Mills SSDP chapter attended the 11th annual SSDP International Conference, March 12 to 14 at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. It meets Wednesdays in the Faculty Lounge.