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As Obama’s Presidency Winds Down, Mothers in Federal Prison Hope for Compassion

For many federal prisoners, including hundreds of mothers, executive clemency is their only chance to rejoin their families.

President Obama will theoretically be granting clemency to hundreds more prisoners before his term is over. But many in federal prisons do not fit the criteria of his Clemency Project, including more than 600 women. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

The White House announced on May 5 that President Obama granted clemency to 58 people in federal prisons, bringing the total number of clemencies granted under his adminsitration to 306. But thousands in federal prisons are still fervently hoping for presidential compassion. For many, including hundreds of mothers, executive clemency is their only chance to rejoin their families earlier. Mackese Walker Speight and Melissa Trigg are two mothers who have been separated from their families for the past 10 years. Both hope that, before leaving office, Obama will allow them to reunite with their children, parents and other family members earlier.

On August 1, 2006, when 28-year-old Mackese Walker Speight picked her 5- and 7-year-old daughters up from day care, she had no idea that it would be the last time she would ever do so.

That evening, police officers and federal agents showed up at the home she shared with her parents. “[They] came to my room and slung me to the floor with a gun and red dot aimed at me,” Speight stated in an email to Truthout. Her daughters watched federal marshals handcuff their mother and march her out the door.

Five nights earlier, Speight had picked up her 18-year-old cousin Keundre Johnson. “Anytime any of my cousins asked me to take them anywhere or do something for them, I was there for them,” she explained.

That evening, the cousins drove to a Subway store. She thought they were going to get food and remained in the car while Johnson entered the store. But that wasn’t Johnson’s intention at all. According to court documents, Johnson brandished a firearm and ordered everyone to stay still before demanding money from the cashier. He grabbed the cash drawer and left the store.

“He came back to my car with the till in his hand and sat down in my car and put it in his lap,” Speight recalled. She said that she was initially scared, but when she discovered that Johnson’s firearm was a BB gun, she calmed down. They continued driving around and, when they became hungry, pulled into a Ramada Inn where Speight ordered pizza, giving a fake name and room number. When the delivery person arrived at the hotel, Johnson once again brandished his BB gun. He took the man’s money, ordered him into the passenger seat of his own car, then drove to a nearby parking lot where he forced the man onto the ground and threatened to “put a 40 in his ass.”

“I did nothing to stop it because I didn’t think I could,” Speight said.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m just a little kid. I’m going to be 25 when she gets out.’ That’s when it hit me — she’s not going to be there.”

Nonetheless, she went out with her cousin the following nights. “I thought that if I took him where he needed/wanted to go that I would be able to protect him,” wrote Speight, now in her 10th year in prison. “It made perfect sense to me at the time, but looking back I see how stupid I was and frightened at the same time.” Over the next two nights, Johnson robbed another Subway franchise and a pizzeria, this time using a real gun. He also became more violent, hitting a cashier with his gun when the man was slow to comply, and, as they drove away, firing at a man who was simply looking in their direction.

On July 31, Speight was driving with Johnson and a 17-year-old friend when they spotted a woman in her car. Johnson approached her, pulled his gun and forced her into the passenger seat. He drove toward a nearby ATM, intending to force the woman to withdraw money for him, but she tried to jump out of the car. He shot her in the back, then left her on the side of the road. She flagged down a passing motorist, who called police.

That same night, the three carjacked and drove another woman to an ATM where they forced her to withdraw money. They attempted to do the same with a third woman, who escaped. But, according to police reports, as the woman drove away, Speight fired at her car. (Speight claims that she never fired at the woman or her car.)

The next day, acting on a tip, police questioned Johnson, who confessed to all six robberies and implicated Speight and his friends. In court, Speight’s attorney advised her to plead guilty. She did, but did not understand that she was entering a blind plea, meaning that she pled guilty without knowing the penalty. The judge sentenced her to 68 years in prison.

Speight’s daughters are now teenagers. She does her best to parent them through prison visits, phone calls and CorrLinks, the federal prison’s stripped-down version of email. With a 68-year sentence, both girls will be in their 70s if their mother serves her entire sentence. But Speight is hoping that, before he leaves office, President Obama will allow her to rejoin her family much sooner.

Presidents have always had the power to grant clemency to people in federal prisons. Clemency can take two forms — a pardon, which expunges the conviction altogether, or a commutation, which lessens the length of the sentence. Some, like George H.W. Bush, who granted 74 pardons and three commutations to the nearly 1,500 people who applied, have used that power sparingly. Others, like Lyndon B. Johnson, who granted 960 pardons and 226 commutations out of 4,537 applications, have been more liberal with their compassion.

Since entering office in 2008, Obama has commuted the sentences of 306 federal prisoners. Most have been men. Most were convicted of drug offenses. In 2014, following a call by former Deputy Attorney General James Cole in January 2014 asking the private bar to step up an volunteer to assist prisoners seeking legal assistance to seek clemency from the administration, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and other organizations came together to form Clemency Project 2014. The project prioritizes clemency applications from federal prisoners who would have received shorter sentences if they had been sentenced under today’s sentencing guidelines, which require less prison time than those of previous years. To qualify, a person must have served at least 10 years for a nonviolent conviction and have no history of violence prior to or during their incarceration. Those who meet these criteria are eligible for pro bono legal representation. Those who do not fit the criteria can still apply for clemency under the historic standards, but are not eligible for pro bono legal assistance.

Obama will theoretically be granting clemency to hundreds more prisoners before his term is over. Thus far, he has focused almost entirely on people imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. But many in federal prisons do not fit the criteria of his Clemency Project, including more than 600 women. No one knows exactly how many, like Speight, were convicted for going along with the actions of the men in their lives, but anecdotal evidence from women imprisoned across the country suggests that the proportion is high.

In the 1980s, Congress eliminated parole for federal prisoners. For many, clemency is their only chance to rejoin their families earlier. For those sentenced to life in prison, clemency is their only hope at all. While the rest of the country watches the candidates jockeying to be the next president, thousands in federal prison keep their eye on the countdown until Obama leaves office, and with him, their hopes for presidential compassion. Will Speight — and other mothers in prison — have a chance at rejoining their families earlier?

Parenting From Prison: “We Went From Playing Candyland … to Talking About the Trucks He Owns”

Melissa Trigg’s favorite Mother’s Day was the year her son Bradley was 5. With his father’s help, Bradley brought his mother breakfast in bed accompanied by a drawing of him holding her hand. Later, the family went to her favorite restaurant. “We ate crawfish, which my son thought was fun,” Trigg recalled. “Of course, I had to peel them for him because he was scared to touch the pincers.”

Three years later, in 2005, Mother’s Day was very different. Trigg had been arrested, but her family did not tell Bradley. The 8-year-old repeatedly called his mother’s cell phone; finally, his father and grandparents told him to write her a letter. Instead of breakfast in bed, Trigg received a note written in crayon. “Mommy, I keep calling you and you don’t answer your phone, do you not love me? Happy Mothers Day … Love, Bradley.”

“I cried my eyes out,” Trigg recalled. “That was when I realized I had made a huge mistake.” By then, it was too late.

“I will forever be remorseful for what happened to the victim. If given a second chance, I can prove it better than I can say it.”

Trigg had been introduced to methamphetamine by Bradley’s father shortly after the boy was born. Four years later, she and her husband separated. Trigg moved to Missouri, and began dating another man. He too used meth and was impressed by the quality of Trigg’s stash, asking her to obtain some for him and his friends. The couple soon began selling meth. Four years later, Trigg’s boyfriend asked her to deliver a gun to her friend’s house. Unbeknownst to her, he had been working as a confidential informant; she walked into a sting operation. Trigg was arrested and charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and possession of a firearm during a drug crime. She spent 25 days behind bars before being released to her mother on a $10,000 bond.

Trigg took the advice of her attorney, who told her to plead guilty and “get on with my time.”

Bradley, who will turn 20 in August, doesn’t remember much from those early years. What he does remember is being sick the night before his mother’s sentencing. The family had checked into a Kansas City hotel that day, gone swimming and spent what was to be their last day together. That night, Bradley recalled, “I got sick to my stomach. I was throwing up everywhere. I was up all night.”

The next day he learned how long his mother would be gone — a judge sentenced Trigg to 180 months — a 10-year mandatory sentence for the conspiracy charge plus a five-year mandatory sentence for possession of a gun during a drug trafficking crime.

Sixty days later, Trigg’s parents drove her from their home in Louisiana to the Federal Correctional Institution in Bryan, Texas. Bradley spent the 2.5-hour drive in the pickup’s back seat with his head in his mother’s lap. He then watched her walk into the prison. “That’s what killed me the most,” he told Truthout. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m just a little kid. I’m going to be 25 when she gets out.’ That’s when it hit me — she’s not going to be there.”

During her first Mother’s Day in prison, Trigg’s mother brought Bradley to visit. They played together and ate junk food from the prison vending machines. “But, the last 30 minutes before it’s time to go, my son would get really quiet and sad knowing he had to leave me behind,” Trigg recalled. “You could see the sadness in his eyes. All I could think was, ‘Oh boy, we have another 15 years of this to go through.'”

Compared to Speight or other mothers convicted under federal drug laws, Trigg might be considered lucky. She is not serving a life sentence or a double life sentence. Even if she is forced to finish her entire prison sentence, she will be able to rejoin her son and family after 15 years. But of course, having a parent in prison, even if she will eventually be released, still leaves a huge void in a child’s life.

Bradley recalls that, with his father either working or caring for his own parents, no one came to parent-teacher conferences. He went on class field trips with other children’s parents, but never his own. His mother missed the first time that Bradley, who grew up in the landlocked Midwest, ever saw the ocean and the first time he was tall enough to ride a roller coaster.

Trigg, too, has a list of what she’s missed during those years. “It was hard to tutor him in his homework over the phone,” she recalled. “I wasn’t there to see his first football game he played in, or his graduation.” She has watched her son grow through prison visits. “We went from playing Candyland to now he talks to me about the trucks he owns.”

At first, Bradley saw his mother nearly every month. Those visits became less frequent as she was transferred to more distant prisons. Now, although she is at the federal prison camp in Greenville, Illinois, which he calls “the closest she’s ever been,” Bradley’s work schedule only allows him to make the four-hour drive every three to four months. He last saw her on her birthday weekend in March; he plans to visit again on Mother’s Day.

Trigg filed for clemency with Clemency Project 2014. Since then, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organization that works to reform mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes, picked up her case and, in July 2015, filed the entire clemency package with the attorney. Trigg is still waiting for a response, but, she noted, “no news is good news because there are many others who have gotten rejection letters, so mine is still somewhere in the process.”

“I Just Really Want My Mom Home”

Speight too has applied for clemency and is desperately hoping to rejoin her daughters and family before her 68-year sentence is over. Her youngest daughter “Amiyah” was 5 when her mother was arrested. “I don’t remember anything except visiting her in jail,” the 14-year-old told Truthout. Amiyah has no memories of the time before her mother’s arrest. Her first memory is of the jail’s yellow visiting room with glass screens; there, she sat on a black stool to talk to her mother. “I don’t really remember what we were talking about,” she said. “I told her I loved her and then passed the phone to someone else.”

Amiyah’s sister “Ava” remembers her mother more clearly and can articulate the damage wrought by her absence. “Since she’s been gone, I’ve been going through a lot of depression,” the 17-year-old told Truthout. She had been an honors student, but, after the arrest, had trouble concentrating on her schoolwork. Her grandfather helped her grapple with math. But he died suddenly the following year and, in her compounded grief, her concentration — and grades — slipped even further. Eventually, they dropped so far that she was sent to summer school. “I guess I can cope with my grandfather’s death, but with your mother being gone,” said Ava, falling silent, then sighing, “it is hard.”

Amiyah doesn’t remember a birthday when her mother wasn’t behind bars. But every birthday, she wishes her mother were with her. She spent her 14th birthday in the prison visiting room at the Federal Correctional Institution at Aliceville, Alabama. She was glad to spend the day with her mother, she said, but “I don’t want it to be for the birthday. I want it to be forever.” As she described all the memories that she doesn’t have, Amiyah began to cry. “I just really want my mom home,” she said, sobbing.

Speight’s mother, Faye B. Walker, 65, also hopes that Obama will allow her daughter to come home early. Since the death of her husband on Mother’s Day 2007, she has cared for the girls alone. In December 2015, the retired schoolteacher had heart surgery. “I was so worried about these babies here,” she told Truthout. “If anything had happened to me, I just didn’t know what would happen to the girls.”

“She Told Us Not to Stop Fighting”

In December 2015, Obama granted clemency to 95 federal prisoners, including four whose convictions had nothing to do with drugs. Among them was 52-year-old Carolyn Yvonne Johnson-Butler, who was sentenced to 48 years for armed bank robbery in 1992. She had already been turned down twice for clemency, but she didn’t allow that to deter her from applying again.

“I’m always saying to my kids, ‘This could be the year I come home,'” she told Truthout. One week before Christmas, she woke up thinking, “‘What do I want for my first meal out?’ And I thought, ‘ribs.'” Hours later, she learned that her third clemency application had been granted and began planning for those ribs. She encourages other women not only to apply for clemency, but to “start planning for it, visualizing it, smelling it.”

She has since left the federal prison in Aliceville, Alabama, where Speight and many others still hope for presidential mercy. She has reunited with her adult children, who were ages 8, 6, 4 and 3 when she was incarcerated. Now living with her youngest daughter, she, her children and her three grandchildren are getting to know each other beyond the board games and bad food in various prison visiting rooms.

“Knowing that Ms. Carolyn received clemency made me feel great about my application,” said Speight, who considers the older woman both a mentor and a friend. “It makes me feel that there is hope for me.”

Johnson-Butler encouraged Speight and others to fill out a full clemency application rather than wait for Clemency Project 2014 to approve or deny their petitions. “She said time was running out and to do it whether we were denied or not,” Speight said. “She told us not to stop fighting.” Speight took her advice to heart and filled out the application on her own. Now, she and her family are hoping for compassion.

“I will forever be remorseful for what happened to the victim,” Speight reflected. “I was stupid, but I am not anymore. If given a second chance, I can prove it better than I can say it.”

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