I've Served 15 Years of My Life Sentence for a Drug Crime -- Can I Go Home Now?
Late last month, US attorney general Eric Holder announced that the Obama administration would release new guidelines for clemency petitions, opening up the possibility that thousands of people serving long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses might be released. The guidelines require that applicants have served at least 10 years on a charge that would be prosecuted differently today – a standard which mostly applies to drug charges – and that they have a good prison record, a limited prior arrest record and no ties to organized crime. The author of this op-ed has served 14 years and nine months of her sentence and hopes that she might qualify for clemency.
When I was asked to write my bio for this story, I wrote, "Sharanda Jones is a loving, caring mother with a open heart and mind."
When I was asked to write the story itself, I wrote, "I am a first time non-violent offender serving a life sentence for one count of conspiracy."
There is no reduction, no good behavior, that will ever reduce my sentence and allow me to return to society. I know that, unless President Obama (or one of his successors) commutes my sentence, I will die in prison. A life sentence in the federal system is just a very slow death.
I was sentenced in 1999 for a crack cocaine charge. I write this not to boast or brag about the bad decisions I made in my past. I write this because I think I deserve a second chance.
I grew up in a very small town – Terrell, Texas – with four other siblings. My mom was paralyzed in an automobile accident when I was little, so I was raised by my grandmother. I had to assist my grandmother with all my mother's medical needs from a very young age. Life was loving but hard, and we had very little money.
After high school, I started hanging out and, blinded by society and worldly idols, I started trafficking in drugs as an easy way to help my mom pay bills and get the extra things I wanted. I never intentionally or knowingly meant to harm anyone – like a lot of people, I was ignorant of the harm drugs can inflict on users, their families and our communities.
I took my case to trial for what seemed like good reasons, but, not long after I took the stand in my own defense, I realized that I had put myself in a lose-lose situation. I still cannot believe that, in the United States of America, we sentence first-time non-violent offenders to life, and death, in prison.
Walking through the prison doors was very difficult. I left behind a lonely little girl – who is now 23 years old – who needed me. I spent the first four months of my life sentence in a county jail, where the beds were like hard rocks, the food hardly edible, the drinks always room temperature, and I was only really allowed one secret: I knew there was not one person in my cell block dealing with more time than me.
When I was transferred to federal prison in December 1999, I was scared because you always have the TV version of prison in the back of your head. But in reality, the hardest thing to come to terms with is right in front of you: the loss of control. You don't have choice of who you can live with or where you live, what you eat or when, or even when your days start or end. I no longer have control over anything.
Prison has been a blessing to me in some ways. I have spent much of my time reading, which became my connection to God. I learned that I can change, and that I can adjust to many different situations. This life to which I've been sentenced has made me a stronger and more humble person, and I strive and work hard daily for change and a new life.
That journey, however, has not been easy for me. I've lost everything and almost everyone, though I've found and hold onto my faith. I know that I should pay for the wrongs I committed, but dying in prison for what I did just doesn't feel right.
Prison is only one chapter in my life. I do not believe this is my end.