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A Desperate Hope for Clemency: Mothers in Federal Prison Pin Hopes on Obama

Drug war prisoners are desperately hoping for commutations or amnesty in the closing weeks of Obama’s presidency.

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At the federal prison in Aliceville, Alabama, women are locked into their cells at 9:40 each night. Election night was no different, and so women watched the election unfold from their individual cells.

From her cell, Alice Johnson watched the TV still playing in the now-empty common room. She also kept her radio on, listening to the political play-by-play, knowing that the outcome would affect the rest of her life. In 1991, Johnson, a single mother struggling to pay the bills, was arrested and charged with conspiracy for passing along phone messages about drug transactions. Her codefendants, who were facing lengthy sentences, testified against her at trial; she was sentenced to life in prison. Now age 61, Johnson has spent one-third of her life in prison.

As the electoral map turned red, some of the women began to see their hopes for a future fade. “I feel there is nothing coming for people in my situation if President Obama doesn’t do something while he’s still in office,” said 38-year-old Mackese Walker Speight, who is nine years into a 68-year prison sentence.

December is Obama’s last full month in office. Two days before Thanksgiving, Obama granted 79 commutations (including Cynthia Shank, profiled earlier), pushing the total number of clemencies to 1,023 people, including 342 with life sentences. However, only 68 of those commutations have been women and over 13,000 federal prisoners (of all genders) are still waiting and desperately hoping for holiday compassion. Some, like Speight, are serving lengthy sentences that, without a commutation, would mean leaving prison decades past retirement age. Others, like Alice Johnson, are serving life sentences — and the federal system does not offer parole.

On November 29, three weeks after the election, a coalition of organizations and advocates sent a letter to Obama to “grant sweeping commutations” to large numbers of people behind bars instead of individually reviewing each petition. “With a stroke of your pen, you could change the lives of thousands of individuals and their families and write a legacy that will stand throughout history,” urged the letter, signed by 63 organizations and advocates. “Until January 20, you alone have the power to deliver both mercy and justice to those who deserve it. We hope you will seize this opportunity.” That same day, the Office of the Pardon Attorney announced that it had denied 600 applications for commutation, bringing the total number of denials to 14,485. People who are denied clemency receive no explanation; they are only informed that they must wait one year before applying again.

As Obama’s presidency draws to a close, clemency recipients, formerly incarcerated people and other advocates are acting with increasing urgency. This week, they circulated an open letter calling on Obama to consider an amnesty program for nonviolent drug war prisoners. Meanwhile, the families of prisoners who don’t fall in this category are also hoping fervently for clemency.

“I Have Endured This Time With My Children and Grandchildren in Mind”

Though her last three clemency applications were denied, LaVonne Roach is hoping that her fourth will finally allow her to return home. Roach doesn’t deny that she both used and sold methamphetamine. “I am responsible for not only hurting my family but my community with the poison I distributed,” she told Truthout. In 1995, Roach’s fiancé Mario Osario was arrested in Rapid City, South Dakota. Authorities convinced him to do what’s known as a controlled delivery, in which the person wears a wire while delivering drugs. Instead of completing the transaction, Osario shot himself.

After Osario’s suicide, DEA agents raided Roach’s house, found half a pound of marijuana and .4 grams of methamphetamine and charged her with misdemeanor possession. She said that the DEA agent told her that, if she cooperated with officials, she wouldn’t receive any time. He then issued her a ticket for the marijuana and gave her his card. “I never called and nobody ever came looking for me,” she recalled.

Two years later, Roach was pulled over while driving. Officers found that she had a warrant for possession; Roach was arrested and charged with possession of and conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.

At trial, four witnesses attributed 42 kilos of methamphetamine to her, an amount she said she had never seen or been near. “Ghost dope, it’s called, because it was based on the testimony of convicted drug dealers,” she explained, adding that she had never been given anywhere near that quantity of drugs. Roach was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Later, one of the jurors submitted an affidavit stating that she had been unwilling to convict, but the other jurors pressured her into changing her vote.

Now age 52, Roach has applied for — and been denied — clemency three times. In October, she filed her fourth clemency petition and, like thousands of others, is waiting. During her 19 years in prison, her children have grown up and now have children of their own. Her father struggled with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, heart problems and a leg amputation. Still, recounted Roach, he “fought so hard to stay alive to see me walk out of this prison.” Her father never got that opportunity; in 2015, he died of a heart attack.

Roach is desperately hoping to have the chance to care for her mother, who was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her sister, brother and niece currently balance full-time caregiving and full-time jobs. Roach’s sister Lenora told Truthout that the sisters had always worked together, both as children (“I’m the washer, she’s the rinser”) and as adults (“one’s babysitting, the other’s out looking for a job”). Now she’s hoping that her sister will be allowed to care for her mother in her final days.

If Lenora could speak directly to the president, she’d say, “She’s been in there [nearly] 20 years. That’s a long time for what she’s done. She’s a changed person. Find forgiveness in your heart.”

If that forgiveness doesn’t come, Roach said, “I will once again hear my momma suffering on the phone as she slowly dies.”

Roach draws strength and inspiration from both her family support and their Lakota heritage. “We have survived many attempted genocides, whether it be cultural, spiritual or physical,” she reflected. “We belong to a line of warriors and to a people who seem to always fight to survive, and it does help me. But most of all, I have endured this time with my children and then grandchildren in mind.”

“I Was Too Scared to Tell the Police Anything”

Roberta Bell is another woman who is hoping for clemency this December. By the time she was arrested at age 20, Bell had already experienced a lifetime of violence and terror. Because of her mother’s heroin and crack use, she lived with her maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, whom she called Big Mama. She got pregnant at age 13 and, shortly after giving birth, her aunts packed Bell and her newborn daughter off to live with her mother in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

But Bell’s mother was still struggling with addiction and didn’t stop her dealer, David Tyler, from sexually abusing the 14-year-old. “In all honesty, she encouraged it,” Bell recounted in a letter to the president. “He was giving her more drugs than she was paying for and he was taking care of me and the baby.” The man not only demanded sex, but also forced the teen to hold his drugs and money. “He never let me forget how ‘lucky’ I was and that if it hadn’t been for him, my mother might’ve had me on the corner turning tricks.”

This sense of guilt and obligation kept Bell in Tyler’s thrall for the next six years, even after she married and had two more children. On the night of April 20, 1992, he sent the now 20-year-old Bell to deliver money to his brother in Carlisle, a town 35 miles away. When she arrived, Tyler’s brother ordered her to drive to an apartment building to pick up another woman. She did and, after driving around town with the two of them, left them together and returned home.

The next morning, Tyler instructed her to say that he was at her house the entire night. When the police arrived later that morning, Bell did exactly that. That was when she learned that the police had found the body of the woman she had picked up. The woman, Doreen Proctor, had been scheduled to testify against Tyler’s brother.

The police questioned Bell several times. Each time, she lied; after each police interview, Tyler beat her up. “I was too scared to tell the police anything, so I didn’t say a word,” she recalled.

Eventually, Bell, Tyler and five others were arrested and tried in state court. Bell was fully acquitted. She found work as a legal secretary and began rebuilding her life.

Two years and four months later, Bell was arrested again, this time by federal authorities, and charged with witness tampering, intimidating a witness and use of a firearm. Prosecutors asserted that she fired the first shot at Proctor, a charge that Bell has continued to deny. She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. She was 24 years old.

Bell has missed seeing her three children grow up and has never met her three-year-old granddaughter. The family has managed to stay in contact via phone calls, e-messaging and video visits, but the distance from Pennsylvania to the federal prison in Dublin, California, is too costly for in-person visits.

Twenty-two years into Bell’s prison sentence, Josephine Ledesma, who had also been sentenced to life in prison, pulled her aside. “She told me that it hit her suddenly, as if God himself was instructing, to tell me to file my paperwork and do it now,” Bell told Truthout. Ledesma, who later received clemency, connected Bell with Jason Hernandez, a former clemency recipient who continues to advocate for those serving life sentences for drug convictions with Crack Open the Door. With his help, and the encouragement of women she’d served time with, Bell sent in her application for clemency on April 22 and remains hopeful. “Any kind of commutation would be a relief for me and my family,” she said.

“I Hope That I Will Be One of the People on President Obama’s Bucket List”

Some of the thousands still fervently hoping for clemency do not fit the criteria for support from Clemency Project 2014, the group of lawyers and advocates that is providing free support to many clemency applicants. Mackese Walker Speight, whose story was previously reported on in Truthout, is one of those thousands. Barbara Turner, also serving a life sentence in Aliceville, Alabama, is another.

In 2001, Turner was the manager of a military recreation hall in Waynesville, Missouri. That December, she and her boyfriend, who worked as a delivery driver, decided to rob the club and recruited two other men to help. Turner wasn’t present at the robbery; she later learned that the three had shot and killed a man. Because the robbery and shooting had taken place in a military institution, it became a federal case.

The FBI investigated for a year before arresting Turner on charges of felony murder, armed robbery, unlawful use of a firearm and conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States. Turner was taken to the county jail, where she was strip-searched, handcuffed and then brought to a car where a federal agent and sheriff’s deputy waited to drive her to the federal prison in Springfield.

“I remember that drive so clearly no matter how many years pass by,” Turner told Truthout. She said that, as soon as they began driving, the federal agent began berating her. “Told me I looked like ‘shit’ and went into a dialog of pure sarcasm and insults.” Those insults included racist comments about both Turner’s Amerasian background and her family. “Your son won’t be shit because of you,” she recalled the agent saying. Those words pushed Turner over the edge. “It hurt beyond wanting to live. And I hated him for dishing it to me,” she recalled. She lunged over the car’s front seat, grabbed the steering wheel and tried to drive the vehicle into the truck in front of them. The car crashed under the truck; no one was killed. Federal authorities added attempted murder to the charges against her.

Prosecutors initially offered to drop the robbery charges and the use of weapon and conspiracy charges if Turner pled guilty to murder and attempted murder, each of which carried a 40-year sentence. If she had accepted the plea, Turner would have been sentenced to 80 years behind bars, a sentence that she rejected as a life sentence. Instead, she took her chances at trial, where the jury convicted her and her codefendants of all charges. Had she only been convicted of robbery and conspiracy, she would have been sentenced to 15 and five years respectively. The murder conviction, however, brought a life sentence.

Reflecting on that night, Turner said, “I was wrong. I hate myself that I didn’t say this was a bad idea from the jump.” At the same time, she still hopes for compassion. “I don’t have excuses. I’ve made bad choices. I do what I can to grow from them and I’m so remorseful for the people who have lost from my poor choices, but truthfully … I’m not guilty of killing anybody or ever holding (or even knowing about) a weapon — which is what keeps me in prison for this ‘Life’ and the next.”

Turner was stunned by the election results. “My first thought was, ‘I’ll never get out of prison,'” she recalled. But after her initial panic, her faith buoyed her hopes and spirits. “I hope that I will be one of the people on President Obama’s bucket list to grant a commutation to,” she said.

“Nobody Incarcerated Has Anything Coming for the Next Four Years”

At the federal women’s jail in Brooklyn, Michelle West didn’t stay up for the election results. When she awoke at 5:30 the next morning, she saw that Trump had won. “I thought about a commercial that President Obama did in support of Hillary Clinton where he mentions mass incarceration being on the ballot if she was elected,” she told Truthout. “My thoughts were: Mass incarceration is no longer on the ballot and nobody incarcerated has anything coming for the next four years.”

West is serving two life sentences for drug conspiracy and abetting a drug-related murder and an additional 50 years for making false statements to an FDIC-insured financial institution and money laundering. As reported previously, West has always insisted that she had nothing to do with the drug conspiracy or the murder; the man who committed the murder testified against her in exchange for full immunity.

Three days before Christmas, she was convicted. “A jury took only six hours to decide my fate, so they could go home and prepare to celebrate the holiday with their families,” she told Truthout. For West, their decision meant her first Christmas away from her 10-year-old daughter Miquelle. “I kept thinking about my daughter spending her first Christmas without me because while I was in a place that felt like hell on earth, her happiness was all that really mattered to me. I sent her a Moschino jacket that I had [seen] while I was out for a Christmas gift. I was wondering if her face would light up when she opened her gift from me.”

Miquelle, now a celebrity stylist, still remembers that long-ago Christmas eve. She recalls sitting on her cousin’s top bunk and saying, “I don’t want anything for Christmas. I just want my mom.” Her cousin climbed up the bunkbed and wrapped her arms around Miquelle; the girls slept like that all night. But the next morning, her mother was still missing. “I wasn’t interested in anything under that tree unless my mom was there to celebrate with me,” she told Truthout. It’s a sentiment she’s carried through countless holidays.

With Obama nearing his last day in office, Miquelle feels the urgency more than ever. “I feel like even when I’m sleeping, I can hear the clock ticking,” said Miquelle. She struggles not to lose hope, waking up every morning at four to pray, not only for her mother, but also for others waiting for presidential compassion. Miquelle is part of the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women; many council members spent years imprisoned with her mother and remember Miquelle from the visiting room. She draws hope from their support as well. “Some of these people have never laid eyes on my mom, but they’ll have on a #FreeMichelleWest shirt,” she reflected. “These are complete strangers who are saying, ‘We’re going to fight for Michelle West.'”

West is not giving up either. “There are a lot of people out there physically standing in front of the White House holding candlelight vigils in support of my release and others’,” she said. “My hope is alive and well. I will not give up hope that President Obama will grant me a second chance.”