Editor's Note: (President Obama has commuted the sentences of hundreds of drug offenders. This is the story of one woman, reported over the course of several months.)
Sharanda Jones says she was never told she could be facing life in prison after being indicted for seven counts of conspiracy to traffic cocaine. It was her first criminal offense. During her week-long trial, prosecutors were unable to produce any physical evidence that Jones actually ever possessed, bought, or sold cocaine and according to courtroom testimony, relied mostly on the word of admitted drug dealers and users who received leniency in exchange for their testimony. When the judge read the verdicts -- "not guilty" for six counts and "guilty" of one -- Jones felt somewhat relieved. That feeling wouldn't last very long.
As she listened to prosecutors tallying up the factors that determined jail time in federal court, Jones realized that she would be spending much more than the five or so years she expected in a worst case scenario.
The 23.92 kilos of crack cocaine Jones was convicted of conspiring to traffic would have yielded a maximum sentence of just around 24 years' imprisonment based on federal sentencing guidelines. But prosecutors then began to argue for sentencing enhancements. A concealed carry permit in her name was used as evidence that a firearm was present "in furtherance of a drug conspiracy." She was listed as a "leader/organizer" of the conspiracy. And she committed perjury, they said, according to court documents, "for her false denials of guilt on the stand."
Prosecutors argued that due to the amount of time she was facing, Jones should be held until sentencing. The judge agreed.
"My attorney told me, 'Don't say anything,' that [he'll] do all the talking and just stand there. And I see marshals coming and I didn't know what that meant, not knowing they were coming to lock me up," Jones said.
Jones was immediately taken into custody after her guilty verdict, which was a shock in itself considering it was her first encounter with the criminal justice system. That morning she had dropped her daughter off at school, gone to work at the diner she co-owned, and attended her hearing during her lunch break. Jones recalls that she even left her purse in her car that day, thinking she would have time to sort her affairs well before beginning to serve out her punishment.
Jones was sentenced in November 1999 to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole. She would never again drop her daughter off at school, work another shift in her diner, or drive the car unintentionally abandoned in the Dallas courthouse parking lot.
"I remember him saying 'I'm sentencing you to life' and I was just numb," Jones said. "I couldn't understand it. I was just blank. My body was numb. I couldn't cry. I couldn't process it at all."
Sharanda wasn't the only member of her family headed to jail for this conspiracy case. Her sister Sherena served six years for what prosecutors portrayed as a minor role in the conspiracy. Her brother Ernest was sentenced to 18 years in prison. And her mother, a quadriplegic since a car accident at the age of 20, was sentenced to a 17 years.
The Jones family were just four of more than 100 black residents of Terrell, Texas, rounded up in a drug sweep aimed at crack cocaine users, dealers, and suppliers in 1997. Over the following two years, the Kaufman County Sheriff Department, Terrell, Texas police detectives, and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents would leverage those arrested for low-level offenses into giving up information on fellow users, dealers, and suppliers. With many defendants facing long "mandatory minimum" sentences for non-violent drug offenses, government informants were not hard to come by -- friends and neighbors testified against one another to downplay their involvement in the conspiracy. Those that testified or "snitched" received leniency in their sentences. Those that didn't faced the harshest punishment. Drug users and low level drug dealers receiving jail terms reserved for the most notorious kingpins, Jones says.
Sharanda's decision not to snitch would prove costly.
"They arrested a couple I knew, a couple I had dealt with in the past and they implicated me." Jones explained. "Not as their main supplier but as someone who could just help them out." The couple, Julie Franklin and Keith Jackson, acquaintances of the Jones family, had called Sharanda pleading for her to front them drugs to be sold later as they were hard pressed for money. Unbeknownst to Jones, their conversation was being recorded and listened to by the DEA. At first, Jones reluctantly agreed to try to connect them with a woman who may be able to provide them with drugs to sell, but ultimately told them she was back running the diner and that any drug contacts she had known are "long gone, all gone," according to court documents.
That couple later testified that Jones had previously provided them with 40 kilograms of powder cocaine to be converted to crack. Additionally, a Houston cocaine supplier, Joseph Antoine testified that he provided Jones with cocaine to be sold at the family "crack house" that Jones and her siblings and mother were alleged to be dealing from, accusing Jones herself of setting the market price for crack cocaine in the area.
"Evidence of Sharanda Jones's involvement in a conspiracy to distribute cocaine at 705 Rosehill is sufficient, though only barely so," according to a ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding her conviction.
"They clearly testified that I was the middle person because they actually got the main character and they got the low level drug dealers and they put me in the middle of both of them," Jones said.
Julie Franklin and Keith Jackson would be later sentenced to seven and eight years with Antoine, the main supplier, receiving 19-and-a-half years. All have since been released.
On November 10, 1999 BOP Prisoner No. 33177-077 began her life sentence at a Tallahassee, Florida federal prison before being transferred a year later to Carswell federal prison in Forth Worth, Texas alongside her mother, who was on the medical floor that she described as a "nursing home type setting," and her sister, Sherena, who she shared a unit with.
"Those are eight-by-eight rooms and there are four people in those rooms," Sharanda recalled. "That's harsh living."
Despite the severity of her sentence, Jones insists she never let it break her. "All the staff can tell you I never programmed my mind to say life. And people would ask me how much time I had. I just could never get life out. It just didn't seem right rolling off my tongue," Jones said. "I just knew an appeal will work. Maybe I'll do five, ten, 15 years at the most because I am guilty. But not for no life sentence."
Nonetheless, Jones settled in for a long stint. "You can be in any group in prison. They have a wild group, they have a calm group, they have older people. So, I kind of like stick with my group the older people, watch the news daily and that's how I kept up with what was going on in the world," Jones said.
The remote possibility of freedom in the future, no matter how distant, kept Jones far away from all the trouble or temptations a prisoner may face in trying to escape from their realities. "The pill line is the number one thing there. Just drugs, drugs, drugs. I had to get two knee replacements and all they could offer me is Percocets and OxyContin. I always turned down narcotics. Friends before had already told me, 'Don't take a narcotic, we took them when we came here and now we are addicted to those drugs'," Jones said.
Jones wasn't a perfect prisoner, she admits, having to occasionally sneak pass a particularly strict guard who refused to let Jones into the medical ward to see her mother.
"We based the rest of our lives around helping our mom," Jones said.
But no matter how much family she had around her to ease the pain of being incarcerated, she could not wrap her mind around how unfair her sentence seemed. "We had rapists, murderers. The prison I was at had a max unit where people have done horrible crimes and they still had a number, they still had a [release] date. And I would compare myself to those people cause my cell was facing the max unit. when they take people in and out I'm looking at that. I'm looking at how they chained and shackled up and I'm chained and shackled up and I'm like, this just don't match up to me," Sharanda recalled with cracks in her voice.
In 2009, Jones received an unexpected visit in prison from a stranger that would change her life. Brittany Byrd was still a law student when she stumbled upon Jones' case and began to research it. The daughter of an incarcerated mother, Byrd was moved to action. Soon, Byrd visited Jones, who at the time had no legal representation as all her appeals had been exhausted, and convinced her that she would take the case all the way to the White House if she had to, until Jones was a free woman.
"I was like, you know, God you really sending someone to help me and from that day on, our vibes grew stronger and our belief grew together like this is gonna happen one day so we started working on the clemency," Jones said, describing how it felt to meet Byrd.
But it wasn't until her mother died, one year away from her release, that Sharanda really set her mind on freedom. Jones recalls the last exchange she had with her mother. "She said I gotta go out to the hospital and said 'I'll see you tomorrow'. The next day they called and said she had 24 hours to live and I didn't understand that. That was like all I knew at Carswell was to be with her," Jones said, crying. "As soon as my mother passed I said I knew I'm going home. I scheduled my routine around her so, that's all I knew."
To date, President Barack Obama has granted 673 commutations, with 232 of those individuals initially serving life sentences. According to Neil Eggleston, White House counsel to the President, these individuals "received unduly harsh sentences under outdated laws for committing largely nonviolent drug crimes."
And while recent drug sentencing reforms, such as former Attorney General Holder's "Smart on Crime Initiative," which prioritizes federal prosecutor resources for the most serious offenses, keep many low level offenders from entering the overcrowded prison system, there was no retroactive mechanism to assist those already convicted.
The only possibility of freedom, they determined, would be a presidential pardon or commutation. Byrd would have to live up to the promise she made and get the Obama administration to pay attention to Sharanda's case. With the clemency petition filed, Byrd began a grassroots campaign to highlight what she saw as a major injustice in Jones' sentence.
One Monday in December 2015, Byrd heard rumors that President Obama was scheduled to announce a round of pardons, commutations, and clemencies. "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, nothing happened," Sharanda remembers. "Then on Friday, the officer called me and told me to go to the back conference room and that just doesn't happen."
Jones waited alongside another inmate, both uncertain as to why they were being called in but remaining hopeful that their long shot bids for freedom had finally been granted. They began praying together before Jones was then escorted into yet another conference room where a phone call was waiting on her. It was Byrd, her attorney.
"Brittany, is everything ok?" Jones asked.
"You're going home!" Byrd screamed as Jones broke down in tears.
But just as Jones had to adapt to prison life almost 17 years ago, she now must adapt to life on the outside and reconcile all the moments she's missed with her family. Since being released, Jones has found a job doing clerical work and is trying to rebuild her life while reconnecting with her daughter, Clenesha, who had been without her mother since the age of 8. And while Jones may have missed out on raising her own daughter, she feels she has been blessed with yet another second chance with the birth of her granddaughter three months ago.
Jones plans to use her voice to raise awareness for the need for criminal justice reform. "I am so grateful for having a second chance at life but I left so many women behind who deserve the same mercy I was given," Jones said. "I want to be done but I can't be done until more come home."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story contained a photo caption that misspelled Reynolds Wintersmith's name.