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Alva Mae Groves

Alva Mae Groves

For refusing to inform on her children she was sentenced to 24 years at age 72, before dying in prison.
Clarence Aaron with his nieces

Clarence Aaron

A college student with no criminal record, is serving three life-without-parole sentences at age 23 for playing a minor role in two drug deals in which he was not the buyer, seller, or supplier of the drugs.
Danielle Metz with family

Danielle Metz

Mother of two with no criminal record serving three life sentences plus 20 years for alleged involvement in her husband’s cocaine distribution enterprise.
Donald Allen with his sister, nieces, and nephews

Donald Allen

Sentenced to serve two life-without-parole sentences when he was just 20 years old.
Dorothy Gaines with family

Dorothy Gaines

A mother with no criminal record sentenced to 19 years 7 months based almost entirely off of co-conspirator testimony.
Marsha Cunningham

Marsha Cunningham

With no criminal record she was sentenced to 15 years for conspiracy thanks to her drug dealing boyfriend.
Sharanda Jones with family

Sharanda Jones

A mother with no prior criminal record is serving life without parole for a crack cocaine conspiracy based almost entirely on the testimony of co-conspirators.
Teresa Griffin

Teresa Griffin

A mother with no prior criminal record sentenced to life without parole for her role in a drug distribution operation masterminded by her boyfriend.
Alva Mae Groves

Alva Mae Groves


  • Sentenced to 24 years in prison at age 72
  • Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute Cocaine Base
  • Ms. Groves passed away on August 8, 2007, still incarcerated in federal prison. Our condolences and sympathies to her family.

“When I was arrested I had $1,000.00 in the bank from selling eggs and candy. Most of it was deposited in change – nickels, dimes and quarters – and the bankers substantiated this fact. I earned that money one egg at a time, one soda pop at a time, one candy bar at a time. It wasn’t from selling drugs as the government contends.”

Alva Mae Groves, the 86-year-old ‘granny’ given a 24-year-sentence at age 72 for refusing to inform on her children indicted for drug conspiracy passed away in a Texas federal prison after her Petition for Compassionate Release was callously denied by federal prison officials before and after she lay dying.

Most of Alva’s immediate family was sent to prison, including a daughter and granddaughter, as well as three of her sons. Alva’s daughter, Margaret Woodard, was incarcerated at FCI Tallahassee (FL), until being transferred to a state prison in Maryland, though members of her family had assumed she was on her way home to North Carolina, not into another institution.

Another prisoner had sprayed some chemicals near Margaret that caused breathing problems, a flare-up of her asthma and emphysema, as well as heart problems. It seems Margaret may have been placed in a psychiatric ward within the women’s prison at Jessup.

Margaret wants to know why she’s in an ‘insane asylum’ where the women scream and moan throughout the day, a prison with many young women doing life, where the elderly are vulnerable. She doesn’t know why she was transferred or why she’s in Jessup. The Groves Family desperately needs peace and justice, not one more death in prison of a loved one.

Thirteen years after Alva Mae “Granny” Groves was locked up for conspiring to trade crack cocaine for food stamps, she’s finally home.

It took death to free her. Federal prosecutors wanted the ailing great-grandmother behind bars for at least another decade as punishment for her role in the family scheme. She died at a federal prison hospital in Texas after being refused the privilege of dying at home under the watch of her children. She was 86.

“It’s a relief she’s dead, but it’s a hurt, a real hurt we weren’t with her,” said daughter Everline. “What could she have hurt?”

Prison officials wouldn’t comment on Groves’ case, citing privacy concerns. In a brief letter that was mailed to Groves on her death bed, prison officials advised her that her crime was too grave to allow her to be turned loose.

Groves was tending her garden the day investigators stormed her double-wide mobile home and hauled her to jail. Within a year, she was sentenced to federal prison for 24 years after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to sell and distribute cocaine and aiding and abetting the trading of crack cocaine for food stamps. She was 74.

Groves’ family says prosecutors came down hard on her mostly because she wouldn’t help investigators build a case that could have locked up her children for life.

“My real crime was refusing to testify against my sons, children of my womb, that were conceived, birthed and raised with love,” Groves wrote in a 2001 letter to November Coalition, a non-profit organization rallying support to free her and others sentenced to prison for long stretches on drug offenses.

Groves, who was caught up in the nation’s aggressive war on crack cocaine in the 1980s and ’90s, became the face of a movement to lighten prison sentences for non-violent crack dealers.

As the drug hit urban streets in the mid-1980s, Congress enacted tough penalties for dealers. Long mandatory minimum sentences are still in effect, although several bills pending in Congress could lighten those prison terms.

It isn’t clear how much Groves knew about the crack cocaine being traded in her home. Her daughters swear she had no part in the scheme but didn’t force her kin to do business elsewhere.

All told, five family members were sent to federal prison. Her son, Ricky Groves is pulling a life sentence in Butner.

Three generations of Groves women landed at Tallahassee (Fla.) Federal Women’s Prison in 1996. Groves’ oldest daughter, Margaret Woodard, and Woodard’s daughter, Pam Battle, also were convicted after the bust.

Groves was a sight in prison, said Garry Jones, a retired correctional officer who knew her in Tallahassee. The oldest inmate by at least a decade, Groves would sit beneath a tree in the prison yard, issuing stern warnings to younger inmates who flirted with correctional officers and wore tight pants. She once came down on Jones, then a lieutenant at the prison.

“She told me that she’d spank me herself if I didn’t do anything about these ‘fast-tailed girls’ having sex with the officers,” Jones said. “She told me, ‘I’m too old to be listening to all this moaning and groaning. You better straighten this out.’ Eventually, the officers were caught and fired.”

Her daughter Louise Smith said she shrunk down to a bag of bones. Her family tried to fatten her up during their pilgrimages to Tallahassee. Two or three times a year, dozens of relatives would pile in vans and cars and visit Groves in prison. Her daughters stashed country ham and biscuits in their bras to sneak them past prison officers.

Groves never imagined she’d die in prison, even though her sentence stretched long past normal life expectancy, but she took a turn for the worse after her kidneys started to fail after a long battle with diabetes. Prison officials sent her to a federal prison hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, where she stayed until her death.

“I realize everyone has a day to die; death is a fate that will not be cheated. But I don’t want to die in prison. I want to die at home surrounded by the love of what’s left of my family.”

Groves’ family asked that their mother be freed to die at home. They wrote to the president, to congressmen, to every prison official they encountered. National organizations like November Coalition urged Groves’ release, too. Jones, the former prison guard, even lent his support.

In May, a probation officer flew to North Carolina to inspect a bedroom Everline Johnson had prepared for her mother. Groves, hopeful, started to pack her scant items in a suitcase.

Sadly, permission never came. On July 19, as Johnson and her sister Debra Pettiway leaned over Groves’ hospital bed and tried to remind her who they were, a prison official handed Johnson the letter denying her release. She’s grateful Groves never saw it.

Alva Mae Groves is survived by nine children: Margaret Woodard, imprisoned in Tallahassee; Louise Smith of Clayton; Joyce Session of Smithfield; Ruby McClamb of Smithfield; Everline Johnson of Red Springs; Conrad Groves of Smithfield; Ricky Lee Groves, imprisoned in Butner; Debra Pettiway of Selma, and Fontell Groves, imprisoned in Petersburg, Va. She is also survived by 36 grandchildren and more than 60 great-grandchildren.


  • Sentenced to three life-without-parole terms at age 23
  • No prior criminal record
  •  Was not the buyer, seller, or supplier of the drugs

Clarence Aaron was a linebacker as Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Aaron worked as a longshoreman during his summer breaks and was active in community service at home in Mobile, Alabama, as a Mason. According to the trial court, Aaron introduced a college classmate whose brother was a drug supplier to a cocaine dealer he know in high school, for which he was paid $1,500; arranged for the transportation of nine kilograms of cocaine; and was present for the sale of those nine kilograms of cocaine and the conversion of one kilogram to crack. Aaron was also found to have travelled from Mobile to Houston with $250,000 to purchase cocaine for a planned 15-kilogram drug purchase that did not happen.

Aaron refused to testify against his co-conspirators and said that he knew little about the deal because of his minor role, but his co-defendants testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences. He was convicted at trial of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 23 kilograms of powder and crack cocaine, possessing nine kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute, and attempting to possess 15 kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute.

Aaron was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for these nonviolent drug offenses. They were his first offenses, which he committed when he was only 23 and in his final semester of college. He received a longer sentence than his more culpable co-conspirators, all but one of whom have been released from prison (the last one is scheduled to be released in 2014). Conceding her son’s serious error in judgement, his mother, Linda Aaron-Mcneil, said, “At the time, neither Clarence nor I had any idea of how harsh a penalty he would receive for this error. When the judge announced the sentence of three life terms, my heart shattered into a thousand pieces. Since this nightmare began, I merely exist. The pain never subsides.”

The judge who sentenced Aaron, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Butler Jr., later wrote in response to a motion for resentencing filed by Aaron’s attorneys, “Looking through the prism of hindsight, and considering the many factors argued by the defendant that were not present at the time of his initial sentencing, one can argue that a less harsh sentence might have been more equitable; however, this Court is powerless to act in a pardon capacity.”

Aaron has repeatedly sought clemency, apparently his only chance to be released from prison. The U.S. Attorney’s Office that prosecuted him and the federal judge who sentenced him supported his second petition for commutation, which was filed in 2007; the prosecutor’s office recommended his LWOP sentence be commuted to 25 years, which would have meant release in 2014, and the judge supported commutation to time served. The clemency petition was rejected in 2008. According to an investigation of Aaron’s case by ProPublica, in his recommendation to former President George W. Bush that he reject Aaron’s request for commutation, Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers failed to disclose that the prosecutor and judge supported commutation. Aaron submitted a third petition for commutation in April 2010, which is still pending.

Now 43, Aaron has spent almost 20 years in prison. He has completed a two-year religious studies correspondence course through Emory University and has taken every computer skills course offered by the Bureau of Prisons. He has also taken courses in microeconomics, Spanish, photography, and behavioral development. He served the first 12 years of his sentence in maximum security prisons in Florida and Georgia, and he was transferred in 2007 to a lower-security federal penitentiary in Talladega, Alabama, because of his record of good conduct. He has held coveted factory jobs in the institutions where he has been imprisoned and has managed to save a relatively substantial sum from his prison wages. He has stayed in regular touch with his mother, sisters, other family members, and friends from high school and college. His commutation petition has strong support in his family’s close-knit Mobile community. Dozens of letters have been submitted to the president urging his release from Pastors, Business leaders, and educators, all of whom know him and his family personally. He has been offered several jobs upon his release.

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 40).

*Clarence’s sentence was ultimately commuted by President Obama

Clarence Aaron with his nieces

Clarence Aaron with his nieces. Their mother, Aaron’s sister, died suddenly in 2005. Aaron says he is close to his nieces and calls them every week. Before he was imprisoned, Aaron tried to serve as a male role model and father figure to his older niece, as her father did not take an active role in her life. Aaron’s nieces visit him in prison whenever they can.

Danielle Metz with family

Danielle Metz and her two children, Gleneisha Metz and Carl Bernard, who were four and seven when she was first imprisoned. They now are 23 and 27.


  • Sentenced to serve three life-without-parole sentences plus 20 years
  • No prior criminal record
  •  Sentence based on testimony from confidential informant

The youngest of nine children raised in New Orleans, Metz became pregnant at 17 by a man who was murdered when their son Carl was six months old. She subsequently became involved with a drug dealer named Glenn when she was 18. She recalls that Glenn, then 30, promised to care for her and her baby. She says that she knew he was involved in drug distribution and that she was not initially involved in his activates. They married after they had a daughter together, Gleneisha.

Metz says her husband was very controlling and forbid her from getting a job or leaving their home for more than an hour at a time. According to Metz, he became physically and mentally abusive after they married and made her feel subservient because he paid the bills. She cut hair inside their home, but she reports she had no other job skills or independent source of income. According to Metz, after one abusive episode, to address her husband’s accusation that she did not contribute to the budget, she promised her husband that she would help out in any way he wished. She recalls that he later asked her to ride with her aunt Angela, a petty drug dealer who had become involved in Glenn’s drug activities, to transport money to Houston. Metz says she accompanied her aunt twice and brought cocaine back to New Orleans on one of these occasions. According to Metz, she also collected money from Western Union, also at Glenn’s request.

Metz reports she never had a bank account in her name or a Social Security Number and was dependent on her husband. In 1990, they moved to Las Vegas, separating her from her family. According to Metz, Glenn struck her, causing her nose to gush with blood, while they were visiting her sister in Los Angeles. While returning to Las Vegas, Metz planned her escape. She says that when Glenn left for the casino, she left a note in the closet and took the kids to a hotel, where they stayed the night. The next day, before boarding a flight to New Orleans, where her family still lived, Metz says she called Glenn to tell him where she had left the car and that she was leaving him. Two months later, she was arrested and indicted for participating in a drug conspiracy with her estranged husband.

Metz was arrested in New Orleans at 25 and charged with conspiring with eight co-defendants, some of whom she says she had never met, in her husband’s cocaine distribution enterprise. According to Metz, her attorney had never tried a criminal case and visited her only once, the day before her trial. Prosecutors argued that Metz was a “prime force, and not just a passive presence” in her husband’s organization’s acquisition and distribution of large quantities of cocaine, and the appellate court concluded that she directly oversaw the drug trafficking activities of three of the co-conspirators. Although no drugs were seized from any of the co-defendants or produced at trial, on the basis of the co-conspirators’ testimony, the trial court concluded that the operation distributed 1,000 kilograms of cocaine.

Metz was convicted of participating in a continuing criminal enterprise organized and managed by her husband, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and money laundering. She recalls that her jury was comprised of 11 middle-aged white jurors and one Black juror. She was not personally linked to any violence or weapons, but at trial the jury heard testimony about firearms seized from some of her co-conspirators and the murder and other violent acts committed by co-conspirators in connection with a fourth charge, conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, that was later vacated in her case. Metz, then 26, was sentenced to three LWOP sentences plus 20 years in 1993. It was her first conviction.

Metz was convicted largely on the basis of testimony from her aunt Angela, who had earlier been arrested for an unrelated drug charge and testified against Metz and her husband as part of a plea deal. Metz says that she had no useful information she could trade, the only way to win a sentence reduction under federal mandatory sentencing. She believes she was indicted solely to testify against her husband. “When I was arrested, these people told me that they didn’t want me for anything; that they wanted my husband and if I would tell them everything that they needed to know that I would be set free, and if I couldn’t, I would never see my kids again,” she says. “I replied by saying that I couldn’t tell them when I did not know.”

Metz, 46, has served more than 20 years in prison. Her daughter and son were ages four and seven when she was incarcerated. They are now 23 and 27. For the first few years of Metz’s incarceration, her young daughter, Gleneisha, was told that her mother was in the hospital. Her son, Carl, first visited her in jail a year after her arrest. “When I first saw my mother,” Carl recalls, “I was crying, but I wasn’t hurt. I never really felt like that, so I was confused. Tears are coming out my eyes and I’m happy? My mother explained it to me – ‘You’re crying ’cause you’re happy.'”

Carl first learned the details of his mother’s sentence when he was 12. “I didn’t even think it was real at the time,” he said. “I thought she was kidding. I remember saying, ‘You can’t do triple life. You only have one.'” He says that on visiting weekends, Sundays “hurt more than fire – knowing I had to leave at a certain time, and she’s not coming with me.” He recalls Christmas visits during which he would line up to sit on the lap of the prison Santa and always repeat the same Christmas wish: to have his mother home.

“The hardest part of all is the separation from my children,” Metz said. “We need each other terribly. How do you tell your child, ‘Mama will never be coming home’? My heart aches to know that all the love I pout out to them may not be enough to convince them that I haven’t left them so far away out of not caring for them.” She told the ACLU, “To be away from my kids, to miss them growing up, to have to parent them over the phone and in the visitation room, to miss my daughter’s wedding, took a piece of me that can’t be replaced.” She adds, “It’s a tragedy shared by women, children, families and communities across this country…leaving the kids to think they don’t have a hope in the world.”

Metz remains very close with her mother, children, and siblings, who describe her as the “glue” of their family. Her sister, Adrian Bernard, raised her daughter, Gleneisha, and moved from Louisiana to California 10 years ago in order to be closer to Metz, whom they visit twice a month. For the past 20 years, Metz’s 77-year-old mother, Barbara Bernard, has traveled from New Orleans to Dublin, California, to visit her daughter twice a year on her birthday and Christmas. Barbara says, “[M]y only desire is to see my baby, Danielle, free and home to share a laugh or two with m e and her children before the Lord call[s] me home to Glory.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 44).

*Danielle’s sentence was ultimately commuted by President Obama.


  • Sentenced to serve two life-without-parole sentences when he was just 20 years old
  • Sentence based on testimony from confidential informant

Allen grew up living for periods of time with his grandmother in Alabama; his mother in Panama City, Florida; and his father in Albany, New York. He says he became involved in selling drugs after witnessing his father selling drugs from time to time. At age 14, he began selling marijuana to friends at a nightclub, and by age 15 he started selling crack cocaine. At the time of his arrest, Allen worked at a Kmart.

At age 19, Allen was arrested with two co-conspirators following a controlled drug buy that took place in a truck. According to Allen, in December 1997, he and his brother-in-law, Michael Montalvo, discussed selling crack cocaine that Montalvo had brought to Panama City, Florida, from Atlanta. Allen says that while he was present, Montalvo sold three-quarters of an ounce of crack cocaine to a four-time convicted felon. The buyer later testified that he had twice bought drugs from Montalvo in the past in Allen’s presence, and that he had made arrangements to buy additional crack from Montalvo later that night. The buyer’s brother was incarcerated in federal prison at the time. Reportedly in an effort to obtain a sentence reduction for his brother, the buyer contacted the police to inform them of the impending drug deal and serve as a confidential informant.

Later that night, Allen and Montalvo drove to the buyer’s house to complete the drug deal. Allen says that he sat in the passenger seat, Montalvo drove, and a third co-conspirator sat in the backseat. According to Allen, after he met the buyer at the door and explained he had to deal directly with Montalvo, the buyer entered the truck and negotiated the price with Montalvo. Upon the buyer’s signal at the conclusion of the deal, police entered the vehicle and found the crack cocaine, two firearms, and cash. According to Allen, when police subsequently searched him and his house, they did not find any physical evidence.

Montalvo pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute crack and cocaine and the use or carry of a firearm during the commission of a drug trafficking offense; he agreed to cooperate with the government. Allen proceeded to trial on the same charges. His conviction was based in part on the testimony of his brother-in-law and the confidential informant, both of whom received sentence reductions in exchange for their cooperation. Although Allen maintains that he had no involvement in the deal itself, the court found that his actions constituted conspiracy and possession.

Allen complains that his court-appointed lawyer did not provide adequate legal representation. Moreover, he says his lawyer was also defending the confidential informant’s brother – the man whose possibility of receiving early release from prison motivated the informant to cooperate with police, and who therefore directly benefitted from Allen’s conviction.

Allen was convicted of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 421 grams of crack cocaine, and possession of a firearm during a felony drug offense. Shocked upon hearing the verdict, he said, “I simply did not know that I could be convicted of showing someone where someone lives at because I knew they were going to sell them something illegal.”

In 1998, Allen was sentenced to two terms of life without parole, plus a mandatory minimum sentence of five years on the gun charge. His LWOP sentence was mandatory because of two prior state convictions. Earlier that year, he says he had pleaded guilty to charge of simple possession of two small rocks of crack cocaine, committed when he was 17, as well as possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, committed just after his nineteenth birthday. Though the offenses took place more than a year apart, he pleaded guilty to both on the same day in May 1997. He received probation for both crimes, but was subsequently sentenced to 20 months in prison when he violated probation by committing the federal drug offenses.

Following his 20-month sentence in state prison for his prior convictions, Allen was transferred to federal prison, where he will remain for the rest of his life. He said that he was “too young to really understand” the implications of his sentence at the time. “What hurt the most,” he said, “was the fact that my mother cried in the courtroom and I was able to hear her sobs.”

Allen is now 35 and in his fifteenth year of incarceration. He told the ACLU, “I came in when I was only 19 years old and I have almost spent the same amount of time in prison that I have lived free. I have been locked up my entire adult life thus far.” He says, “It’s hard being separated from his family,” especially “being shipped all over the country and my family not being able to come and visit me…I have seen my nieces and nephews grow from little kids, which I used to walk to the bus stop, into mothers and fathers. All from prison. I have a nephew named after me because my brother thinks I will never get out of prison to have my own.” Allen has never seen his namesake nephew. After a decade and a half in prison, Allen says he has had only seven visits – about one every two years.

Allen spends his time crafting leather, learning Spanish, participating in church activities, and working a prison job. He reports that he has a clean disciplinary record. Despite having to grapple daily with the reality of this sentence, which he refers to as “the pain of foreverness,” he remains optimistic: “[I]t’s been hard, but you must find hope in all situations…I do the best that I can with what I have and that is all I can do. Regardless of my current situation, I simply strive for a better day.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 69).

*Donald’s sentence was ultimately commuted by President Obama.

Donald Allen with his sister, nieces, and nephews

Donald Allen with his sister, nieces, and nephews.

Dorothy Gaines with family

Dorothy Gaines


  • Sentenced to 19 years and 7 months
  • Sentence based entirely on the testimony of confidential informants

She was raised by her grandparents, growing up in a small Alabama town, Putnam, where her grandmother cooked for a white family, and her grandpa was a logger. She insists she first learned about racism while battling for justice in courtrooms, learning more during her six-plus years in federal prison about racism in America than the lifetime preceding her arrest. She is Dorothy Gaines, found guilty by association, and ultimately released by President Clinton’s order of clemency on December 23, 2000.

Clinton also commuted the sentence of Kemba Smith, a young mother serving 25 years for a drug conspiracy she knew little about. Kemba served 6 years and is able to mother her son for the very first time; she gave birth in shackles not long after her arrest. Both women had law firms supporting their presidential commutation requests as well as organizational exposure from a variety of drug and sentencing reform organizations that assisted in publicizing the obvious injustice in their cases.

Her children are no longer innocent, no longer naïve as she feels they were before prison. “My kids are now very aware of how things go in different prisons. They ask more questions and watch things better,” said Dorothy. “For me, though, I am very leery, and I have learned not to trust anyone, and I was taught to love growing up in rural Alabama where I don’t remember hating or being hated,” she continued.

“When and how I got out of prison began the day I stepped into prison. I asked God to give me knowledge since I didn’t have money. So give me knowledge instead, I prayed. I soon found that many doors are locked to the prisoner, but I began writing every day, and I put my faith to work and never gave up. Unlike many prisoners around me, I determined from the first day to stand up for something so I wouldn’t fall for nothing,” Dorothy said.

It ought to trouble readers that Dorothy Gaines had to learn about racism in the courts and prison. “We teach racism in those systems. I wasn’t taught prejudice as a youth, didn’t notice it in Putnam, but after seeing the sentencing disparities, I began to see it for the first time. Folks ought to teach their young that all blood is red, there’s no white heaven, just one heaven,” she told me.

When asked what she learned in prison and wanted people to know, she responded, “There are good people in prison. I left many behind, and we need to support people in prison. If each family, one neighborhood, one person would reach out to one prisoner, then imagine all that working, one by one, all across the country. People on the outside need to open their minds and hearts, find out the whole story on people, not just get trapped by the words of fear about criminals and mostly stop being naïve about conspiracy laws.”


Essay by Rob Stewart, Editor, The Drug Policy Letter
Reprinted with permission from the Winter 1998 Drug Policy Letter, pp. 7-18. See below for contact information.

The U.S. government offered Dorothy Gaines a deal: a five-year sentence for all Gaines knew about a drug trafficking ring in and around Mobile, Alabama. Gaines turned the offer down, saying she was innocent of charges that she helped supply the ring with cocaine.

Today, Gaines, 39, is in the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, Florida. She is serving a 19-year-and-seven-month sentence for two counts of conspiracy to possess and distribute over one and a half kilograms of crack cocaine.

The amount of drugs is vague because the government did not have material evidence of the drugs associated with Gaines. A search of Gaines’ house turned up no drugs, no money, and no paraphernalia associated with drug dealing. All the government had on Gaines was the testimony of others – some of whom were defendants from the same busted drug ring who faced long prison terms unless they cooperated with the prosecution and built cases against other suspects.

Gaines was a suspect because she dated a crack user, Terrell Hines, who knew Dennis Rowe, the alleged leader of the Mobile cocaine ring.

“When I found out [Hines] was using drugs,” Gaines said, “I put him into rehab. I split the relationship when he went back to drugs.”

At first, things seemed to go Gaines’ way. The Alabama state court rejected the case because the charges against Gaines could not be corroborated with concrete evidence – all the prosecution had was testimony.

Unfortunately for Gaines, she lived in one of the nation’s most active federal judicial districts for prosecuting local drug cases. In addition, Gaines did not realize that federal law permitted the prosecution to use uncorroborated testimony in a conspiracy case. Since a combined local and federal drug task force arrested the suspects, the case was moved up to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama in 1994.

After Gaines turned down the plea bargain, the U.S. attorney’s office tried Gaines and three other defendants at the same time. Gaines, however, was confident that the jury would find her not guilty.

Instead, the jury saw the determination with which the other witnesses testified against Gaines, describing her as integral to the crack distribution network. In retrospect, Gaines sees that the jury probably convicted her because of the weight of the evidence against her codefendants.

Because Gaines, a first-time offender, did not cooperate, her sentence was not reduced from the prescribed 235 months. One witness, who was already serving time for prior felony convictions on gun and drug charges, was released early. Rowe, the ringleader, was facing a possible life sentence, but he helped the government build cases against others including Gaines and will be out in 2004. With good behavior, Gaines will be in prison until 2012.

Besides the lack of direct evidence against her, Gaines points to indirect evidence that she was not a player in the drug ring. Gaines was living in public housing when she was arrested and is missing several teeth because she could not afford proper dental care. That summer, her car had been repossessed. Her accusers did not contend that Gaines used drugs or spent drug-trafficking money on herself. But Gaines’ court-appointed attorney failed to introduce the records documenting her low income or the high level of community support for her.

The case has other inconsistencies. The testimony about how much cocaine Gaines knew about changed throughout the proceedings. Testimony about one night’s crack buy fluctuated between the grand jury hearings and the trial. Some cocaine, allegedly kept by Gaines at her house, transformed from its powder form to cocaine base or crack, which carries a heavier federal sentence.

Another problem is the allegation that the government’s witnesses coordinated their testimony with each other while being kept in the same holding cell during the trial. When one of the witnesses (who was being tried separately from Gaines) reported the collusion to the court, Judge Alex Howard interrupted the trial to investigate. But, the judge did not find sufficient evidence of collusion to end the trial nor was the jury informed of what happened.
A combination of bad law and poor counsel helped land Gaines behind bars, but she is good-hearted, even generous, in fighting her imprisonment.

“My goal upon release is to go into the schools to tell the kids what happened to me,” Gaines said. “You don’t have to sell drugs to get into trouble. I just dated someone who used drugs.”

Gaines has, by all accounts, become a model prisoner. She has commendations from the warden for the two times she has saved inmates’ lives and, on one occasion, for helping a sick staff member. Yet, a year of good behavior earns Gaines only a 54-day reduction in her sentence.

Everything Gaines relates about her experience comes back not to the trial but to her family. She is the sole parent for her three children. Her oldest, Natasha, left college in 1996 to raise her sister and brother in addition to her own children.

Gaines is concerned about all of them and is particularly concerned about her youngest child, Phillip, 13. He told his mother that he wanted to break the law so that he could join her in prison. “I assured him that, if he gets in trouble, he doesn’t come to mom,” Gaines said.
Gaines describes the day that Phillip said he wanted to kill himself rather than live without his mother as “devastating.” She says she talked Phillip through his ordeal. During and after the trial, Gaines encouraged him to pray. During and after the trial, Phillip had dealt with the stress by sending letters to the judge and, later, to President Clinton.

Whereas his mother had nothing to exchange for a reduced sentence, Phillip thought he did. Just before his 10th birthday, Phillip wrote Judge Howard offering to mow the judge’s lawn and wash his car in exchange for not sending Gaines away to prison. Phillip’s gesture was in part an expression of gratitude to the judge who did what few would have done for a convict facing such a long sentence: Judge Howard released Gaines on her own recognizance in August 1994 after her conviction until her sentencing in March 1995.

Gaines would prefer being confined to home rather than to a prison cell. “If I could take life on probation or an ankle bracelet, I would,” she said. “I’ve seen seven women go home from here, only to come back a few months later. I asked them, ‘How can you hurt your family by coming back to prison?’ If only I had the chance to go home.”

Gaines has a lot to say about the justice system. In a summary of her case that she drafted, Gaines wrote: “Where is justice? I beg for the return of federal parole, the release of first-time, nonviolent offenders, and the rehabilitation of the drug addict. Incarceration is not only costly to the taxpayers, it is totally destructive to the individual’s family.”

“My last word to the nation: The mandatory minimum sentences plus the conspiracy laws are at the root of the growing federal prison populations. You are getting people, not drugs, off the streets.”

(To Read Philip’s letter, CLICK HERE)
Copyright 1998. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the Drug Policy Foundation, 4455 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite B-500, Washington, DC

*Dorothy’s sentence was ultimately commuted by President Clinton.


  • Sentenced to 15 Years
  • No Criminal History
  • Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute Cocaine Base and Cocaine

My name is Marsha Cunningham, and I am a nonviolent first time offender serving a 190-month sentence for possession with intent to distribute cocaine base and cocaine, aiding and abetting. I am presently at Marianna Federal Prison Camp in Marianna, Florida.

At the time of my arrest I was 26 years old. I was feeling as though I was just really beginning to live my life and accomplish certain things in life. I had a good job at a mortgage company in the foreclosure department, a nice condo, and two vehicles (one paid for). And to make my life complete, I met a man whom I fell in love with. After a while of dating, I let that man move in with me. He had the keys to my house, cars and heart.

On August 5, 1997, my entire world was turned upside down. I returned home from work that day to a house full of DEA agents. I was informed that my boyfriend had been arrested earlier during the day for drug trafficking. Then they arrested me because they found drugs in the storage compartment in the bottom of the stove.

I was taken to the FBI office and questioned about the drugs. I told them that I didn’t know anything about the drugs and that they were not mine. The agent told me that he knew that the drugs were not mine and that my boyfriend told him that the drugs were his. However, the agent felt like I knew where my boyfriend got the drugs. But I didn’t and still don’t. From lack of knowledge and having a boyfriend that I could not keep my eyes on 24 hours a day, the government punished me with a sentence of 15 years in prison.

I was found guilty by association. What society needs to realize is that I could have been anyone: their sister, daughter, mother, aunt, or grandmother. Everyone makes mistakes, and nobody knows what all goes on inside their home when they share it with someone else and are gone from home eleven hours a day.

I agree that everyone should know everything about whom they love and sleep with. But the truth is we don’t. We tell each other what we want them to know. I always thought that I was protected by the Constitution. I thought that because of due process of law, no one could be convicted if there was even just a shadow of a doubt.

In my case the government assumed that because my boyfriend was a drug dealer, lived with me, and drove my car that I knew what he was doing. Therefore, I am guilty of the same crime, possession with the intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base. But other than my boyfriend living with me, and driving my car, there was nothing to link me to his illegal activity. I was never seen by DEA agents with my boyfriend at any of the drug transactions, and there were no drug sales conducted out of my home. I never took any phone messages for him. The fact is he never conducted his illegal activities in my presence.

If I was suspected of assisting him in his illegal activity, why wasn’t I put under the same surveillance as my boyfriend? Why was my name not on the search warrant to my apartment? Why was I not even mentioned in the search warrant? At my trial the DEA agent testified that they knew about me, but I was never put under surveillance because there was no need. They knew who the drug dealer was. And he is serving a 17-year prison sentence, two years more than I am! The criminal justice system thought that harsher sentences under the mandatory minimum sentencing would help win the war against drugs, but it isn’t. All it is doing is locking up more people, and causing children to grow up without mothers and fathers. Society needs to realize that our legal system has failed. We all know that society cannot operate without law and order. But what all people need to realize is that the criminal justice system is a big business. Until society addresses the causes of why they are building more prisons and locking up more people, the legal system is going to continue to lock up even more people. First, the legal system has to admit that what has been tried has failed.

There are a lot of people incarcerated now with lengthy sentences and not because they were kingpins in big drug rings. Many were just friends, girlfriends, or wives of mid-level or street level drug dealers. Some people locked up were drug users and need to be in a drug rehab and not in prison for many years.

The criminal justice system is getting richer by incarcerating us for many years. It is costing the Bureau of Prison $25,000.00 a year to incarcerate me. And I am expected to be here 15 years. And who is paying for this? The taxpayers, and every new prison is costing middle class America plenty! America spends more money to incarcerate than they do to educate.

Right now the people who are least culpable of committing a crime are the ones doing the most time. Drug addicts are doing more time than their supplier instead of being in rehab to help them kick their addiction. Murderers, rapists, child abusers, and robbers are doing less time than first time nonviolent drug offenders. Because of mandatory minimum sentencing policies, people who have never been in any type of trouble are serving long prison sentences for non-violent crimes that they themselves did not actually commit.

It does not matter what your station in life is, or how much money you have acquired. Nobody is immune to crime. It can touch every social class. Drugs are a problem in America, but the mandatory, minimum sentences of ten years to life or ‘three strikes you’re out’ are not the answer. How many billions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money is America going to waste while the problem continues unaddressed and unsolved.

Marsha Cunningham

Marsha Cunningham

Sharanda Jones with family

Sharanda Jones (right) and her daughter, Clenesha Garland. Now 22, Clenesha was nine years old when her mother was incarcerated.


  • Sentenced to life without parole
  • No prior criminal record
  • Sentence based almost entirely off of the testimony of co-conspirators

Sharanda Jones’s mother raised her family of five on a limited income in the small, rural town of Terrell, Texas. When Jones was only three years old, her mother was injured in a car accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Due to her mother’s severe health condition, from a young age Jones cared and provided for her siblings and paraplegic mother. Jones says she grew up in poverty and continued to face financial difficulties as she tried to support herself and her family. She worked as a licensed cosmetologist and later opened a restaurant with a friend.

Jones was arrested as part of a drug task force operation in Terrell, a majority white town (55 percent white, 32 percent Black) of approximately 13,500 people located 40 miles east of Dallas. A couple in Terrell was arrested on drug charges and became confidential informants, which triggered a larger investigation in the small town. All 105 people arrested as part of the conspiracy were Black. At the time of the operation, actor Chuck Norris was reportedly a volunteer police officer for the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Department and participated in some of the arrests.

The couple that was first to be arrested was friendly with Jones. While acting as government informants after their arrests, they asked Jones during a taped telephone call if she knew where they could buy drugs. According to evidence presented at trial, Jones in turn responded that she might know someone she could introduce them to so that they could buy drugs.

Jones was indicted and voluntarily surrendered to police in April 1999; at the time, she was 32 years old and raising her eight-year-old daughter. She had never been arrested before. She was eventually indicted on seven counts of drug distribution. In August 1999, she was acquitted on six counts of crack cocaine possession and found guilty of one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. There was no physical evidence presented at trial that connected her to drug trafficking with her five co-conspirators; no producible amount of drugs, video surveillance, or any other physical evidence. Other than the taped phone call, the allegations were based entirely on the testimony of co-conspirators.

Prosecutors claimed that Jones drove to Houston on several occasions to meet a supplier (one of the testifying co-conspirators), from whom she bought 30 kilograms of cocaine powder, which was never found by police, over time; she then drove to Dallas and sold it to two buyers, also testifying co-conspirators, who would turn the powder into crack and sell it. Each of these co-conspirators testified against Jones in exchange for reduced sentences, pleaded guilty, and is now out of prison. Notably, Jones’s supplier was sentenced to 19 years and released from prison in 2008. The trial court concluded that Jones had sold cocaine to the two buyers, who converted the powder cocaine into crack before selling it to others. The court also found that some of the the crack was sold out of Jones’s mother’s home.

Jones’s sister, mother, brother, and stepfather were also arrested. Her paraplegic mother, Genice Stribling, went to trial and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for selling crack out of her own home. Genice was incarcerated in the same facility as her daughter until her death in prison in late December, 2012, one year before she was to be released. Jones’s brother, who had a prior record, received an 18-year sentence and is still incarcerated. The charges against her stepfather were dismissed.

Even though Jones had no criminal record, she was sentenced to mandatory life without parole in November 1999. To arrive at Jones’s base offense level for sentencing purposes, the judge took the 30 kilograms of powder cocaine alleged by the co-conspirators and multiplied it by an arbitrary ratio to hold her accountable for a large quantity of crack cocaine because the conspiracy’s end product was crack. The judge then enhanced Jones’s offense level based on her managerial role; possession of a firearm (Jones was licensed to carry a firearm in Texas); and obstruction of justice for testifying in her own defense (the judge found that the jury, by virtue of it’s guilty verdict, had found implicitly that her testimony under oath was false). Jones says of her sentencing, “It was devastating and shocking to me, my body was silent and numb – I couldn’t respond I was so shocked.”

Jones has exhausted all of her appeals and has a petition for commutation pending. According to her attorney, if she had been convicted of the same amount of powder cocaine instead of crack cocaine, her mandatory minimum sentence would have been 30 years. However, she is not eligible for a sentence reduction based on sentencing reforms that have reduced the disparity in federal sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. Jones says of her sentence, “I will expire in the federal system. It is really a slow death.”

Jones has been incarcerated for more than 14 years. She is 45, and her daughter, Clenesha Garland, is 22. Even though Clenesha was only nine when her mother went to prison, the two remain very close and Clenesha calls the eight years she spent living with her mother “a definite gift from God.” She visits her mother at least once a month and corresponds with her weekly. Jones says she carefully apportions her allotted 300 monthly minutes for non-legal calls to speak with her daughter for 10 minutes each day.

Jones said of her daughter, “My sister brings her to visit, and every time she comes it’s hard. I see her like once a month. And to see her grow from a little bitty baby to almost a grown woman, it’s just like, God. My dream is to just show up at her school. I mean, I know they gave me life, but I can’t imagine not being at her graduation. I just can’t imagine me not being there.” She told the ACLU of her daughter, “She didn’t even want to graduate because I couldn’t be there to watch her walk across the stage. I told her to do it anyway and imagine I’m there in the audience…I told her pick your spot, look at that seat, and say that’s me sitting there.”

“I miss my mother dearly. Even as a young adult it is very difficult for me to fight back my emotions during visits and phone calls with my mother,” Clenesha says. “Being without my mother for over 14 years of my life has been extremely difficult. But the thought that she is set to spend the rest of her life in prison as a first-time nonviolent offender is absolutely devastating. All I pray for every day is the blessing of being able to spend my life with my mother outside of prison walls.

While in prison, Jones has taken numerous courses related to personal development and self-improvement. She says, “When I first came to prison I told myself, ‘You can be bitter or you can be better.'” Accordingly, she has taken dozens of educational and vocational training courses such as data entry, typing, math, grammar, banking, filing, and office technician training. She has completed courses on building self esteem, health, and parenting. She also took a six-month cosmetologist instructors’ program in order to help other inmates with an interest in cosmetology, and she has helped train numerous inmates who subsequently obtained their cosmetology licenses. She also actively participated in the SHARE program, a program for at-risk teenage girls aimed at deterring them from a life of crime. She recently completed at 18-month faith-based program through which she has completed community service, participated in activities to help bring reconciliation to the community, and established re-entry goals and action steps, even though her sentence means she will not have a chance to prove that she can reach her re-entry goals.

In her more than 14 years of incarceration, Jones has maintained a spotless disciplinary record with the exception of a single disciplinary violation dated more than 10 years ago when one of her visitors was involved in a verbal altercation with a corrections officer regarding coins that were lost in a vending machine. In addition, Jones has maintained continuous employment throughout her incarceration; she previously worked in food service and laundry, and for the past ten years she has provided hair care for inmates in the maximum security and hospital units. If she is released, Jones says she wants to work with children and adults and use her struggles and the lessons she has learned about the consequences of drugs and crime to deter others.

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 41).

*Sharanda’s sentence was ultimately commuted by President Obama.


  • Sentenced to life without parole
  • No prior criminal record
  • Used as drug mule by controlling boyfriend

Griffin was working for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and enrolled at Orlando College in Florida when she says her Colombian boyfriend forced her to quit her job, withdraw from college, and follow him to Texas. At the time, she was 21 years old and pregnant with her first child by him. She says that her boyfriend was extremely jealous and controlling, and that he forbid her to continue her studies or work. She describes her decision to follow her boyfriend to Houston, Texas, as a disaster. According to Griffin, he would take her car and disappear for days or weeks at a time, and he sporadically contributed only $100 and $200 at a time to the rent for the apartment she had leased in her name.

Griffin says that while she was still pregnant, she told him she was leaving him, but he hit her and threatened to kill her and take her two children from a previous relationship to Colombia if she left him. After the birth of their child, she recalls he continued to disappear for weeks at a time. She and her three young children survived on public assistance, and she started a data entry training program. She says she purchased a car for her boyfriend in her name so that she could keep a car to go to school and take the baby to the doctor.

One day, after the birth of their child, Griffin says her boyfriend called her to come to Oklahoma and pick up a television for him. She made the trip and brought the television back to Houston. A week later, he showed up in Houston and told her to rent an apartment in Oklahoma for him. According to Griffin, soon thereafter her boyfriend had her transporting drugs for him.

Griffin says her boyfriend repeatedly used her as a mule to transport drugs. She would take a bus from Houston to Oklahoma City, carrying packages of cocaine while her boyfriend flew to meet her there; after making the delivery, she would return home to her children the same day, and he would remain in Oklahoma to distribute the cocaine. She says he would pay her $1,000 for each trip; on one such trip, she found him in bed with another woman. According to Griffin, in Houston she frequently drove her boyfriend around after he lost his license, driving him to and from drug sales. She also used her credit card to pay for places for her boyfriend and his friends to stay.

Griffin recalls she began to fear for her and her children’s lives. She says that she became scared to sleep in her home because dealers close to her boyfriend, their girlfriends, and their children were being killed. After dropping her children off at school, she would drive around Houston to make sure no one was following her before she returned home. She says she finally told her boyfriend she was leaving him and returning to Florida, but he threatened to take her children to Colombia. She says she stayed in Houston because of this threats to her children. Her boyfriend then started having her fly or drive to him to pick up cash proceeds from his drug distribution activities.

In October 1991, Griffin was arrested after police officers apprehended her and a companion at the Oklahoma City airport with $38,500 of her boyfriend’s cash. She was seven months pregnant with her second child by her boyfriend. Upon questioning by police, who did not read her Miranda rights, she provided the officers with a detailed description of their drug-related activities and led them to her car, where approximately one-half pound of cocaine was found. She had never been arrested before.

According to Griffin, a federal prosecutor threatened that she would never see her children again if she did not testify against her boyfriend. She says she was afraid to testify against him, explaining, “I had kids and I was just scared. I didn’t want anybody hurting my family.” She says that her boyfriend threatened her from prison, threatening to send his cousin to her mother’s house to take her children to Colombia. She also says that she did not know the majority of her boyfriend’s co-conspirators, as her role in his operation was fairly limited and he conducted much of his drug-dealing out of town. Unwilling to testify against her boyfriend and unable to provide substantial assistance in the prosecution of his co-conspirators, Griffin opted to go to trial.

The trial court concluded that Griffin and her boyfriend managed a cocaine distribution ring, obtaining large amounts of cocaine in Houston and transporting the powder cocaine to Oklahoma City, where it was converted into crack for sale by resellers. The court found Griffin’s boyfriend had masterminded the entire operation. According to an FBI special agent, it was one of the largest cocaine distribution conspiracies in Oklahoma history. According to prosecutors, Griffin was responsible for getting “mules” to transport the cocaine from Houston to Oklahoma City, as well as heading the organization when her boyfriend was out of town. Though prosecutors referred to her boyfriend of about five years as her common-law husband and argued she ought to have had knowledge of all his activities, she says he had other girlfriends and they lived together sporadically.

Griffin was convicted of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, unlawful travel in interstate commerce with intent to carry on unlawful activity, and two counts of distribution of one kilogram of cocaine. The judge held her responsible for the conspiracy’s distribution of 34 kilograms of crack cocaine, while her boyfriend was held responsible for conspiring to distribute nearly 48 kilograms of crack; both claimed their activities were limited to powder cocaine.

On account of the quantity and type of drugs involved, and because the judge found Griffin to have held a leadership role in the conspiracy, she was sentenced to LWOP on the conspiracy charge, as well as two concurrent 280-month sentences and a 60-month sentence. The co-conspirators who testified against Griffin and her boyfriend in exchange for reduced sentences received sentences of five to 10 years, according to Griffin. She recalls that her father cried throughout her sentencing. Griffin says she was so distraught at her own sentencing that she did not fully understand what had happened until she was given an antipsychotic, anti-anxiety medication the next morning. She says, “Being sentenced to life without parole was like witnessing my own death. It’s an ache I can’t explain: feeling lonely and numb.”

Griffin, now 47, has served 22 years in prison and says she feels immense remorse for her actions. “I would give anything to turn back the hands of time. Just to be able to make different decisions,” she says. “I know I did something wrong, but not enough to take away my life.” She says that she feels constant sorrow, depression, and pain over her sentence.

While incarcerated, Griffin has earned a business certificate from Tallahassee Community College and works at the prison recreation center. She reports she remains close to her mother and four children, and she mourns her father’s death since she was incarcerated. According to Griffin, most devastating to her is that her children, who were ages seven months, four, six, and eight when she was incarcerated, have grown up without her and were raised instead by her aunt and mother. Griffin says one of her daughters was sexually abused in her aunt’s home, after which Griffin’s mother raised her daughters. Her son began acting out after her incarceration and has not visited her since he was 16 because he says he cannot handle visiting her in prison. Her youngest daughter, who was just an infant when she began her sentence, is now 21 and has a severe disability. “I have been cut off from my family by seeing my children grow through visitation,” Griffin told the ACLU. “It is devastating. ‘Cause I was always there with them every day…it’s hurt me because I missed out on a lot of their lives and I can’t make that up.”

Click here to view original ACLU article (Page 51).

*Teresa’s sentence was ultimately commuted by President Obama.

Teresa Griffin

Teresa Griffin

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