All images courtesy of Last Gasp
A few weeks ago, I found a book at a thrift store called The Tallahassee Project. It's a collection of photos of nonviolent female federal inmates who were incarcerated as part of the war on drugs. Each photo is accompanied by a letter from the woman depicted, explaining her situation.
The majority of the women shown in the book were charged with "conspiracy" based on the statements of informants who spoke to authorities in exchange for reduced sentences. Often, this conspiracy amounted to little more than being the girlfriend, wife, or mother of a drug dealer.
The book was compiled in April 2001 by a guy named John Beresford from an organization called the Committee on Unjust Sentencing. I googled John to see if there was any update on how the women in the book were doing. I guess there's a part of me that likes to believe that once a horrible injustice has been brought to the attention of the public, somebody, somehow, will do something to fix it.
That's not the case here. Unfortunately, John died in 2007, and took his Committee on Unjust Sentencing with him. I checked to see if the women from the book were still in prison, and many of them still are—rotting in prison since before 9/11 because they got messed up with drugs.
Below are some of the women who haven't been released, along with the letter they wrote to John 12 years ago.
Alice Jones (Inmate ID Number: 29560-004)
Sentenced to 24 years for conspiracy, drug conviction
Estimated release date: 04-24-2015
"I am a mother of two, a 19-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son. For 25 years I owned and operated my own property rental business, which I began from the ground up. In 1992, I was arrested and subsequently convicted for a drug conspiracy of which I had no part. The government attempted to seize my home and business. A thorough investigation of my business and tax records proved my business to be legitimate. No drugs were even seized from me or my home. My criminal record was based entirely upon people with multiple arrests and lengthy police records, who were attempting to avoid further convictions.
I did not ever imagine such an atrocious nightmare could ever occur in the United States. If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone."
Jo Ann Winter (Inmate ID Number 29397-077)
Sentenced to 23 years for conspiracy
Estimated release date: 05-19-2017
"There is a great deal of injustice in the judicial system in the US. It is a mistake to take a conspiracy case to trial. An individual becomes a number in the game of justice played by judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and co-conspirators.
For four months, beginning in September 1992, I was temporarily employed by three men who formed a partnership and opened a new business that dealt with the manufacture and repair of car hauler trailers. I was the secretary, and my duties included obtaining licenses and permits necessary for doing business and handling receivables and payables that related to said business.
Approximately six months after that brief employment, one of the partners was arrested for a state drug delivery charge. This person was a friend of, and was involved in a relationship with my daughter. That relationship had been on-going for several years… I contacted his friends and associates who raised enough money to post bond and obtain counsel. He was arrested again later that year for failure to comply with a judge's order and again I contacted his friends and associates to request additional funds. During this period of turmoil I gave a pager subscribed in my name to my daughter. I also had a telephone installed in my name for my daughter. The relationship ended, my daughter relocated, but the pager and telephone remained in the possession of the friend. There were numerous subsequent contacts with his friends and associates, then and through the date of his trial for the state charge, which concluded in October 1995.
One cannot imagine my surprise when I was arrested on November 6, 1996, and charged with 'Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute' and 'Distribution of Methamphetamine and Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering.' I had neither drugs nor money in my possession. I was released immediately after my arrest on a personal recognizance bond. I was no threat to society. I did not obstruct justice. I believe in justice. I went to each court appearance. I proceeded to trial with a court appointed lawyer.
At trial an indicted co-conspirator testified that I was present at a location when he was there to conduct a drug deal. This was where I worked. I saw no such transaction. He received money from the federal government and time off his sentence from a previous state case for his testimony.
Another unindicted co-conspirator said that someone made a statement to her about me. It wasn't true. She is free. Another unindicted co-conspirator said that she had never seen me, but she saw my car once or twice. She is free. Two other unindicted co-conspirators gave testimony in the trial. They already had sentences of 85 and 79 months from a related case. One will be free in 14 months.
The jury returned a guilty verdict and I was taken into custody and have remained in custody since May 7, 1997. I was sentenced on July 30, 1997, to 276 months (23 years). Eight of the alleged co-conspirators received sentences that were much less than mine. I don't even know five of these people.
Since being transferred to prison, I have been separated from my family. I am 900 miles from home. At age 51, I am serving a Life sentence.
I no longer believe in justice."
Stephanie George (Inmate ID Number: 04023-017)
Sentenced to life for conspiracy/crack cocaine (Stephanie agreed to hide her boyfriend's cocaine stash.)
Estimated release date: Life
"I am mother of three, ages 11, seven, and six. They are in counseling behind me not being there. I'm first time offender and innocent of crime. Just guilty of association with child's father. I've even had a write up in Rolling Stone Magazine about how wrong my sentencing was."
Patricia Locklear (Inmate ID Number: 15627-056)
Sentenced to 24 years four months for conspiracy drug offense (nonviolent, first-time offender)
Estimated release date: 10-21-2016
"(My husband) and I have two sons, Marty and Mark ages 29 and 21. We lost everything we owned when we were convicted. We were the only two out of the whole conspiracy who received such lengthy sentences because we did not cooperate (turn someone else in) with the government. So they took everything. The bigger dealers snitched and got their sentences reduced, even though they were big time dealers. And they did not lose their possessions like we did. The system is set up so that people who turn in other people, even though they may be big dealers, receive less time than the smaller people. If you do not have someone to inform on, you are the one that will receive these lengthy prison sentences. And will receive more time than people with violent offenses. There was no violence in our case. These drug laws need to be reassessed. It does not make sense to sentence us drug dealers (where there is no violence involved) to more time than murderers, rapist, etc. Please re-evaluate these laws."
Pamela O'Hara Cooper (Inmate ID Number: 08087-021)
Sentenced to 40 years for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, possession with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base, and using a firearm during a trafficking offense.
Estimated release date: 11-19-2013
"My name is Pamela O'Hara Cooper. I was born in Waycross, GA. I was sentenced June 16, 1993. My only son, Benjamin Lashon Cooper, age 27, was also a first-time offender. I have two daughters, Juanita Perkins, age 26, and Alexis Cooper, age 13. When I was arrested, Alexis was 7, and now she will be 14 years old on Jan. 9th. We really don't know each other anymore. I talk to my son every 90 days. Juanita takes care of Alexis because my mother is 73. She can't take care of Alexis any more due to her age. Juanita has two kids of her own and a husband. She got married right after high school when I came to prison. My mother took care of Alexis until 3 months ago. Juanita took her because she said Alexis is the only family she has left. When I saw Alexis after five years at visitation, I didn't know who she was. I walked right past her. She had to call out to me. I've met my grand children once. This prison time has jurt my kids more than me. I missed Juanita's high school graduation, her getting married, and the birth of her two kids. Alexis is 13, the age when she needs me most. My son is growing up in prison.
I have never sold drugs in my life. I got caught with drugs in my care because my boyfriend asked me to do him a favor. He asked me to go to Florida and pick up a package from my cousin. The gun charge is there because when I stepped off the train, the guy who picked me up was driving my car and my gun was in my glove compartment. I have never been to jail in my life until this happened. I've always carried my gun in my glove compartment and the gun was bought legal. It has never been used in my life.
My life has little meaning… because my kids were my life. I have lost so much. What life I have left, with the length of time I have left to serve, my kids and grandchildren will be adults by the time I get out. And I wonder what will be left of my family by then?"
Evelyn Bozon Pappa (Inmate ID Number: 48576-004)
Sentenced to life for conspiracy
Estimated release date: Life
"Mother of 4 children. In my case there was no violence and there was no money or drugs found in my possession. The main heavy duty dealers were never arrested, so I am here doing a Life sentence because the government couldn't arrest those people. My kids are having a hard time because I am not at home with them. How do you explain to a child that their mother is doing a Life sentence for drugs where there was no violence? I would like to be deported back to my country. Why should American taxpayers have to pay the cost of housing me for the rest of my life?"
Elainaise Mervil (Inmate ID Number: 20982-018)
Sentenced to 20 years for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base and cocaine hydrochloride
Estimated release date: 08-07-2014
"I am a Haitian lady who has left 4 minor children behind to do this mandatory sentence. I have no criminal history. I am a first-time non-violent offender. It seems the government is tearing families apart and the children are the ones that are really made to suffer for this "War on Drugs." P.O.W.
I fell into the wrong crowd in Orlando, Florida. I have never had any problems with the law and only am now learning to read and write the English language. I am a native of the beautiful country of Haiti. I love America, but I believe that the judicial system needs some change and review.
Conspiracy is such an all-encompassing category that if no other charge may be brought forth, one is charged with conspiracy and subjected to the 10-year mandatory minimums which increase rapidly in direct proportion to hearsay evidence whether true or not true. It appears that a person who is found in possession of narcotics will receive less time than a person who was not found in possession of anything, since conspiracy seems like the only viable charge. Conspiracy was originally designed to target "king pins" who are usually sheltered by runners, etc. But what has happened instead is that the king pins are the ones who receive the most favorable deals since they have the most to provide to the government for substantial assistance motions as they possess many many contacts. The "little man" who does not know as much suffers since his assistance is not as valuable; hence, falling victim to the harsh treatment under the law by being required to serve a decade-plus in prison.
Many times the information which ends up causing a person to be charged, or having to enter a plea agreement as the consequences would be tremendously worse, is unreliable and "puffed up" in an effort for the informant to receive a better deal. Quite often, the government will tell an informant: "if you give us this, etc., we will give you five years in jail, but if we can say it was 5 kilos instead of 5 grams we'll give you probation." Now, I ask you, which would be the sweeter deal?
Any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated. I went to trial and lost. I received a sentence of 240 months. I had no information to provide the government and was unable to secure a deal so I was subjected to harsh sentencing guidelines.
Being away from my family has been punishment enough. If there was a lesson to be learned, I have learnt it. If one wants to know the true picture of my heart, just picture my baby being ripped from my arms as a two-month old infant. I have never seen her since.
P.S. As I told you, I do not speak English and am just learning. When I was first interviewed, the officer testified I said certain incriminating evidence. At that time, I did not speak, read, or write English. Now you tell me how such an injustice occurred. Once the complaint states The United States of America vs. You, it is a downhill battle."
Theresa Brown (Inmate ID Number: 47478-004)
Sentence to life without parole for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine
Estimated release date: Life
"Yes, I'm incarcerated, but I think that the public should know that I've been convicted of a crime that had no supported evidence (meaning they had no crack cocaine). I've been sentence to life without parole because of co-defendants testimonies to help the government convict me so that they themselves would not receive a harsh penalty as myself. (They are called informants for the Government.) If you would like any information pertaining to my case please let me know. I'm ready to speak out, but I don't know who to contact or how to contact anyone. Thank you for yall support."
Irma Alred (Inmate ID Number: 03436-017)
Sentenced to 30 years, ten months for conspiracy to distribute marijuana
Estimated release date: 09-28-2020
"I was sentenced to 30 years and 10 months in prison to be followed by 10 years supervised release and a $25,000 fine. My charge was conspiracy to distribute marijuana along with my now ex-husband and his brother as well as some other people I didn't know who were with them when they had drug transactions. There was no evidence against me other than hearsay from people who were granted everything from immunity to 30 days home confinement for their testimony. We were all facing the same penalties under the federal sentencing guidelines. I proceeded to trial and was punished further by getting enhancements for a gun my codefendant had (which was also hearsay by the same man who admitted to being a cocaine abuser who would stand out in the pouring rain seeing things from too much drug use) and an enhancement to "king-pin" status.
It's amazing how one can receive so much time behind bars for hearsay by people who stand to gain so much by lying. I just can't believe the government can tell somebody that you're going to jail for 30 years, but if you place blame on this other person, you'll only do 30 days on an electronic home monitoring system which you wear on your ankle. The probation officer advised against the fine because I don't have any money, but the judge assessed $25,000 anyway. Now I have to pay half of my prison wages (which began at 12 cents per hour) to the government.
The government tapped my phones and heard the word "jackets" and told the jury that jackets meant pounds of drugs. I owned a sewing business and jackets meant jackets. To make matters worse, I also owned acres of land and farmed crops and raised cattle. Any time I mentioned a vegetable or a cow, again, they told the jury it was all about drugs…
I've served six years and have to serve another 25 years. By then my children will be grandparents, if I live that long to see it happen."