Drug War Prisoners

September 2001: Can This Be America?

From Behind the Wire By Richard J. Lester

Drug War Correspondent for drugwarprisoners.org

Here is another Forget Me Not story.

There is a section of Los Angeles just off Western Avenue where the Vietnamese gangs are overpowering long time black residents. Orlan Hamilton is a black man with an irresistible personality. During my tenure at the Federal Correctional Institute at Terminal Island, California, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Mr. Hamilton. I recall the hot mid-summer afternoon we sat together awaiting the arrival of the law students from UCLA who ventured into the visitors' room with their law professor once a month, to try their hand at freeing prisoners from more dreary years behind the wire. I now retell the tragic story I was told that miserable afternoon.

Question: So what brings you here, Orlan?

Answer: Gun charge, felon in possession of a shotgun.

Question: So you are here to meet with the law students concerning your case?

Answer: That's right. I've been doing my own legal work, but I thought they might be able to help me.

Question: Orlan, if you were a felon, why would you even think of having a gun in your possession?

Answer: Well, it happened like this. About fifteen years ago I was involved in a fight. I was found guilty of fighting in a public place and that was a felony. I was sentenced to probation for two years and served my probation and was released. Then I got married and we had two little girls. My wife is kind of a shy girl and so are my kids.

The neighborhood where we live is just off of Western Avenue. It was pretty much black and a quiet place to live. We got us a nice two bedroom apartment, you know, the kind with the apartments on the outside, two storeys, and a swimming pool in the middle. Well, the Viet gangs began moving in and extorting the business folks, and then moved in on the apartment buildings. Because most folks was working during the day, they could just rob us blind. Now some housewives got raped and beat up pretty bad. I was worried, so I went down to the sporting goods store on Western Avenue and asked about buying a gun. The manager of the store came out when I told the salesman that I was an ex-felon. They agreed I was not precluded from buying a shotgun. I filled out the registration form and the federal application which was sent to the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms folks for their investigation and approval. I was told that if the government had any problems they would object to the purchase and that would be the end of it. A couple weeks later when I came home from work, my wife told me that the man from the sporting goods store had called and said that I could pick up the shotgun as the government had not objected to the purchase. I went down that night and picked up my brand new shiny Mossburg shotgun and a box of shells. I don't recall ever taking that shotgun out of the box or down from the shelf in our closet. At least, not until one evening a year later a knock came on our front door.

"Who is it?" I asked.

"Orlan Hamilton?"

"Yes," I replied, as I slid the dead bolt out of its jacket and opened the door to see two well-dressed white men just outside.

"ATF, may we have a word with you?"

"Of course," I responded, and allowed them to enter.

"Mr. Hamilton, did you purchase a Mossburg shotgun last year at the sporting goods store?"

"Yes, I did," I said nervously.

"Sir, that is a felony, a felon cannot purchase a firearm."

I explained the whole story to the officers and they asked to see the shotgun. I fished it down from the shelf, dusted off the box, and handed it to them.

"Well, since these are the circumstances, we are not going to arrest you, Mr. Hamilton. However, if you wish to get this over with without and further difficulties, we suggest you take this to our office and turn it in and get a signed release for it."

I was overwhelmed with relief. I couldn't get down to the ATF office fast enough if I had wings. The young woman was aware that a Orlan Hamilton was surrendering a shotgun and was very respectful. She signed and had me countersign the receipt, and I was on my way to work.

Another year passed, and another knock on my door.

"Orlan Hamilton?"

"Yes," I answered, as the two men bullied their way into our apartment screaming obscenities in front of our daughters.

"Down on your belly now," they screamed. "You're under arrest for felon in possession of a firearm."

Question: Did you explain all of this to the judge?

Answer: Yes, and he was very apologetic and noting that his hands were tied because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted by Congress.

"Fifteen years in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons" was the judgment and commitment handed down.

I listened to this story some years ago now, and I suppose it will always be imprinted on my mind, not because it was an isolated story but because it became the first in a series of similar stories told to me behind the wire.

Until tomorrow's freedom,

Your humble Drug War correspondent writing to you from behind the wire.

Richard J. Lester




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