After 23 years and five months behind bars, Phyllis Hardy was wheeled off a plane in North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham airport and into the arms of her family. “I felt ecstatic,” she told Truthout. “I hadn’t seen them since I left Danbury [over a year earlier].” Among those welcoming her home were her two sons, her husband, an old family friend, her daughter-in-law and a 9-year-old granddaughter whom she had last seen when she was 18 months old. The family drove to Red Lobster where Hardy had her first out-of-prison meal with even more family members. “We all ate and laughed and talked and hugged and kissed.”
As reported previously, Phyllis Hardy, known as “Grandma” to the women around her, was sentenced to 366 months (or 30.5 years) in federal prison for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine and money laundering. She entered prison in November 1991.
Her youngest son, Yuma Hardy, still remembers the day his mother was taken away. “I was in school,” he told Truthout. “Someone told me that the police were at my house, so I left school and came home.” By the time Yuma arrived, his mother was gone. His brother Greg was the one to break the news to him. While they had known that their father, who was separated from Hardy and living in a different state at the time, had been arrested, neither had thought this would affect their mother. “I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that it was going to have anything to do with her,” Yuma Hardy explained. “It was a total shock.”
Nearly 58 percent of the 14,169 women in federal prisons are serving sentences for drug offenses.
Hardy was granted compassionate release under the new guidelines that allow people ages 65 and over who have served at least 10 years or 75 percent of their sentence to apply. The time away has had a lasting impact on both of her sons. “My mother has been taken from me for 23 years,” her elder son Greg Walker told Truthout. “I was 23 when she was taken away. My brother was still in high school. She made me promise to make sure he finished high school. I honored that.” But it hasn’t been easy, he acknowledged. “My mother was incarcerated, but so were we. We were basically incarcerated too.”
Bureau of Justice Statistics, people with drug convictions comprised 16 percent (or 210,200 people) of the total state prison population in 2012. Twenty-five percent (or 21,900) of women in state prisons were incarcerated for drug offenses. In 2013, more than half of people in federal prisons (or 98,200 people) were convicted of drug offenses. Nearly 58 percent of the 14,169 women in federal prisons are serving sentences for drug offenses. Each person costs $29,000 to incarcerate per year. If they are older or have medical concerns, the cost increases. In April 2014, the Obama administration announced it would review the sentences of federal drug war prisoners for possible commutation, a process that became known as the Clemency Project 2014. On March 31, 2015, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 people convicted of drug charges, bringing the total number of presidential commutations to 43 under his presidency. However, criteria for clemency is limited to people who have served at least 10 years in federal prison for a nonviolent drug crime that, if convicted under recent sentencing guidelines, would have incurred a substantially shorter sentence, have had no significant prior convictions and have demonstrated good conduct while in prison.Phyllis Hardy’s story is only one example of the devastating impact of the war on drugs. According to the
Cut Off From Clemency
Caryn Seals is one of many people in federal prisons not eligible for clemency. In January 2011, Seals was a new mother working at a bank and living with her mother in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “It was a Monday and the last snowy day of that winter,” her mother, Dorthea Seals Tyson Alexander, told Truthout. She remembers a knock on their front door and a voice announcing, “We’re here for Caryn Seals.” Alexander looked out her window and saw the house surrounded by federal marshals. “They were at the front door, the back door, the side door,” she said. Seals was in the bedroom with her 4-week-old baby when the marshals arrested her. In an indictment that included 12 other people, Seals was accused of renting cars and transporting others who were transporting crack cocaine. Seals refused to cooperate with the prosecutors’ office and give evidence against her friends. She was sentenced to 151 months. One of the women indicted did cooperate and had her charges dropped; the other woman also cooperated and received 48 months. The others received sentences ranging from five to 11 years.
Alexander has raised her granddaughter since her daughter’s arrest. The girl is now 4 years old and, although she regularly talks with her mother by phone and visits her twice a year, she “can’t understand why her mother can’t be home.” Alexander, now 54 and suffering from heart problems, cannot often visit her daughter, currently incarcerated in Hazelton, West Virginia. She also lacks transportation, in part because she is unable to afford even a used car. “It wasn’t a priority,” she explained. “I have to take care of my daughter and raise my granddaughter.”
“We’ve got a lot of older people who will never be justice-involved again. They don’t need to be there!”
But, because Seals has only recently started her sentence, she is ineligible to apply for clemency, which requires her to have served 10 years of her sentence. She is far from the only one who won’t be able to benefit – or even apply – for clemency. Andrea James, cofounder and director of Families for Justice as Healing, has been fighting for the release of all people incarcerated by the war on drugs. She organized FreeHer, a rally in Washington, DC, in June 2014, to draw attention to the numbers of women behind bars for drug-related convictions and demand their freedom. She has stayed in touch with women at the federal prison camp at Danbury, Connecticut, where she served her sentence.
James recounted an email she recently received from Sakora Varone. Varone was sentenced in February 2009 to 135 months in prison for conspiracy to possess and distribute crack cocaine and thus does not meet the 10-year criteria for clemency consideration. Varone told James that, of the women she knew at the prison camp, only three met the time criteria. Of those, one has been assigned an attorney, one is disqualified because her case involved violence and one has a motion pending in court. “There’s a lot of women who aren’t eligible because they had a gun or violence was involved,” James noted. Both she and Hardy point to Sharon White, who has been imprisoned for more than 14 years and has undergone a double mastectomy while in prison. But, because she had a gun in her closet, she is not eligible for clemency consideration. Others have difficulty understanding and navigating the clemency process. “They’ve been told by the prison that no one was going to get it or they don’t understand the criteria,” she told Truthout. “A lot of women just gave up on it.”
As reported previously in Truthout, Anthony Saunders was sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana in 2004. It was his first arrest. After his conviction, his attorney was disbarred. In 2010, he filed an appeal based on ineffective counsel. He has yet to receive an answer. In January 2015, he filed for a two-point sentence reduction, popularly known as a “minus two.” He has yet to hear from the courts on either motion. However, because of these pending appeals, his mother told Truthout, he has been told that he is ineligible to apply for clemency.
In addition, while the new guidelines for compassionate release allowed Hardy to be released seven years earlier, James pointed out that they still do not adequately address the needs of the growing numbers of aging and sick people in the federal system. “We’ve got a lot of older people who will never be justice-involved again,” she said. “But they’re required to wait for 75 percent of their sentences. These are people who are aging and sick. They don’t need to be there!” Instead, she believes that people who are classified as low security and/or have less than 10 years on their sentence should be allowed to go home. “You can’t even be in a federal camp unless you have under 10 years [left on your sentence]! By the time Grandma got into the camp [at Danbury], they should have sent her home!”
“The War on Drugs Destroyed the Black Community – We Are Still Picking Up the Pieces”
In 2002, Arlinda John, better known to her friends as “Tray,” had graduated with a bachelor’s degree and was looking forward to starting law school. She was raising eight children – her 6-year-old son as well as seven nieces and nephews, all under the age of 12. But her law school dreams and her family were shattered when she was indicted for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. John had sold undercover officers 9.7 grams of crack cocaine over a four-month period. Her co-defendant, who had been arrested and incarcerated before, informed on her and 10 other people. John, who had never been arrested before, was sentenced to 151 months (12.5 years). She was shuttled from federal prison to federal prison during her incarceration – from Greenville, Illinois, two hours from her mother in Chicago, to West Virginia to Waseca, Minnesota, to Danbury, where she met Phyllis Hardy and Andrea James.
“While I was incarcerated, I became a very good jailhouse lawyer,” she told Truthout. She assisted mothers with their custody cases, explaining to them that, although they were in prison, they still retained some rights. She tutored women. She worked on appeals – both her own and other women’s. “I won numerous custody cases and had terminations put on hold until the mom could be released and show that she could be a good mother,” she recounted. She also won several cases at the appellate level, including an appeal on the grounds of ineffective counsel and two sentence reductions on drug cases.
“The war on drugs destroyed the Black community. The war on drugs destroyed families.”
Helping to work on cases demonstrated the racial division in federal sentencing. She recounted that she and another woman were sentenced the same week by the same judge. The other woman had 15,000 grams of methamphetamine and a gun in her pocket when she was arrested. She was sentenced to 121 months; John, for her 9.7 grams of crack cocaine and no gun, received 151 months. The difference? That woman was White; John is Black. In addition, she noted that drug charges drew heftier sentences than other charges, including armed robbery. “I always tell people, ‘I should have robbed a bank,'” she said. “I know people who have robbed banks that only did four or five years. I remember four Black girls who robbed five or six banks and got sentences of less than 10 years each.” One of John’s successful appeals enabled a woman convicted of bank robbery to be released three years earlier.
“The war on drugs destroyed the Black community. The war on drugs destroyed families. We are still picking up the pieces,” she said. “But the federal system is still wreaking havoc. Even with all these new laws, it is still wreaking havoc.” She points to the case of Tynice Hall, whom she adopted as a “daughter” while in prison. The mother of a 3-year-old and the girlfriend of a drug dealer who only knew that he paid her bills, Hall had no useful information to offer prosecutors in exchange for a lesser charge. She was sentenced to 35 years. Her son was sent to Texas to live with his grandmother, who could not afford to travel to prisons in West Virginia, Minnesota or Connecticut.
When John arrived at the federal prison camp at Danbury, she became Hardy’s pinochle partner. She also began to help with her legal paperwork, including filing Hardy’s first clemency application. Working on Hardy’s case was how she met Andrea James. “I had some questions and I found out she was a real lawyer,” John recalled.” I wanted to know about the law on the East Coast. I’d come running out of the law library, ask her a question, then run back in [and do more research].”
In 2007, John herself received a sentence reduction, knocking her sentence down to 10 years (120 months). She served eight years, seven months and 19 days before being released on federal probation on August 2, 2011. But the prison’s reach extends beyond its walls. In October 2014, John’s mother in Chicago suffered a stroke. Four months later, in February 2015, John went to Chicago to check on her. The visit caused her to miss a court-ordered counseling appointment, triggering a visit from her probation officer. “He did a visual inspection and found a [marijuana] roach in the garage,” she explained. John was charged with possession of a controlled substance and, although she had informed him about her visit to Chicago, leaving the district without permission. On March 26, 2015, she was sentenced to four months in prison for the violation at a cost of nearly $10,000. “We’re all resigned,” she told Truthout weeks before she was scheduled to surrender herself, “but we’re relieved that it’ll soon be over.”
“I Will Not Let Them Down”
Phyllis Hardy spent her first week out of prison reconnecting with family, basking in their love and eating the mountains of food they cook for her. Women whom she spent time with in Danbury visited and took her shopping or out to lunch. “I ate healthy except for one fried chicken wing,” said Hardy, who had not had fried chicken during her entire incarceration. “There’s just something about North Carolina chicken that makes it taste so good.”
But she also doesn’t forget the women that she left behind – in Danbury, Carswell and other prisons. “I didn’t just make it [through my sentence] by myself. They helped me be strong. The respect they gave me, the love they still give me, love is a very important thing,” she said. “I can’t just walk away and not think of the women. I explained to my probation officer that I will be trying to help the women I left behind and helping Andrea in her endeavors to change the laws. I will not let them down.”