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September 15, 2015

"Here’s why Obama should pardon hundreds more women"

The title of this post is part of the headline of this recent Fusion commentary authored by Amy Ralston Povah. Here are excerpts:

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....

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.... 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.

September 15, 2015 at 09:11 PM | Permalink


Thank you for sharing my Op Ed - I'm honored. Two days after Fusion published it, Vikki Law's article was the lead story on Truthout.org about four of the women the CAN-DO Foundation is assisting in their desperate attempt to be one of the very lucky few who will find their way home to their children and family - and the right to sleep in their own bed, and cook whatever they'd like to eat. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32745-mothers-serving-long-term-drug-sentences-call-for-clemency These every day basic rights we all take for granted have been robbed from otherwise good American citizens who are victims of a "tough on crime" era that many recognize was a mistake, and yet few are willing to correct. Oscar nominated David France wrote about my story for Glamour magazine in the late 90s - it was the first time a journalist explained the flawed conspiracy law in a major publication and how it was targeting wives and girlfriends of drug dealers and holding them equally culpable to the actions of the kingpin - who can often go scot-free for "cooperating." Legislation was introduced to minimize the amount of time ancillary women in drug conspiracy cases would receive but it was never passed and ultimately forgotten. So many people assume that the women are equally guilty and should not be given favoritism. There are many cases where the woman was the minor participant and she is the ONLY one still serving time. In my own case - I collected bail money and I ended up with more time (I think) than anyone in the entire nation has ever received for ecstasy. Sammy the Bull admitted to 19 murders, received immunity for testimony against Gotti, but was later arrested for running a large ecstasy ring while on probation - and he only got 20 years - vs my 24 years - as a non-violent first offender. Why can't these insane conspiracy laws and mandatory minimums be given TOP PRIORITY and changed so we can begin the healing process. What is the new Attorney General, Loretta Lynch prepared to do to end MASS INCARCERATION IN THE US? What are our new presidential candidates prepared to do? I'm not hearing that question in the media, or among our current leaders or this administration?

Posted by: Amy R. Povah | Sep 16, 2015 1:25:47 AM

Amy, you wont hear the candidates address crime while debating. They dont want to appear soft on crime.

The Ussc has done a lot to help out lately. We need to get rid of the career politicians thst most never worked other than public office. Then we can chop down the Mandatories.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Sep 16, 2015 11:01:08 PM

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