Drugs

Obama's Non-Violent Drug Clemency Roulette: Some Are Out for Christmas, While Others, Sadly, Are Not Going to Make it Before Trump Takes Over

Meanwhile many other nonviolent prisoners, like 64-year-old Nancy Ferneau, were denied clemency this year.

Photo Credit: Mediaphotos / Shutterstock.com

Danielle Metz was practically a kid when she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole—all of 23 years old. She’d never been in trouble with the law before, but her much-older husband, who she says was abusive, sold cocaine. The feds charged Danielle with conspiracy for her alleged role and she was sent away for life.

Thanks to the president’s clemency initiative, she got her sentence commuted in August, so she’ll be spending her first Christmas home in 23 years.

While the timing can’t exactly be called perfect—Danielle spent more than two decades locked up for a nonviolent drug crime—it was still lucky. Her mom had a stroke when she was incarcerated, and Danielle was petrified her mom would die while she was on the inside. When her mom had another stroke, Danielle was in the room with her, cooking some food. She noticed her mom slurring her speech and doing “everything in slow motion.” She pounded on her brother’s door and the two were able to get her mom to the hospital in time.

Dani was looking forward to her first Christmas at home in more than two decades. Instead, she’ll be spending the holidays with her mom as she recovers from her stroke in rehab. But that’s only fair, since her mom spent her last 23 Christmases visiting Danielle in prison.

“Every Christmas I’ve been in prison, she’s been visiting me in prison," Danielle said on the phone. "She hasn’t been home for one Christmas since I went away. It’s my wish that we celebrate at home, but if not, I’ll cook food and bring it here and celebrate Christmas here with her, because this is what I’ve been looking forward to for 23 years."

“It’s happy and sad,” Danielle continued. “I’m thinking I’m coming home, I get to spend a lot of time with her, and now she’s sick.”

Danielle wishes she could personally thank the president for freeing her. Her mother is also grateful.

“My mom would always say, 'He’s a good man, a good man. I wish he got you out sooner.' But she’s happy,” Danielle says. “Some people can't be without their kids for 23 days, much less 23 years.”

Danielle's own kids, who were 3 and 7 when she went away, are 31 and 27 now. Her son is having trouble processing everything. First, his mom came home, after he thought she’d die in prison. Then his grandma got sick. 

Still, Danielle says she pinches herself every day because she can’t believe she’s out. And, she said she knows what it’s like to look at the list of presidential clemencies and not see your name.

“My face was, like, sunburnt from tears,” she said. 

Now, whenever a new list comes out, she scours it for women she met on the inside that she wishes would get a second chance.

On Monday, the president granted 78 pardons and 153 commutations. There are indications there’ll be more, as time runs out. Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions have made it clear they’re not particularly sympathetic to the plight of nonviolent drug offenders serving long sentences, so the next few weeks are critical.

P.S. Ruckman, professor of political science at Rock Valley College, says President Obama deserves credit for granting as many pardons and clemencies as he has, but he can do more.

In December, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the president can’t do a blanket pardon, but Ruckman says that’s not true.

“That's patently ridiculous. It's a great American tradition. Even though he's granted so many clemencies, it's just a drop in the bucket compared to number of applications.”

Ruckman says the president should grant, “amnesty to all first time nonviolent drug offenders in prison who have good records and would not even be in prison now if they were convicted under current law.”  

Looking past the Obama administration, Ruckman argues that pardon and clemency power should be taken out of the Department of Justice (DOJ)—which is, after all, run by prosecutors.

“People in DOJ are career prosecutors. They're good at saying no, it’s what they do.“

He suggests the clemency process be moved closer to the executive office, not sit “in the basement of DOJ. There's no trace of evidence they have a professional interest in mercy. And that's shameful. We could do better.”

For the prisoners either waiting for their names to appear on one of Obama’s lists, or who have already had their name appear on a list of denials, Christmas is tough.

64-year-old Nancy Ferneau, whose clemency petition was denied this year, writes that inmates at the Carswell Correctional Facility are preparing Christmas skits. Her unit is putting on Nightmare Before Christmas. If their unit wins, they get “to go first for chow and pill line for two weeks.”

“This unit has some pretty talented women in it. [They’re] painting, sewing outfits from scrap, everything has to be made out of materials that are here, paper, cloth, paint.”

Despite the apparent resourcefulness, it’s extra tough around the holidays, Nancy wrote in a letter.

“It is just hard on all the women being away from their families, it's the time of year that most fights, arguing, crying, stuff like that goes on,” she noted. “They feed us a good meal for the day, then a box supper so the staff can go home to their families. It's tough but we survive.”

For Nancy, the blow of having her clemency petition denied—she was sure she would get it, and she was eligible—is compounded by forced separation from her daughter, Alicia, who’s also a federal prisoner. Alicia served time at the Carswell Medical Center, but she was moved to the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee a few years ago.

“She is so sad and that hurts me most,” Nancy wrote. Her daughter has severe physical and mental health problems.  

Alicia, for her part, is working hard to get her mom out of prison before Nancy succumbs to her many health problems, including several cancers and multiple surgeries.

“All I ever wanted in my life was my mom and now my biggest fear is losing her,” she wrote. “The feeling of helplessness to save her is so overwhelming most of the time that it feels like I can’t breathe.”

Tana Ganeva is a reporter covering criminal justice, drug policy and homelessness. Follow her on Twitter @TanaGaneva.

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