After the fifth year in prison, each additional year begins to eat into the layers of your soul. Parents pass away, friends drift off, spouses find someone else. Children grow up, graduate, get married, have children of their own; holidays come and go, and when that 7th, 15th or 22nd year rolls around, you feel like your heart is being crushed.
I shared those emotions with the women I served time with at FCI Dublin, a correctional facility in northern California. I was serving 24 years on a drug conspiracy charge, arrested for collecting bail money for my husband, who manufactured MDMA. He was the kingpin, but he only received three years probation because he cooperated with the prosecutors. I refused a plea bargain, and I got stuck in jail.
So when President Clinton commuted my sentence on July 7, 2000—after I’d served 9 years and 3 months—I felt like I had won the lottery. The prison compound erupted into cheers and marched me across the yard to the gate on the day I left. And yet, it was a bittersweet victory. While I was elated for myself, it was hard to walk away, knowing I would not see these women the next day, or possibly ever again.
I felt that mix of bittersweet emotions again this summer when President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, more than any sitting president in the last 50 years. It was the result of Clemency Project 2014, a federal initiative that encouraged over 35,000 prisoners to apply for clemency. On one day, 42 men and four women were the lucky lottery winners chosen from a massive number of candidates.
Although I’m happy for these recipients, prison reform advocates like myself were hoping for more. It was heartbreaking for the many women I’m still in touch with in federal prison who were on pins and needles, waiting to hear if they would finally be reunited with their families.
Having served time with over a thousand women, I believe they are the hardest hit victims in the war on drugs. Many women are indicted because they are merely a girlfriend or wife of a drug dealer, yet are not part of the inner circle and have limited information to plea bargain with. Mandatory minimums are reserved for those who do not cut a deal with prosecutors.
Women are being overlooked by the Department of Justice as candidates worthy of a seat on that coveted commutation list. Over the last 30 years, the female prison population has grown by over 800% while the male prison population grew 416% during the same timeframe. More than half of the mothers in prison were the primary financial supporters of their children before they were incarcerated. And the vast majority of women in federal prison were put there due to conspiracy laws that hold them equally culpable for the criminal actions of other co-defendants, often a spouse or boyfriend. In other words, many women are guilty by association.
There are hundreds of women sitting in federal prison on drug conspiracy charges who deserve clemency—most of them first offenders serving life without parole. Alice Johnson is an accomplished playwright who has served 18 years on a life sentence for cocaine conspiracy and has the support of three members of Congress. Josephine Ledezma has already served over 23 years and is still waiting to have her petition filed. Sharanda Jones has served 15 years; filed for clemency in 2013 and has over 270,000 supporters on change.org. Michelle West has served 22 years of a double life sentence, plus fifty years, in a case where the key witness was given immunity and never served a day for a murder he admitted to.
Some days, sitting in prison, you think life can’t get any worse. And then another blow comes when 46 people receive clemency and your name is not on that list. Many of the same women I said goodbye to in 2000 are still in prison, serving 30 years to life, even though, like myself, they were minor participants in a nonviolent drug conspiracy case.
Now, Congress is debating reforms to make drug sentencing laws less strict. That could have huge implications for convicts on drug charges in the future. But with a stroke of his pen, President Obama can help right the wrongs of the past and give these deserving women a second chance at life.
He should get started right away.
Amy Ralston Povah, a former federal inmate, runs the CAN-DO Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates justice through clemency and educates the public about the reform of sentencing and conspiracy laws.