'If Obama Can Forgive Me, Why Can’t She?' Woman Whose Sentence Was Commuted Still in Jail Thanks to Florida Prosecutor

Editor's note: President Obama has extended clemency to an unparalleled number of people convicted of nonviolent drug-law violations, a program unlikely to be prioritized by the next president. AlterNet and The Influence have partnered on a series profiling people impacted by the program, as time runs out for inmates hoping to get their sentences commuted.


On August 3, Donella Harriel was watching a sports game in the TV room of the Federal Correctional Institution in Aliceville, Alabama, when her unit manager came in and told her to come to her office.

“She said I better be knocking her door down at 11:45. I was like, OMG, is my family okay?"

“Your family is fine,” the manager said.

With no idea what was going on, Harriel went to the office at 11:45 as instructed. She found the whole unit team waiting there. Then the phone rang, and they put it on speaker. It was her attorneys, with unbelievable news: Harriel would soon be walking out of prison—she’d officially been granted clemency after serving 13 years of a 22-year sentence.

“I was so stunned, overwhelmed with gratitude and full of belief that God really is huge,” she says. “All I could think about is going to call my kids and mother... Nothing could have prepared me for that moment.”

In her 13 years of detention, she saw her kids twice: once during her 11th year in prison, and again this July. “They couldn't afford to come to Texas where I was located,” Harriel says.

She went away when they were small. Now they’re 15 and 21.

"She's my mommy!" Harriel's daughter Jerrica Harriel tells me by text. "She left when I was nine. I remember some but I didn't get to grow with her and vice versa, so there's things we still have to discover about each other, things we didn't experience together and things that she should have taught me. But I know it's not her fault and I'm not blaming her, because things happen. I do love her and wish I knew her better though."

Jerrica says her younger brother, who was two when their mother went away, barely knows her.

"So he knows of and about but he doesn't know a mother as he should, ya know?"

She says the family is excited that her mom will be closer, and glad she has gotten her act together.

"I appreciate her for it because it's gotten her to where she is today, which is a step closer to her family!"

Donella Harriel could technically be living closer to her family in Port St. Lucie, Florida right now: Her official release date is June 2017, but prisoners tend to be released into halfway houses six months or so before their official release date. Instead, she’s still incarcerated, for reasons that illustrate the tangled relationship between federal and state jurisdictions in mandatory minimum sentencing.

Her federal sentence—for possession with intent to sell cocaine base (crack)—was enhanced to 22 years in part because of a prior state charge in Florida. Since her federal conviction was a violation of her probation from that charge, there’s a hold on her release in Martin County, Florida, a so-called detainer, which prevents a prisoner's release.

As well as keeping Harriel from being in a halfway house right now, it also means that when she walks out of federal prison in June 2017, Martin County authorities will take her into custody, move her back to Florida and hold a hearing to decide if she owes the state more time behind bars.

“It's stopping me from going to the halfway house, as well as the organization that Obama has that picks us up from prison and take us shopping for clothes etc, then to meet our families and out to eat before going to the halfway house,” Harriel writes.

Guy Blackwell, a retired assistant attorney general (Tennessee), has asked Assistant U.S. Attorney General Nita Denton, a Republican appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the 19th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, to lift the detainer in Harriel’s case.

“I am a retired U.S. Assistant Attorney General and simply am trying to help someone who seems to have been sufficiently punished and appears to have a positive future,” Blackwell wrote to Denton’s office. He pointed out that dropping the detainer would save Martin County the cost of transporting her from federal to state custody.

“It’s a shame this has happened,” Blackwell tells me over the phone. He decided to help prisoners get their sentences reduced after seeing the damage wreaked by mandatory minimums in his 30 years as a prosecutor. He had a few phone calls with Denton’s office, but couldn’t convince them to drop the detainer.

“She has a detainer because she violated her probation,” Nita Denton says over the phone. Asked if she plans to advise that Harriel be released, she replies, “I have not made any decision on what’s going to happen until she’s returned on detainer to the state of Florida.”

Though President Obama has commuted the sentences of a record 774 people, mostly nonviolent drug offenders—surely big news in the criminal justice world—Denton claims to know little about it. “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that program because we don’t deal with it on the state level, other than what I read in the paper, but other than that....“

“People need to see how these challenges we face aren’t helping us with re-entry,” Harriel writes, referring to Denton. “If Obama could forgive me and see my growth, why couldn’t she?”

                                                                                                      ***

“Dear Donella, I wanted to personally inform you that I am granting your application for commutation,” President Barack Obama wrote Harriel in a letter dated August 3. “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better. So good luck, and Godspeed.”

His faith in her is warranted. In 13 years behind bars, Harriel did not have a single official disciplinary action taken against her. That’s not to suggest that only model prisoners deserve a second chance, but still, it’s pretty remarkable.

“It is very difficult to have that kind of clean record for someone that’s been in custody that long,” Blackwell says. “If you’re in there 13 years, there’s [usually] gonna be something negative. You say something to someone, get in the middle of something someone else started, and it’s really easy to get a demerit, a black mark, that’s gonna be on the record.”

Harriel's two priors stem from what she describes as a troubled time in her life. She ran away from home when she was 18, “and some guys took me in.” She and other young women took cruise ships to and from the Bahamas, smuggling drugs in exchange for money and shelter. She got busted, incurring her first charge.

Five years later, police found a family member’s drugs in her home; though she wasn’t there at the time, she was still arrested. The federal charge that landed her an enhanced 22-year sentence, thanks to the two priors, came when a state trooper found drugs in her boyfriend’s underwear. 

“I was driving my boyfriend from Florida to North Carolina and when I stopped in South Carolina for some gas, a state trooper was there,” Harriel writes. “He followed me throughout the store and waited until I made my purchase and pumped my gas. Then he followed me to the interstate to pull me over not even a mile away from the gas station (for speeding, he says). Then, we were searched and because they found drugs in my boyfriend's boxers, I was charged with conspiracy.”

It's the kind of guilt-by-association case that is all-too-familiar among America’s incarcerated, particularly women prisoners.

Donella Harriel's clean record and 13 years behind federal bars should make a compelling case for her freedom in Florida, but it depends on the judge, and the recommendation of the state's attorney.

Despite her ongoing troubles she is still grateful to Obama, whose intervention will mean—if she can get that detainer taken care of—that she gets to be with her family nine years sooner than she expected.

“I will never forget it and I will live every day of my life with thankfulness,” she says, “knowing that I was one of the chosen ones.”

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