'Let Me Go Home, Not Die Here!' With Trump Headed to White House, Obama's Prison Clemency Program More Urgent Than Ever

There's little hope that a President Trump will continue Obama's clemency initiative for people serving long sentences for drugs.

Nancy and her sisters. Nancy is second from the left.

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 Donald Trump. 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 before President Obama leaves office.

Nancy Ferneau was so sure she was going home this year that she told her sister not to bother coming down from Seattle, where they grew up, to the Carswell Correctional Facility in Fort Worth, Texas for her annual visit.

She was mistaken. Nancy’s plea for clemency was denied, and she has to wait another year before she’s eligible to apply again.

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Nancy is 65, and suffers from a staggering array of illnesses. She’s had two types of cancer, and has had a lumpectomy and a kidney removed. She’s had more than 12 surgeries on her back, neck, knees, and wrists. She’s had a stroke, has painful arthritis and needs surgery on her feet. She has been incarcerated since 2003, and she wants to go home before she dies.

She’s not sure why the Office of the Pardon Attorney thinks she should serve out her full sentence, but suspects a series of minor infractions from early on in her time behind bars—before she learned that you don’t talk back to guards, even when you think you’re right—was the reason her petition was denied. The criteria for clemency requires nearly spotless records, a virtually impossible feat in many prisons.

“You can be written up for all sorts of crazy stuff,” Amy Povah, a former prisoner, explains. She almost ended up in solitary twice—once for feeding the birds, which she didn’t know was against the rules, and once for trying to bring some canned tuna to a cat who lived in the education building.

In her appeal against the decision, Ferneau wrote, “I ruined my life, my children’s lives and my family’s lives, but they have forgiven me. I changed. I don’t want to die in prison and that’s what I’m looking at if I’m not given a second chance. Please, I need to go home to my family, give me this chance to prove I’m worth your trust in this, let me go home, not die here!”

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It’s gotten lost in the election din, but as the White House press office proudly proclaims every time a new batch of prisoners is granted clemency, Obama has commuted the sentences of more people in the past year than the last 11 presidents combined.

It should be a proud legacy. These are people who were sent away for decades, even life, for doing or selling drugs, or having a relative or boyfriend who did or sold drugs. Perversely, in many cases the less involved someone was in a drug trade, the more likely they were to receive a long sentence. That’s because less involved people have less information to trade for better plea deals. They’re also more likely to object to pleading guilty and take a chance on going to trial.

That’s what happened to Nancy Ferneau. She was offered eight years, but didn’t think she’d done anything wrong, so she went to trial. Her court-appointed attorney was inexperienced, according to Ferneau. She got 25 years.

Although President Obama's record of 944 commutations is impressive—a policy with little political gain and lots of potential fallout—the number of people with hopes riding on clemency is overwhelming. The U.S. pardon attorney’s office got 7,941 petitions for clemency in 2016 alone.

Close to 50 percent of federal prisoners are serving time for drug crimes, according to the U.S. sentencing commision; while approximately 75,000 federal prisoners are serving mandatory minimum sentences. Last Friday, another 72 were informed their sentences would be cut short, but Ferneau wasn’t one of them.

The election of Donald Trump certainly doesn’t appear to better her chances. "Some of these people are bad dudes," the president-elect said in August of people released under the clemency initiative. "And these are people who are out, they're walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks."

A Tough Life, Then an Even Tougher Break

Long before Ferneau spun into addiction—crack, pills, meth—her life was filled with the kind of stressors that would override many people’s best intentions to stay away from drugs. Her mom left her dad when she was seven because he drank too much and beat her. She took care of the family by getting a job as a cashier in a grocery store and married the owner, a strict, religious man who wouldn’t even let Ferneau or her sisters wear makeup or sleeveless tops. Ferneau ran away and got married at 16 to a man named Ronald. They had two daughters before she was 19.

The young family teetered on the edge of poverty, especially once her husband was fired from a steel mill for not showing up to work. He also drank too much. “We fought a lot, he drank a lot and ran with other women,” Ferneau writes.

After she left him, she had a series of jobs: grocery store clerk, bartender, at a shipyard. She met a new man named Jack. One day, she and Jack were at a picnic, while her daughters were with their dad, who had remarried.

“On arriving home from the picnic, I got a phone call that my kids and their stepmom were at the neighbors, their dad was knocking on the door and after them. My boyfriend and I went to pick up my girls, him and my ex-husband got in a fight and my boyfriend accidentally shot and killed my ex-husband.”

Jack was acquitted, but the shooting death of her ex did not make for a smooth start to their marriage.

“Even though my husband was found not guilty, it was like he couldn’t accept the fact that he had killed someone, and he started drinking and beating me,” she writes. So she left him, and “started hanging around with the wrong people.” She began to do drugs, and overdoing it with the partying.

She met another man at the shipyard and he moved in, while Ferneau started doing more drugs. “We were working during the week and doing drugs on the weekends.” 

The state stepped in and put her daughter in a group home. Her other daughter left as well, moving in with a friend’s family in a nicer part of town.

“High-class, better than me,” Ferneau writes. The loss of her daughters traumatized her. “So, without my girls I lost control, I started shooting cocaine and getting high during the week as well as the weekends.” She lost the boyfriend, she lost her job, “and proceeded to run amok for the next 20 years,” shoplifting to support her drug use.

A stint in jail too many convinced Ferneau to stop and get her life together. She moved, bought a trailer. But then she met another man and started shooting and smoking crack—relapse, of course, is a common part of addiction. That led to another six-month spell in jail, after police found drug paraphenalia. Ferneau says it belong to the man, but she took the blame.

“When I came out of prison, I moved in with a friend of mine (female) and tried to straighten out my life. I stayed away from all the people doing drugs and cleaned up my life.”

And that’s when Ferneau's real trouble began. She met a guy and started driving cars for him from North Dakota up to Washington State, where he sold them for more money. She introduced him to a friend. But, “when I found out what kind of business, I quit seeing them both." 

That business, as it turned out, was moving and selling meth, first from Iowa, then from Washington, to North Dakota. The operation lasted between 1999 and 2003, but Ferneau says she stopped in 2000. "As soon as I accidently walked into a room and saw them packing stuff up, I [said] I wouldn't drive anymore and they couldn't come to my house anymore."

Ferneau says that when they were busted, the feds came to her for information that she didn’t have. “They wanted my friend’s buddy, I was offered eight years but told them I wasn’t guilty and wasn’t taking eight years.” That’s when she went to trial and got 25.

Ferneau was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, along with two men, Shawn Barth and Rosalio Vargas. Unlike Ferneau, the men were convicted of a range of other charges, including possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, distribution of methamphetamine, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Vargas was also charged with “possession of a firearm by an illegal alien.”

The main evidence of Ferneau's involvement in the conspiracy was the testimony of two men, who she claims were not credible witnesses: one had said he was not going back to jail at all costs, and another made a plea deal in exchange for testifying. A number of other witnesses testified that she didn’t know, according to court documents. The government claimed that Ferneau not only knew about the drug sales, but was more than a minor participant and had been actively involved in the conspiracy to distribute meth.

But the fact that she was only charged with conspiracy suggests at the least that the federal government was not confident in having enough evidence to make other charges stick.

Regardless of what she knew and whether she was involved, there was never any question of her having committed violence—unlike many other crimes for which perpetrators might get less time.

“I’m in here with murderers and child molesters that got less time than I got for supposed ‘knowledge’ of what was going on… all the man [Fernandez] could say about me was, “She knows what’s going on,” Ferneau says.

“I do believe in karma, and did enough wrong things when I was younger that I am paying for them, but I really feel I have done enough.”

She points out that she isn’t the only one being punished here. “I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren that I have never seen.” Her mother is 85 years old.

“I just want to go home,” Nancy Ferneau writes. “I want to live with my mom and enjoy my remaining years.”

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