Kemba Smith Pradia (center) with fellow panelists Topeka K. Sam (left) and Aqeela Sherrills.
Kemba Smith Pradia (center) serving as a panelist alongside Topeka K. Sam (left) and Aqeela Sherrills during a National Urban League Conference forum, July 28, 2023. Credit: Aswad Walker

In the mid-90s Kemba Smith became world famous for all the wrong reasons—becoming a poster child for the “War on Drugs” and its resulting mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines that branded the 23-year-old Hampton University student, who had never run afoul of the law in her life, to 24 years in prison.

=Her story became national news thanks to Black media; more specifically the now defunct Emerge Magazine, and their May 1996 cover story “Kemba’s Nightmare.”

Now Kemba Smith Pradia, the formerly incarcerated, domestic abuse survivor, mother, daughter, author, motivational speaker, foundation head and executive producer of the movie about her life (“Kemba,” set to be released in early 2024), is a criminal justice reform activist, and has been since she was released from prison after serving six and a half years.

Smith Pradia considers her release from prison a miracle spurred on in large part by that Emerge article and the work of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (now the LDF Thurgood Marshall Institute), headed then by Elaine Jones. Jones said this of the case:

“When Kemba Smith enrolled in Hampton University, she had achieved her dream of going to an historically Black college. But within three years, her college days were cut short by a physically abusive relationship with a drug dealer; she was pregnant; and her boyfriend was on the FBI’s 15 most wanted list. Though she had no prior criminal record, in 1994 she was prodded to plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine for her boyfriend’s drug activities. Kemba’s crime: to fall prey to an abusive relationship and to a criminal justice system that treats first time non-violent, low-level offenders as drug kingpins under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Kemba’s punishment: 24 years in prison without the possibility of parole… Even her family’s middle-class status and resources did not shield her from the race and gender biases on the criminal justice system… Over a five-year period during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the incarceration rate of Black women increased by 828%–the fastest rate of increase of any group.”

The Defender caught up with Smith Pradia during the recent National Urban League Convention in Houston where she spoke about her experiences and the importance of restorative justice.

DEFENDER: Why is it so important for you to fight for those going through situations similar to your own?

KEMBA: It’s really important because so much was sacrificed for me. Once I received commutation from the President of the United States after serving six and a half years, but yet I was sentenced to 24 and a half years at 23 years old, I knew it was a modern-day miracle. The reason why those prison doors opened—and we’re talking about not in this time when criminal justice is like the thing to talk about, we’re talking about back in 2000—when those prison doors opened, I knew that I needed to continue to be a human face for this issue and to still advocate for reform. And ultimately I believe that each and every young person doesn’t have to learn from each and every mistake there is to make in life. That they can learn from another person’s story.

But then also, I had a sense of survivor’s guilt. Because even though I was able to walk off of I’ll say the plantation… it was really important for me to help push forth criminal justice reform and to end mass incarceration.

DEFENDER: What is a moment from your incarceration that sticks out?

KEMBA: I tell people, be careful what you pray for. When I turned myself in six and a half months pregnant, I prayed and I asked God to allow me to be a voice to prevent other people from going down the same path. And during that time I was in county jail, I gave birth to my son. Five minutes after I gave birth to him, my legs had to be handcuffed and shacked to the bed. Correctional officers were guarding me and I didn’t know when I was gonna physically touch, hold, feel my son again.

DEFENDER: Talk about what had to happen to free you from prison.

KEMBA: It wasn’t of my doing, but it was of God where an article was being written about the war on drugs and it was Emerge Magazines and George Curry. So, I’m very grateful to the media that decided to highlight my story. Basically, what it took for me was the NAACP Legal Defense Fund decided to take on my case pro bono. And Elaine Jones was director of the organization at the time… She said that she was gonna make sure my case saw justice. But not only was it just her, it was the president of the National Council of Negro Women, the Deltas, the Links. There were several organizations that came on board in supporting efforts to bring me home.

DEFENDER: How did it feel knowing so many were working for your freedom?

KEMBA: It wasn’t about just me… Back then, the vast majority of the population within prison were Black women. And these organizations had hoped that my case would set a precedent for others. But unfortunately, there was denial after denial in the court system. So, receiving clemency from the president was my only option, which was a modern-day miracle. And it took very influential individuals that were in the administration, various different celebrity folks that got involved as well.

DEFENDER: What do you think about today’s conversation about criminal justice reform?

KEMBA: There have been some changes, but I do feel like more needs to be done. And I feel like that we’re in a society nowadays that’s focusing on how much crime is exploding, but they’re not really caring about the traumatic instances that are happening in our communities. How we have kids that are raising kids and some of our kids don’t have a first chance. So, I think it’s really important that we as a community stay engaged, that we lift up and support each other. But we also need to help change the narrative in this country of people coming out of prison. Because oftentimes, the media does a good enough job showing Black and Brown faces on TV and saying all the violent crime or various things that are being done. But there are actually individual, formerly incarcerated people that come out and have benefited from everyone’s tax dollars, from behavioral modification programs with therapy where they come out a brand new person and they’re no longer that person that they were.

DEFENDER: Share a challenge you faced once free.

KEMBA: When I came out of prison I wasn’t able to vote until almost 10 years after I was released. Can you imagine being a formerly incarcerated person, doing what you need to do, supporting your family, but when everybody’s going to vote and going to the polls, you’re feeling like you’re a second-class citizen even though you’ve done all the things you need to do to better yourself. We as a community need to analyze what’s going on and make sure that we’re part of the change and motivate our legislative leaders to enact laws that benefit us.

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...