For eight long years, Terrence Stevens — who goes by the nickname "T-Wheels" — had the dubious distinction of being the only inmate in the New York state prison system with “muscular dystrophy.”
Stevens actually has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) type 3, but he says no one in prison knew or cared what his true diagnosis was.
Conditions were horrible for inmates with disabilities, says Stevens, 43, who is nonambulatory and has only limited use of his hands.
“Prisons weren’t made for people with MD,” he observes. He says he was denied a power chair and had to rely on other inmates to push him in a manual wheelchair, get him in and out of bed, and help him shower, dress, eat and use the toilet.
Stevens once was locked in his cell for several days on the charge that he exposed himself to a guard, and was let out only after a prison doctor and nurse testified at the disciplinary hearing that he was incapable of committing such an act.
Another time he was kept in solitary confinement for 40 days for not complying with a strip search. A subsequent policy review absolved him of wrongdoing, again by noting his physical inability to do so.
A particularly harsh sentence
In 1990, Stevens, who was already in a wheelchair, was arrested on a bus in Buffalo, N.Y., for possessing five ounces of cocaine. A friend, who Stevens says was actually in possession of the drugs, received probation in exchange for testifying against Stevens.
Although the crime was nonviolent and he had no previous drug convictions, Stevens was sentenced to 15 years to life, the mandatory minimum then in place under strict drug penalties imposed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 1970s.
Stevens’ mother, along with drug-policy reform advocates, fought for years for Stevens’ release. He became the “poster boy” for reformers wishing to do away with mandatory minimums that sentenced low-level drug offenders to the same amount of prison time as murderers and rapists. Even the judge who sentenced him said he thought Stevens’ punishment was too harsh.
In 2001, Stevens’ sentence was commuted for good behavior and he was released by then-Governor George Pataki.
He returned to his home in Harlem and, working with the prison-reform advocates he met while incarcerated, began to turn his life around.
In Arms Reach
Although he had no children of his own, Stevens knew that an estimated 60 percent of inmates were parents and that their children were at high risk of being drawn into a life of crime and punishment. (Studies show that these children face between two and six times the risk of their peers of being incarcerated.)
Working with New York City’s Juvenile Justice Mentoring Program, Stevens began reaching out to children of incarcerated parents — children ages 7 to 18 who were not yet involved with the court system.
In 2002, Stevens established a nonprofit to offer free tutoring to these children, called In Arms Reach, Inc., Parents Behind Bars: Children & Families in Crisis. The group is based at City College University of New York and works primarily with children and young adults from Harlem. The organization also pairs children with volunteer mentors (many of whom are pre-med students at the City College of New York).
In addition to mentoring and tutoring, the children are offered after-school programs, college-prep courses, creative development through art and music, and free prison visitation services. Several hundred children have been served by the program since it began.
“When I started doing this work, there were no organizations catering exclusively to the needs of children impacted by parental incarceration,” Stevens says. Now, states and the federal government are beginning to recognize the need for these services, and funding is becoming available.
In Arms Reach has gotten support from some big names in sports and the music business, including former New York Giants football star Carl Banks, music producer Russell Simmons and singer/songwriter John Forte of the Fugees.
The organization recently received a $600,000 grant from the Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The three-year grant requires In Arms Reach to raise 25 percent matching funds, a significant challenge that Stevens is working to meet.
These days, Stevens says he's happy and grateful to be free and doing work he loves.
“I know how critical this organization is to an extremely vulnerable and large population of children,” he says, “and I urge everyone to support us.”
To learn more about In Arms Reach, visit the organization's website