September 22nd, 2016
July 7, 2000 was the greatest day of my life. It was the day when President Clinton had mercy on my suffering soul and commuted my 24-year sentence to time served—after I’d languished in hell for nine years and three months. That’s what prison is: hell. And the United states, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population, is ground zero for this hell on earth.
I believe that my story and the stories of many other women like me, are a particularly brutal manifestation of this—and as I’ll explain, the clemency so far granted by President Obama to my fellow women in prison is nowhere near enough.
My hell began in 1989, the day federal agents raided my home following my then-husband’s arrest in Germany for manufacturing MDMA.
I had left him one year earlier—in 1988, the same year conspiracy laws were expanded that ensnare partners of anyone involved in the drug trade.
I’m not pretending to be completely ignorant: I knew he could get ecstasy and we took it together several times. My husband was a successful entrepreneur and Stanford Law School graduate—not someone you might expect to sell drugs. But until 1985, ecstasy was legal and he believed in its beneficial properties, which I, too, experienced. What I did not know, is that he had been manufacturing MDMA, in both Guatemala and Germany, at a pharmaceutical plant.
True to my codependent nature, I visited him in Germany after his arrest while his case was pending, and in doing so, became a target of a US investigation into his enterprise. Like a fool, I unwittingly entered the conspiracy after his arrest by agreeing to collect illicit money for his bail. It only takes one overt act, which in layman’s terms means to advance the conspiracy one step, to be considered equally culpable for the entire scope of the conspiracy, from its inception.
In September 1989, I pulled into my garage in Los Angeles and was rushed by two men pointing guns at my head. I was given an ultimatum to “cooperate” or be indicted for “conspiracy,” which would result in “20-to-life.”
I had no interest in “cooperating” while a team of no fewer than 10 federal agents was ransacking my home and as a result, they eventually left. That day, the feds were bluffing about the arrest—even though they Mirandized me. But they were not bluffing about their threat to “destroy [my] life.”
Almost two years later, I was indicted and shipped on Con Air to Waco, Texas—a town I had never been to and had no desire to visit. Although the conspiracy was based out of Dallas, where I had previously lived, the prosecutor successfully moved the venue to a jurisdiction that afforded them one judge: Judge Smith. His courthouse was remodeled, due to the fact that the McLennan county jail was housing “federal inmates” and therefore qualified for an infusion of federal funds in reward for all the drug cases they were prosecuting. Hmm.
If you’ve never been indicted for federal drug charges, you’d have no reason to know that “cooperation” means, in legal terms, that one must give “substantial assistance” in the form of feeding more people into the system in order to save your own skin. My own prosecutor admitted to a reporter for Glamour magazine that “Had she…cooperated, been truthful, honest and candid—I would say there’s a probability she wouldn’t have been prosecuted.”
For one year, pressure was applied while I endured deplorable county jail conditions, including a case of chickenpox, but my resolve was firm. I was not going to do to others what was being done to me. I had information on one person I could have ratted out, but I was unwilling, because “being honest” based on what I’d observed, meant telling them what they wanted to hear. At some point, we have to stand up against this conspiracy monster that feeds off so many lives.
My ex-husband, however, while incarcerated in Germany, provided information on everyone he had recruited to engage in his MDMA operation. As a result, after he served four years in Germany for a case that was based only in Europe, he returned to the US and was sentenced to three years’ probation by Judge Smith.
Judge Smith had given me 24 years.
My sentence was based on 3 million tablets my husband had manufactured. The conspiracy law, back then, held me equally culpable for everything he had done. My parents stood in the Waco federal courthouse and, having done everything they could to raise their family right, watched their dreams evaporate.
My timing was off. Prior to November 1, 1986, most first-time drug offenders received only probation. But due to the Reagan-era resurrection of the drug war, with conspiracy laws and mandatory sentencing, many first offenders are now serving sentences that range from 20 years to life.
Although women make up only 6.7 percent of the total federal prison population, if we look at drug offenders only, that ratio shifts. “Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes for drug offenses have significantly increased the numbers of women in state and federal prisons,” write Stephanie S. Covington and Barbara E. Bloom, co-directors of the Center for Gender and Justice.
“Women offenders who in past decades would have been given community sanctions are now being sentenced to prison. Between 1995 and 1996, female drug arrests increased by 95 percent, while male drug arrests increased by 55 percent,” they continue.
It’s hugely significant, too, that the growth of women in prison has outpaced men by nearly two to one over the last 30 years—driven above all by drug-law violations, which is what President Obama’s clemency program is focused upon.
The conspiracy law is one reason for the explosion of women being incarcerated. We don’t put the wives of pedophiles, murderers or burglars in prison. Bernie Madoff’s wife didn’t go to prison. So why do the wives and partners of drug dealers go to prison, and in many cases, end up with more time than the ring-leaders? Although I don’t believe that anyone should be incarcerated for a nonviolent drug offense, and I’m elated for anyone who can escape this nightmare, this still seems especially wrong.
I spent nine years getting to know these women during my own incarceration, reviewing many of their cases in the law library and hearing their stories. Most were similar to my own.
All of this explains why I’m upset that out of Obama’s 673 clemency recipients to date, only 59 of them (just over 8 percent) have been women. It simply does not add up.
Upon my release from prison I started the CAN-DO Foundation and have been advocating for the women I left behind for 16 years. I compiled a list of the Top 25 Women who deserve clemency and recently added the Top 25 Men, due to immense demand during this clemency push. Many deserving cases of men remain, such as that of David Morris Barren, whose partner, Anrica Caldwell, recently wrote about it for The Influence. But the lack of women on each and every list has been heartbreaking.
Take Rita Beccera, for example. She cut hair for 21 years when she met a guy at the hair salon. They moved in together and he started selling drugs. About nine months later, he was busted. Rita was never offered a deal because, as her boyfriend said, she had no information outside of her contact with him. He cooperated and received 9 years, while she got 27 years, because, as a co-conspirator, she is equally culpable for his actions but she does not get the benefit of his plea bargain. He’s home and she has served 20 years.
Even more shocking, her clemency petition was recently denied—despite the fact she’s a first offender, has never been in trouble during her incarceration and has completed an endless list of programs while incarcerated. What conceivable reason is there to deny Rita’s clemency? Sadly, Rita was put through this rigorous campaign only to be stigmatized, once again, as someone unworthy of mercy even though she’s the epitome of someone who deserves leniency.
Or take Mary Ziman—a 67-year-old Native yerican woman who suffers from debilitating fibromyalgia, has three cancerous spots on her left lung, requires the use of three inhalers and has only 51 percent lung capacity. She is blind in one eye and has a cataract in the other. She’s been hospitalized numerous times during her 17 years in prison for drug conspiracy charges, including for 10 days in March 2016, due to a kidney infection stemming from an untreated urinary tract infection. She too was denied clemency even though she’s no threat to society, whatsoever.
Or what about Lori Kavitz, who has served 15 years of a 24-year sentence like mine, and has the support of her sentencing judge, Mark Bennet? He wrote a letter literally “begging” the deputy pardon attorney, Larry Kupers, to give Lori a favorable recommendation.
Lori is a classic example of many of the women I met who have clemency petitions pending. Her husband committed suicide and Lori fell into depression as her life spun out of control. At her weakest moment, she met a guy who brought meth into her life—she had never used illegal drugs before. Lori doesn’t claim to be innocent, but she was far less involved in the drug trade than the man who brought her into it. And despite being a first offender who has perfect conduct for over 15 years, she has so far been overlooked.
Fortunately, we also have clemency victories for women, such as Josephine Ledezma and Danielle Metz, who were both first offenders serving life without parole for conspiracy. Or Angie Jenkins and Barbra Scrivner, who were each serving 30 years because the only way out of a draconian sentence requires the women to rat out a loved one, and they would not. Like me, these women could not cross that line and we paid the ultimate price.
Based on my experience, the conspiracy law is possibly the best-kept secret in the nation. I’m tired of explaining it to people and watching their jaws drop.
It’s time to take a long hard look at what the mission is here.
Has the drug war made progress in creating a drug-free society? Or has it merely crushed the very lives of the people it claims to be protecting?
Has it helped people avoid addiction? Or has it harshly punished people who are addicted?
The answers to those questions have long been clear. But I applaud President Obama’s clemency project because he is the first President in my adult lifetime who has taken such direct action to correct the injustices inflicted by an era when lawmakers tried to out-do one another to display “zero-tolerance” and “tough on crime” bona fides.
I just pray that women will not be overlooked or under-represented in Obama’s remaining clemency lists—because they certainly were not overlooked when the drug war kicked into its highest gear. We were easy targets. Too many of us bear the scars. Let the healing begin with one list devoted solely to women.
Amy Povah is the founder of CAN-DO: Justice Through Clemency.