Michelle West walked her 10-year-old daughter Miquelle to school on May 3, 1993, just as she did every morning. They blew each other kisses just before Miquelle entered the front door. West planned to pick her up after school and supervise her homework, just like on any other school day. But she never made it back. That morning, federal agents arrested West on charges of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, making false statements to a bank, money laundering, and aiding and abetting a drug-related murder. Ultimately, West was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences plus 50 years.
Unlike the nonviolent drug offenders touted by political hopefuls and media pundits, West’s story is more complicated, particularly because of the “aiding and abetting a drug-related murder” conviction. At her trial, the person who committed the murder received full immunity in exchange for testifying against her. In August 2015, after 23 years in prison, West faced another disappointment: Because of the murder conviction, she does not meet the criteria set by President Obama’s much-heralded Clemency Project 2014. Now, instead of being assigned a pro bono attorney, West and her family must raise money for her legal representation.
Michelle West is one of the thousands still imprisoned on federal drug charges who, without the intervention of presidential clemency, will most likely die behind bars. In 2013, 98,200 people (or more than half the federal prison population) were in prison for drug offenses such as trafficking and possession. This does not include charges such as aiding and abetting a drug-related murder. Within the federal prison system, the overall imprisonment rate for Black women, such as West, is more than twice that of white women. Latinas such as Cynthia Valdez Shank, another incarcerated woman who spoke with Truthout, are also imprisoned at a higher rate than their white counterparts.
Following Obama’s announcement of the Clemency Project 2014 (CP2014), more than 35,000 people (or 17 percent of the federal prison population) have applied for clemency. Despite discussions of bipartisan prison reform to reduce the numbers of nonviolent drug offenders crowding the federal prison system, more complicated stories like West’s are often ignored. West is not the only drug war prisoner excluded from CP2014’s criteria. As reported previously in Truthout, CP2014 requires that people have served at least 10 years.
Cynthia Valdez Shank has spent the past seven years in prison and so does not meet the time requirement. Her youngest daughter was 6 weeks old when Shank began serving her sentence. Her other daughters were ages 2 and 4.
“When she received a life sentence, we all received a life sentence. It’s almost like a death in the family.”
Shank’s ordeal began in 1997. She was working as a bartender in Michigan when she met her boyfriend. “He was kind, protective, caring,” she told Truthout. “Everything I ever wanted – he made me feel loved, special.” The couple moved in together four months later. Six months after that, Shank came home from work early and walked in on her boyfriend selling crack. “That night we got into a big fight and he hit me for the first time,” she recalled. “He didn’t just hit me, he beat me up pretty bad.” Her boyfriend began showing up at her job, interrogating her any time she spoke with a customer. Eventually, she quit her job, which, in retrospect, she realized, “was my second mistake because now I was home alone with him all the time.” As Shank’s boyfriend moved up in the drug world, he also began demanding restrictions that shrank her world. “I could not use the phone, or visit my mom or sister for more than 30 minutes before he was calling me to come home,” she said.
However, on the night of May 9, 2002, Shank’s boyfriend was shot through their front door and died. She was held and questioned by police until the following day. “I was covered in his blood and not allowed to leave or even use the restroom,” she recalled. At first, she was reluctant to talk to the police. “I had just been told for so long not to talk to the police,” she said. “I was told that every day for five years. I just kept hearing his voice [saying], ‘We don’t talk to cops.’ I was so scared and in that moment, I couldn’t even think.” Eventually, Shank told them what she knew. She was released and the case against her was dismissed. She rebuilt her life, marrying and starting a family.
Although Shank’s abuser was dead, his actions still affected her life. Five years later, in 2007, the family was woken at 5 am as police arrived with their guns drawn to arrest Shank on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. A judge released her on her own recognizance (meaning that she was trusted to return to court on her own), and she and her husband began searching for attorneys. They also learned that she was pregnant.
Shank decided to go to trial. “I didn’t do anything,” she explained. “Yes, I knew what he was doing, but I had no control over what he did. That was my thinking at the time. I am not guilty of running a drug ring.” The jury and judge thought otherwise. Shank was convicted and, while her daughters played in the hallway outside the courtroom, she was sentenced to 180 months (15 years). “The whole time I was standing up there, all I could hear was them,” she recalled. “Everything else around me fell away, and all I could hear was their sweet little giggles.” It was not until the judge asked her to remove her wedding ring that the magnitude of the sentence hit her. She was taken into custody that day. Today, Shank is one of the 8,218 women (or more than half the female population) in federal prison for a drug offense.
Go to Trial, Lose Your Freedom
Shank is not the only person who believed that the truth would set her free. The same morning that Michelle West was arrested, her younger brother Marcel Mays was also led away in handcuffs. Mays recounts that he was visiting his mother’s home in Detroit when federal agents swarmed the house. “It was like a bunch of ants running to the house, only it was federal agents,” he told Truthout. They arrested him and took him to a federal building, where he saw West and her ex-boyfriend among numerous strangers who had also been rounded up. “They said I sold drugs from ’87 to ’93,” he recounted. “They didn’t even say what kinds of drugs or who or when or anything.” According to Mays, the prosecutor and federal agents continually asked about his sister. “They kept saying, ‘We can indict a ham sandwich,’ and that I wouldn’t serve a day in federal prison if I told them information about my sister.” But Mays insisted that he knew nothing about his sister’s actions. “I couldn’t have testified against her even if I wanted to,” he explained. He was charged separately from his sister – and no co-conspirators were ever named – and eventually convicted of drug conspiracy, mail fraud and a gun charge, and sentenced to 235 months (nearly 17 years).
West also went to trial but is reluctant to discuss specifics by phone or email in light of the revelation that Trulincs, which provides email to federal prisoners, routinely archives messages and hands them to prosecutors. But she insists that she is innocent of the charges and does not regret turning down a plea bargain. “I was not going to commit perjury or place my daughter’s life in jeopardy,” she told Truthout in an email from prison. “I wake up daily with no problem with the reflection I see in the mirror because I am not responsible for what happened to me happening to anyone else.” She also noted that the man who admitted to the murder (which she was eventually convicted of “aiding”) testified against her. According to his testimony, West’s ex-boyfriend and co-defendant had asked him to pick up $250 from West, which he used to rent a limousine to look for his victim. But, West said, he and the other two men were not in a limo that day. He was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.
Like West, Memphis mother Alice Johnson also believed that the truth would set her free. It didn’t. In 1991, Johnson lost the job she had for 10 years. She found a factory job at one-third the pay, nowhere near enough for a single mother with five children. The struggle to pay the bills led to what she now calls “one of the worst decisions of my life.” Her role, she told Truthout, was to pass phone messages. When people came to town, she told them what number to call for drug transactions. But, she insists, “I never made drug deals or sold drugs.”
On the day before Thanksgiving in 1994, Johnson was awakened by a banging on the front door. Her children woke when the family’s dogs began barking. They watched their mother led out in handcuffs. She was charged with conspiracy to possess cocaine, attempted possession of cocaine and money laundering. Johnson went to trial, which she now calls “my next biggest mistake.” Her co-defendants, facing lengthy prison sentences, testified against her. “Most of them had criminal backgrounds and already knew that the more substantive their testimony, the better chance they had of reduced or no sentences.” Johnson was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Today, she is one of the 79,300 Black people imprisoned on federal drug charges.
“It Breaks the Whole Family”
Michelle West’s daughter Miquelle has felt her mother’s absence profoundly. She went through adolescence without even knowing where her mother was. It was not until she was a teenager that she was told about her mother’s imprisonment and taken to visit her at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, 660 miles from the family’s Detroit home.
“When I walked into the visiting room, she started running towards me like she did when she was a little girl,” recalled West. “I felt myself about to cry.” She did not, but Miquelle remembers the tears threatening to spill and telling her mother, “Let’s not cry. Let’s just move forward.” When she graduated high school, she moved to New York City to be closer to her mother, spending weekends taking Metro-North to visit. But, she says, “every time I see my mom in that khaki suit, it hurts.”
Alice Johnson’s incarceration, too, has taken a toll on her entire family. Her three younger children had been living with her until her incarceration. But, with their mother gone, their home was foreclosed and her son, devastated by his mother’s imprisonment, refused to leave the neighborhood, sleeping in his car. “He said he just wanted to stay near the last place his mama was at,” she explained. When he was 17, he asked her how long before she came home. “When I didn’t immediately answer, he dropped his head and wouldn’t look up for a long time. I felt like someone had stabbed me in my heart.” Before her arrest, he had talked about going to college. After, he dropped out of high school. Now he is serving an eight-year sentence in a state prison. “This is a cause of continual pain for me because I know in my heart that I failed him,” Johnson said.
“There are thousands of people sitting behind bars with similar stories. Something has to change.”
The adults in her family have suffered as well. Their family had always been close-knit, explained Johnson’s older brother Julius Boggan. His sister’s arrest came as a surprise, but the family rallied around her, posting bond so that she did not have to spend months in jail before trial. Boggan attended every day of her trial. Her entire family was present the day she was sentenced. “My father was a quiet man, but he was a strong man,” Boggan recalled. “That was the first time I’d ever seen him cry.” Neither parent, he remembered, was ever the same after hearing that their daughter would spend the rest of her life in prison. “When she received a life sentence, we all received a life sentence. It’s almost like a death in the family.”
Even for those who have a release date, the years of separation can still be devastating. Cynthia Valdez Shank spent her first three years imprisoned in Illinois, eight hours from her family in Lansing, Michigan. Her husband brought their daughters to visit every six to eight weeks. Eager to stay connected, she spent every spare moment knitting them hundreds of hats during her first year in prison, until her husband told her, “I think we’re good on hats.”
Then, the prison closed and she was transferred to Florida, 23 hours away. “It fractured my already broken marriage,” she said. Four years into her sentence, her husband filed for divorce. “I never saw it coming,” said Shank, who bears no resentment. “He tried to keep our family together, but in the end it was just too much for him.”
Shank is now imprisoned in Lexington, Kentucky, six hours away from Lansing. Her younger brother Rudy Valdez has taken on the responsibility of bringing the girls to visit her, flying from New York to Michigan, then renting a car to pick them up. The entire family contributes so that the girls can maintain a relationship with their mother, he told Truthout. Even with somewhat regular visits, Valdez sees the impact of her incarceration on her daughters. “There are still questions like, ‘Why can’t she be with us? Does she not want to be with us?’ It’s difficult to find language to explain to them that it’s not that mommy doesn’t want to be with them; it’s that she can’t.” Seeing the impact that incarceration has had on his nieces and the other children in the visiting room, Valdez is currently working on Mommy’s House, a documentary about the effects of incarceration on the families left behind.
Still, sporadic family visits are more than other women receive. Angie Jenkins, a Native American mother from Oregon, did not see her two children for nearly two years after she was sentenced to 30 years for conspiracy to manufacture, possess and distribute methamphetamine. When she and her husband were arrested in Klamath Falls, Oregon, her mother, Nicky Diaz, was already raising her sister’s two sons. With Jenkins’ arrest, Diaz added two more children to her household. “I wasn’t going to let anyone take them,” she told Truthout.
But supporting four children was difficult. Even though Diaz worked full-time at the local health department, she did not earn enough to feed the family and keep her daughters’ house. She was unable to afford the cost of phone calls, let alone traveling the six hours to Dublin, California, where Jenkins was initially incarcerated. She has only been able to visit once in 16 years. “The way the system is now, it breaks the whole family,” she said.
Hoping for Clemency
Alice Johnson is among the more than 35,000 people in federal prison hoping for clemency. She has applied three times. In 2014, after being denied twice, Johnson’s hopes were raised when Deborah Leff was appointed the new US pardon attorney, replacing Ronald Rodgers, under whose tenure white people were four times more likely to be pardoned than people of color. Rodgers also withheld information that would have led to the release of Clarence Aaron, a Black college student serving three life sentences for being present during a drug deal. (Obama commuted Aaron’s sentence after the story hit the headlines, following the release of the PBS documentary Snitch.) “It is because of this new appointment that so many of us feel so hopeful,” Johnson said.
Women’s hopes have also been buoyed by the efforts of Amy Ralston Povah, the founder of CAN-DO (Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders), a nonprofit organization advocating for clemency for federal drug war prisoners, particularly women. But for Povah, the mission is also personal. In 1989, Povah was returning to her home in West Hollywood, California, when she was met by federal authorities. “Guns were shoved in my face. I was flanked on each side and escorted into my house, which was being trashed by half a dozen people, most in plain clothes. I was thrown in a seat and had someone yelling in my face,” she told Truthout. The agents were after Povah’s husband, Sandy Pofahl, a major ecstasy dealer. Povah went to trial, lost and was sentenced to 24 years and four months in prison. In contrast, her husband cooperated fully with the authorities, including informing them about Povah’s minimal involvement at his behest, and was sentenced to six years in a German prison. He served four years and three months, leaving prison in 1993. That year, Povah still had 20 more years to serve.
In 1999, Povah was contacted by a reporter from Glamour. The publicity became pivotal in her bid for clemency. Two senators from her home state of Arkansas took up her cause. People in her hometown rallied to her cause. Of course, it helped that then-President Bill Clinton was also from Arkansas, she reflected. The following year, Povah was called into her case manager’s office where she learned she was going home. “My knees buckled,” Povah recalled. “My hands flapped in the air like a baby bird. Once I got out of the office, I literally screamed ‘Whoo hoo!’ It was impossible to contain my excitement.”
Word travels fast behind bars and women came to wish Povah well. But leaving them behind was hard. “I remembered thinking, ‘Clemency should be available to all nonviolent drug offenders.'” That was the genesis of what became CAN-DO. Since then, Povah has advocated for women’s clemency, as well as those of people serving lengthy or life sentences for marijuana. Some, like Johnson and Jenkins, she knew from inside prison. Others, like West and Shank, are referred by other women. Knowing firsthand the importance of public attention, she publicizes women’s cases, both on CAN-DO’s website and by connecting them with reporters.
Angie Jenkins’ mother, Nicky Diaz, now 75, is more cautious. “I had my hopes up so high,” she recalled when she first learned about Clemency Project 2014. “Then, when I opened the computer and saw her name wasn’t there, I was devastated.” She refuses to raise her hopes again, but she does wish that the president would commute the sentences of her daughter and many other women. “They shouldn’t have gotten that much time.”
Rudy Valdez agrees. “We need to take a good look at these laws,” he said. “Why do we have a 40-year war on drugs that has proven ineffective? Why have we not fixed this?”
His sister, Cynthia Valdez Shank, echoes his call to action. “The truly heartbreaking thing is that I am not alone,” Shank said. “There are thousands of people sitting behind bars with similar stories. Something has to change.”