The Nation's Shame: The Injustice of Mandatory Minimums

For decades, lawyers, scholars, and judges have criticized mandatory drug sentencing as oppressive and ineffective. Yet tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders continue to languish behind bars.

Credit: The Washington Post/Getty

No one embodies the emerging consensus on the excessive cruelty of mandatory drug sentencing quite like Mark Osler. He's currently a law professor, but back in the Nineties he worked as an assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuting crack cocaine cases in his native Detroit. Tough punishment was routine: Five years for crack rocks the weight of two sugar cubes. Five more if the defendant happened to have a gun tucked in his belt. Sometimes, Osler could close out a case in the span of a morning. "I thought crack was harming the social fabric," he says, "and strict sentences would deter people."

Law enforcement efforts concentrated in Detroit's urban neighborhoods, and of the dozens of drug defendants he put behind bars, the majority were young men who were poor and black. A public defender named Andrew Densemo represented many of them, and at sentencing the judge would ask, "Will you be making your futile speech?" Densemo would invariably say, "Yes," then he'd stand and speak at length about the groundless 100-to-one sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, the crippling consequences for first-time offenders, and the failure of the laws to actually stamp out trafficking. When he finished, Osler would remind the court that the sentence was mandatory, and the judge would have no choice but to send the defendant to prison. 

But one afternoon in 1997, Densemo's speech finally got to Osler. "In the gospels," he explains, "We have Jesus walking up to a legal execution, saying, 'You who are without sin cast the first stone,' challenging the moral right of the crowd to stone the adulteress. I remember thinking, 'I'm the guy with the rock.'"

Osler left the U.S. attorney's office, and he's spent the past decade fighting unforgiving drug sentencing though litigation and advocacy. "The mechanistic outcome seemed so scientific," he says. "Here's what the person did, match it up on the grid. But it reduced everyone to a number, and there was this overwhelming sense almost like you were stacking bodies up." 

Widely enacted in the Eighties and Nineties amid rising crime and racially coded political fearmongering, mandatory penalties — like minimum sentences triggered by drug weight, automatic sentencing enhancements, and three-strikes laws — have flooded state and federal prisons with nonviolent offenders. Intended to ensure uniform discipline, these policies simply shifted discretion to prosecutors. Judges lost latitude to tailor sanctions based on whether someone was a kingpin or courier, for example, while Osler says, prosecutors gained "a big hammer. The easy way of doing things is to threaten people with a lot of time, and then plead them out," he says. "But easy and justice don't go together very well."

In 2011, he founded the country's first federal clemency clinic, at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. With his law students, Osler works on behalf of inmates who've lost decades to unduly punitive terms, filing commutation petitions for early release with the Office of the Pardon Attorney. Until recently, commutation was a distant hope for applicants; President Obama has granted clemency more rarely than any modern executive. But in April, the administration unveiled plans to revive the pardon power, in what could be its most vigorous exercise since President Ford granted amnesty to Vietnam draft-dodgers. "One of the uses of clemency has been to address overzealousness in warfare," Osler says. "This is in response to the War on Drugs." 

But while such advances mark a clear departure from the old alarmist ethos, the drug war is entrenched in decades of prison buildup. Between 1980 and 2010, state incarceration rates for drug crimes multiplied tenfold, while the federal drug prisoner population ballooned by a factor of 20. Every year, taxpayers shell out $51 billion for drug war spending. Meanwhile, 2.2 million people — or a quarter of the world's prisoners — crowd a system that exacts its harshest toll on the most vulnerable. Racism undermines the justice process from initial stop to sentence, and 60 percent of those incarcerated are people of color. Rates of illiteracy, addiction, and mental illness are disproportionately high. 

Amid utter congressional deadlock, sentencing reform is the only issue that has cut across partisan bickering to unite such normally irreconcilable voices as Rand Paul, Dick Durbin, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan and John Conyers. Yet the proposed Smarter Sentencing Act, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, has since run aground. The bill would halve key mandatory minimums, make relief under the Fair Sentencing Act available to 8,800 federal crack defendants locked up before 2010 and save $4 billion in the process. More than 260,000 people have been imprisoned under federal drug mandatory minimums, and more will continue to cycle through the system — even as others are granted clemency — as long as reforms remain stalled. At the state level, reforms without retroactive application strand drug defendants in prison even after the laws that put them there are reassessed as unjust. The following seven cases epitomize the rigid regimes of the past, and the challenges involved in dismantling them.

Timothy Tyler

In July 1992, police officers found 23-year-old Timothy Tyler wandering naked on Interstate 10 near Palm Springs, California, trying to build a dam across the highway after taking too much LSD on the way to a Jerry Garcia concert. Tyler, who'd been touring with the Grateful Dead and considered the drug a spiritual sacrament, was checked into a nearby hospital — then arrested upon release. 

He had recently mailed 5.2 grams of LSD to friends back home in Florida, one of whom had become a confidential informant. A pre-sentence report detailed Tyler's lack of financial assets, noting, "Being paid for the drug was of secondary importance [because] Mr. Tyler was convinced the use of LSD would spread peace." The investigation found "no specifically identifiable victim" associated with his offense. But mandatory minimums rendered these factors irrelevant, and Tyler was condemned to a double life sentence.

Two decades later, now 46 and imprisoned in Jesup, Georgia, Tyler vividly remembers his first Grateful Dead concert, which he hitchhiked 900 miles to attend in Rosemont, Illinois. "I felt this energy," he says. "I immediately knew I had found what I was searching for."

"Tim was captivated by the tie-dyes and the people twirling," says his younger sister, Carrie. "But it was also sanity, acceptance, peace." Growing up in rural Connecticut, the two endured physical abuse at the hands of their stepfather. Carrie describes her brother as "too trusting" and a "gentle soul," and remembers their stepfather instructing him as a nine-year-old to bury a litter of puppies that had died after contracting heartworm. "Tim was punched and put down," she says. "The Deadheads taught him about the earth and karma and positive things."

On the road with the band, Tyler ran a popular fried dough stand and became a vegan, because "I did not want to promote death," he says. He also regularly used LSD, which his sister worried exacerbated the underlying mental health issues that ran in their family. "I would drive across the country and bring him back," she says, describing several drug-induced psychotic episodes that led to periods of hospitalization. Years later, Tyler would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

In 1991, he was arrested twice and later sentenced to probation for selling acid to his friends. Then, the next year, a member of his circle began assisting federal officers, seeking leniency for his own drug charges. Tyler says the informant requested more than he usually handled, and claimed envelopes had been lost in the mail. Nevertheless, he sent 13,000 hits of LSD over the course of two months. "I just thought I'd help my friends out, and it turned into a nightmare," he says.

Although Tyler mailed a total of 5.2 grams, mandatory minimum statutes calculate weight based on any "mixture or substance containing a detectable amount" of LSD. Blotter paper bumped up the quantity he was held responsible for to 10 grams — a threshold that demands life without parole on a third felony drug offense.

By linking punishment to drug weight, mandatory minimums often distort culpability; consider that a hired hand unloading contraband from the back of a truck may handle more drugs than the cartel leader who arranged the shipment. Forty percent of drug defendants in the federal system were couriers or street dealers, and like Tyler, most weren't violent: of the 25,000 drug offenders taken into custody last year, 85 percent did not have a weapon associated with their case.  

To Tyler's dismay, his father — who he maintains picked up an envelope as a favor to a friend — was also ensnared in what investigators deemed a "very loosely woven conspiracy." Tyler says he pleaded guilty to avoid testifying against family, but his father received 10 years anyway, thanks to a decades-old marijuana conviction. He died of a heart attack in 2001, 18 months before his scheduled release.

"We were talking about having a big party," Carrie says, "and then he came out in a box." She knows her brother might face the same fate. "I'll put it out of my head for a few hours, and then a reminder will intrude on my temporary amnesia. It's like a never-ending death." 

Years into his sentence, Tyler spent time at a medical facility in Springfield, Missouri, where he received psychiatric treatment. But despite ongoing health concerns, he's repeatedly been held in solitary confinement. During a lockdown last year, Carrie says, guards found him singing loudly and smearing feces on himself, overcome by the pressure of isolation.

She has tirelessly advocated on her brother's behalf, gathering nearly 400,000 signatures in support of his clemency petition. "In Springfield, they had a couple of trees," she recalls. "Tim hugged a tree. It had been 14 years since he touched a tree. He's been hurting for a long time."

DeJarion Echols

Over a six-month spell in 2004, young father and aspiring college student DeJarion Echols sold crack cocaine in an effort to support his family and finance his education. Instead, he lost both, consigned to a stiff, two-decade term that moved his presiding judge to confess, "This is one of those situations where I'd like to see a congressman sitting before me."

"I think I had the worst career as a dealer known to man," Echols says, calling 10 years later from a federal prison in Montgomery, Alabama. "Everything transpired so quickly. I've never been versed at being anything other than what we call a square."

Growing up in Waco, Texas, Echols thrived academically, winning a district-wide writing contest and attending a public magnet school. At the time, nearly 40 percent of residents in his zip code lived below the poverty line — triple the national rate. "Coming from a community marred with blight," he says, "one always wanted to believe that change could be made from the inside." He set his sights on a degree in criminal justice.

The birth of a daughter, Charity, led Echols to postpone his plans after graduating from high school. Instead, he spent three years working with at-risk youth, first as a juvenile corrections officer, and eventually as a counselor and aide at a psychiatric treatment facility for teens. Finally, in 2003, he was accepted to Texas College on a football scholarship.

But his hopes were dashed upon arrival, when he learned the award he'd been granted was partial, and he failed to qualify for additional financial aid. Unable to enroll and newly unemployed, he returned to Waco, where he cast around for jobs, but came up empty-handed. "So many of my counterparts were taking out loans, and I didn't want to fall into that tailspin," Echols says. "As backwards and illogical as dealing drugs comes across, I saw what my future could hold with the possibility of an education, and I was enamored of that vision. 

A joint local and federal task force had been pinching petty dealers, probing for information about a broader distribution ring, and it wasn't long before Echols was apprehended, carrying an ounce and a half of crack. He consented to a search of his apartment, and law enforcement turned up a total of 44 grams, $5,700 he'd put aside for tuition and an unloaded rifle.

Had Echols implicated higher-ups, his lawyer argued, his case would have been transferred to the state, likely resulting in probation. Instead, the feds swooped in, converting the cash seized into an additional 460 grams of crack for sentencing purposes, which tipped him into the weight bracket compelling a mandatory 10-year term.

Then, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting his case elected to file a firearm enhancement for the rifle found under Echols' bed, which had been offloaded by a customer in lieu of cash. Echols says he never carried it nor attempted to load it — he didn't even know what kind of ammo it required. Nevertheless, mere possession can enhance underlying drug crimes, and 10 more years were tacked onto his term. "Is it mandatory that these counts run consecutively?" his judge asked, seemingly at a loss. "Yes," the prosecutor responded. "It's a bad gun."

"Anytime you're helping perpetuate a cycle of addiction, you deserve to be punished," says Echols, who was 22 when he was arrested. "But it's impossible to wrap your mind around the disproportionate sentences you see in here. Structural racism creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where its consequences become its justifications." At the time, African Americans made up more than 80 percent of federal crack defendants, while two-thirds of users were white or Hispanic.  

Echols' partner, an intensive care nurse named Crystal Garcia, had been pregnant in her third trimester. "It was devastating," she recalls. She poured her savings into his legal fees, and was broke by the time their daughter Faith was born, just six weeks after he was taken into custody. "I always wanted life to be me and DJ," she says. "They gave our family a 20-year sentence." She's logged thousands of miles driving to visit, ensuring Echols maintains an intimate relationship with his daughters, now eight and 15. When he applied for commutation in 2011, Garcia was so hopeful he'd be freed that she bought him new shoes and work clothes — but his petition was denied.

Echols hasn't heard whether he's eligible to reapply under Obama's initiative, but applicants are supposed to serve at least 10 years, and he passed nine in August. "You would like to believe America is a nation that allows an individual to rise above his failures," he says.

After nearly a decade of striving to maintain their relationship, Garcia has taken steps to move on. "For a long time, I lived life like, 'Happiness will be when he comes home,'" she says. "But I'm not that strong anymore. I feel like life is passing me by."

"She's been my partner in the fight that is imprisonment," Echols says. "But life is in motion, and prison stands still."

Jenifer Lockwood

In March 2009, Jenifer Lockwood paid for a one-month prescription of the pain reliever Lortab at a pharmacy in Pensacola, Florida. Her two sons were playing video games up front when state narcotics investigators approached the counter with handcuffs. "I was freaking out," she remembers. "I'm worried my kids are going to see their mom being arrested."

A 31-year-old nurse without a criminal history, Lockwood was allowed to return home with her boys, then nine and ten. "I'll just tell the truth and it'll all be OK," she thought as she drove away. "I didn't understand the severity of what had just happened — that I was looking at 15 years."

Lockwood had struggled with addiction since 2005, following a series of surgeries related to endometriosis. Her marriage was falling apart, and the opioid pain meds prescribed by her doctor helped numb the emotional as well as the physical. "It took me no time to become addicted," she says. "Then you have to take them, or you're physically sick."

Over the past decade, pain pill prescriptions have increased fourfold, thanks largely to drugmakers' efforts to downplay risk and expand the market. Recent lawsuits filed by two California counties and the city of Chicago have alleged a "deeply deceptive marketing campaign" that involved misleading medical literature, Pharma-funded patient organizations, and financial incentives for prominent physicians. Opioid painkillers contribute to some 17,000 fatal overdoses each year, more than heroin and cocaine combined.

Lockwood cycled between rehab and relapse, but concealed her personal ordeal from family members, including her fiancé, Kenny, who she met following her divorce. "Pain pills give you a false energy," she explains. "As far as the rest of the world was concerned, I could clean the house, be the biggest cheerleader at my kids' games, the best worker at the hospital." When her supply ran out, she fabricated a litany of ongoing ills, and eventually used her position in the medical field to call in false prescriptions. "I had a double life," she admits. "Kenny says he didn't know. Sometimes, when you love someone, you overlook things."

Since 1999, Florida had been home to a singularly punishing painkiller policy that bore down not on Pharma giants or rogue doctors, but on users grappling with addition. Like federal laws, sentences were based on the weight of "any mixture containing" narcotics like oxycodone or hydrocodone. But while hydrocodone-based pills like Lortab are heavy, they're more than 95 percent acetaminophen. As a result, invalid possession of just seven pills — what someone with a serious habit might go through in half a day — triggered three years in prison.

The state is a case study on the failures of deterrence. In 2010, Florida became the nation's pill mill capital: 98 of the top 100 high-volume oxycodone prescribers operated out of the Sunshine State. "You see prison admissions skyrocket, corrections spending skyrocket, prescription drug overdoses skyrocket," says Greg Newburn, state project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "If there was this deterrent effect that was promised in 1999, we wouldn't have gotten to this point."

Lockwood made a minor dosage error calling in the Lortab, and a pharmacy employee alerted the authorities after realizing the patient listed was invented. Cops later booked Lockwood in county jail, where she endured severe withdrawal, but didn't receive medical care. "I was deathly ill for weeks," she says. "I vomited. I had seizures. I don't even know how I'm alive through that."

For 60 pills she never even walked out with, Lockwood faced trafficking charges for just over 28 grams, decimal points above the weight threshold requiring 25 years. Threatened with the unthinkable, she was forced to accept a 15-year plea bargain before even consulting with her family. "I think of trafficking as moving large quantities," she says. "I was feeding an addiction, I never sold or traded." Half of Florida's opioid "traffickers" are in prison for less than 30 pills, and most require substance treatment.

Lockwood's former husband cut her off from her oldest sons, now 14 and 15, who live with an ex-wife of his in Tennessee. "I haven't received a picture," Lockwood says. "I don't even know what they look like." An inmate law clerk, she's been battling to reestablish custody.

This spring, after finally concluding the state was bleeding funds locking up the wrong people, lawmakers passed a bill raising weight limits for opioids. But it doesn't apply retroactively, and Lockwood — who under the new rules would have been released two years ago — still has eight years to serve, and $150,000 in fines.

"The people here aren't big-time," she says of her minimum-security wing in Quincy, Florida. "The girl that sleeps beside me was 19 — sold her grandfather's prescription out of the cabinet to someone down the road. She had no clue, gets 15 years. What's going to happen when we come out, especially to people coming from poverty? If you weren't a criminal coming in, this is the place you get started."

Jesse Webster

The drug deal that led to Jesse Webster's arrest was abandoned before it could be carried out, and no cocaine was ever seized to substantiate the kilos attributed to him — enough to compel life in prison. At Webster's 1996 sentencing, his judge denounced the penalty — "in simple terms, it's too high" — and conceded the policy that precipitated it was "essentially incorrect." Nineteen years later, even his former prosecutors agree there's no justice served by keeping him locked up until his health fails. 

Webster was raised on the South Side of Chicago, where his family of seven often went without gas and electricity, supported entirely by his stepfather's job as a parking lot attendant. Webster found work at a carwash in his early teens, and his unflagging ethic caught the eye of a customer, who offered him a job as a driver. "Where I grew up, drugs was like normal," he says. "Any concerns I had were outweighed by the needs of my family. OK, I'll drive you around, but one thing led to another. You get complacent, you get more involved."

In 1994, when he was 26, Webster helped set up a deal to purchase a significant amount of cocaine from an acquaintance who was cooperating with the DEA. The arrangement was ultimately called off, but a few months later, he heard he was wanted for questioning. "We had a meeting at my mother's house," he remembers. "My mom, my stepfather, my brothers and sisters. We decided the best thing would be for me to turn myself in, and then we all drove together. I was handcuffed in front of my family."

Although Webster wanted to take responsibility for the aborted transaction, the government refused to accept a guilty plea unless he agreed to serve as a confidential informant against a local gang. "They wanted me to wear wires on these guys," he says. "Obviously I was scared for the safety of my family." While in custody, he learned that gang members had murdered an informant assisting with the same investigation. Agents offered to put his relatives in witness protection, "but I couldn't ask them to leave everything they'd known their entire lives so I could avoid a prison sentence," Webster explains.

He went to trial, but his co-defendants had accepted pleas to testify against him, both about the abandoned deal and about previous drug activity. While Webster was acquitted of actually possessing cocaine, he was convicted of conspiracy to possess the drug, under provisions that extend mandatory penalties for substantive crimes to schemes or attempts to commit them. Because no contraband was confiscated, his co-defendants' statements — their route to early release — determined how much he'd be held accountable for.

"There is testimony about 12 to 15 kilograms nine or 10 times a year," Judge James Zagel explained at sentencing, staging simple multiplication to "wind up with" 288 kilos over two plus years. "Granted this pretty much takes the word of…others to establish," he acknowledged, "and none of the witnesses could be said to have led the existence of choir boys." Under then-binding sentencing guidelines, he was forced to send Webster away for life, while his co-defendants got off with less than five years each for comparable offenses. 

Set by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the guidelines were ruled advisory by the Supreme Court in 2005, but not retroactively. "How can you say something was broke before," Webster wonders, "and not fix it for the guys it really affected?" Zagel and both prosecutors involved with his case have written in support of his clemency petition.

To cope with his uncertain future, Webster teaches resume writing to inmates with upcoming release dates, counseling on re-entry even though he's never supposed to see the outside of his Greenville, Illinois facility. "Giving me a life sentence was saying I was beyond redemption," he says. "I would like to see somebody succeed."

Weldon Angelos

In an unusual 2004 ruling, a federal judge in Utah sentenced music producer and small-time marijuana dealer Weldon Angelos to 55 years behind bars — then implored the president to exercise clemency, and Congress to reconsider the laws that had tied his hands.

A conservative Bush-appointee who championed capital punishment and campaigned to repeal suspects' Miranda rights, Judge Paul Cassell hardly had misgivings about administering tough justice. But he balked at the penalty he was obliged to impose on 24-year-old Angelos, a first-time offender convicted of selling $350 worth of marijuana on three occasions, while also possessing firearms.

Finding the term "far in excess of [those] for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault and rape," Cassell marveled that "potential violence," when viewed through the lens of the War on Drugs, could provoke harsher consequences than "actual violence." Unable to depart from mandatory minimums, he handed down a sentence he described as "unjust, cruel, and irrational." Angelos will be in his seventies by the time he's released.

Angelos spent his early years between Salt Lake City and Nashville, where his mother's family played backup for famous jazz and country acts. When she left, his father, who was disabled by a vascular disease, moved Angelos and his siblings into Salt Lake's public housing projects. Recalling the humiliation of waiting in line for government-issued food, Angelos says he was drawn to hip-hop's embrace of style and resilience in the face of financial hardship. 

He dropped out of high school around the same time his girlfriend became pregnant, and during trips to Los Angelos to visit her relatives, hung around studios hoping to bump into musicians and producers. After founding his own label, Extravagant Records, it wasn't long before Angelos was collaborating with artists he looked up to. "One day he was talking about it, and the next day I was going to see him perform with Snoop Dogg," his older sister Lisa remembers, reeling off names as if no time has passed.

He was also raising two young sons, and started selling marijuana to help pay the bills until his music ventures stabilized. "It was part of the culture," Angelos says. "Every artist was smoking in their videos. When you're that young, you get caught up in the moment."

Over the spring and summer of 2002, a confidential informant set up three controlled buys from Angelos. Cassell would later question the pursuit of multiple deals, describing the crimes as "in some sense procured by the government." Little happened until five months after the transactions took place, when the informant claimed to have observed a gun, once in Angelos' car and subsequently in a holster strapped to his ankle. His contemporaneous statements to police omitted these details, and surveillance revealed nothing but an embrace between the two men. Later, a search of Angelos' apartment turned up one gun in a briefcase, and two in a locked safe.

Prosecutors offered a 15-year deal to plead guilty to armed drug distribution, threatening upwards of 100 if Angelos risked going to trial. "I had just started a family and a promising career," says Angelos, who consistently denied carrying a weapon. "My kids would be grown men when I got out." He turned down the bargain, and prosecutors loaded 15 more counts onto the original indictment. This "trial tax" isn't uncommon: federal drug defendants who elect to go to trial receive sentences three times as long as those who make things easy for prosecutors, according to Human Rights Watch.

Had Angelos been prosecuted in state court, he'd likely have been paroled after two or three years. Instead, one conviction for the stored weapons and two for the armed sales stacked in a steep hike intended for recidivist offenders — five years, plus 25 years for each subsequent count. For the pot violations that prompted the case to begin with, Cassell imposed the most trivial penalty he could: one day.

Because Utah has no federal prisons, Angelos is stuck in Mendota, California, far away from his family. He's earned his GED and is a few credits shy of a degree in business management. Visits from his three children — one of whom was born just months before he was imprisoned — are rare. "Who goes to prison for 55 years for marijuana?" he asks. "At the end of the day, I just couldn't believe this was possible in America."

Paul Carter

In 1997, Paul Carter was standing at a dead-end corner in New Orleans when a trio of police cars patrolling the area pulled up alongside him. A piece of tin foil he tossed to the ground and a King Cobra bottle cap found in his pocket contained trace amounts of heroin — so slight, they could not be weighed, but enough to lock him up for life.

Now 45, Carter has spent 16 years at Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. "I was destined for this here," he says, conjuring early memories of visiting his father at the facility. "Just about all the guys I come up with have been in trouble with the law. The discrimination kind of lessens your morale, when you can't win." 

The world's incarceration capital, Louisiana imprisons one in 86 adults — nearly twice the national average, and five times the rate of Iran. The state holds a record number of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes, over 90 percent of whom are black, according to the ACLU report "A Living Death," which discusses many cases included here. Among black men in New Orleans like Carter, one in seven is serving time, or out on parole or probation.

Carter wrestled with addiction in his youth, and describes heroin as the most pernicious of the drugs he used. "You're powerless over it," he says. "You change toward your loved ones, and have that self-guilt, like you're worthless. You really be wanting help."

Instead, he got punishment. Officers recovered a clean syringe from his person at the scene, as well as a handful of fake crack rocks Carter confessed he'd been hoping to sell to support his habit. Because the heroin residue was "too insignificant to weigh," according to a criminalist at trial, his comments about dependency — and the track marks observed on his arms — were cited as evidence to uphold a conviction for possession. "Indigent defendants don't just go in there and beat them cases," Carter says. "You have to have a real good representative, and you know most ghetto families can't afford that."

Prosecutors produced information about Carter's criminal history, and under Louisiana's habitual offender law, his sentence was enhanced based on two prior felonies: simple escape for failing to return from a work detail when he was 18, and possession of stolen property when he was 21. At the time, possession of a Schedule I narcotic for just one out of three strikes was enough for a life sentence. "That night in my cell, I cried," Carter says. "I felt like I didn't have anything inside of me. That just don't make sense for someone inflicting harm on himself."

In 2001, Louisiana took a step toward reform, narrowing the scope of its three-strikes law, and there's a glimmer of hope Carter could still go before a parole board. In the meantime, Gov. Bobby Jindal has reversed course, heeding the knee-jerk impulse to incarcerate away the re-emerging heroin problem. A bill he signed in May mandates a 10-year minimum for anyone convicted of selling any amount of the drug, even on a first offense.

Carter's family has been supportive, "but as time goes on," he says, "you're fading away. At the beginning, everybody's got some type of love to give. But they're so busy in their lives. You got to know it's not their fault." He's earned his GED, and completed courses in the culinary arts. He hasn't had a visitor in years.

Carter's aunt, Viola Anderson, wishes she could visit, "but I could never go back to Angola," she says. Her brother died serving life in what she maintains was a case of medical neglect. "They have so many up there that's handicapped, can't walk, blind. When you don't have a date to come home, that's worse than the electric chair."

Danielle Metz

Just months after fleeing her abusive partner with two young children in tow, 25-year-old Danielle Metz was arrested in connection with his cocaine distribution enterprise.

"If I didn't cooperate," she says authorities warned her, "I would end up with a lot of time." But Metz lacked sophisticated information about her estranged husband's dealings, also fearing reprisal from the tormenter she'd summoned up her courage to leave. So in 1993, having never been issued a traffic ticket, she was charged under what's known as the "kingpin statute," receiving a triple life sentence, plus 20 years.

Raised in New Orleans, Metz was the youngest of nine born to a cement finisher and a bakery worker. An early pregnancy cut her high school years short, and the death of her son's father just six months after his birth left her a single parent at 18. "I'm out there by myself, and he was well-dressed, well-mannered," she says of Glenn Metz, a charismatic drug dealer nearly twice her age who initially told her he owned an auto-towing business. "I thought he was protective of me, but he became controlling."

The couple married and had a daughter, and Glenn insisted Metz give up her cosmetology career to stay home with the kids. Small signs of defiance provoked his violence. "My body would be bruised, and I'd act like somebody kicked me or slammed the door on me by mistake," Metz says. "Because of the shame and the guilt, I didn't tell anyone." 

To placate her husband, Metz delivered packages and picked up money, and on roughly three occasions, accompanied Glenn or her aunt — who was associated with his dealings — to Houston in a car carrying cash or cocaine. She also made a monthly payment for a piece of property on which "Glenn was going to build this big, pretty house," she says. "My dream house or whatever." It wasn't until after the indictment that she discovered the payments were linked to his drug scheme, and she was on the line for money laundering.

Metz's desperation grew after the couple moved to Las Vegas. Though she had tried to leave "a thousand times," a particularly brutal beating strengthened her resolve, and while Glenn was away at the casino, she packed up her children and escaped home to her parents. It wasn't long before she was apprehended by law enforcement. "I thought I could start over, and I ended up coming to prison," she says. "But I was already in prison. I didn't know any better than him."

Glenn's syndicate was found to have distributed approximately 1,000 kilos of cocaine, engaging in bloody competition with rivals. "Only through court and trial was the extent of the violence revealed to me," Metz says.

Eight members of the inner circle, including Metz, were charged under provisions that hold those deemed "co-conspirators" accountable for an operation's full scope. "Substantial assistance" to the government was — and remains — the most viable escape hatch, but according to an investigation by the Minneapolis Star Tribune at the time, female defendants were less likely to inform, often due to fear, loyalty, or insufficient information. Analyzing 60,000 federal drug cases, the newspaper found that while women tended to occupy the lowest strata of trafficking rings, they received disproportionately lengthy sentences in comparison to higher-ranking male counterparts.

"I didn't understand what self-preservation was," Metz says. Her aunt testified against her — opening family fault lines when she walked away with three years — and co-conspirators she'd never met before made claims about her sway. Prosecutors argued Metz was "not just a passive presence," and she was convicted as a "principal administrator, organizer, or leader" in a continuing criminal enterprise: an automatic life sentence.

"We're talking some dangerous people running around with guns," Metz's clemency attorney, Jerome Mooney, says of the organization's 33 participants. "Five were left with life sentences. One was Glenn, the undisputed kingpin. Three were convicted of two homicides in connection with the deal. And the only other person was Danielle, who was pretty naïve." Everyone else has been released, many of them over a decade ago.

"It's been two decades, 10 wardens, and five presidential terms," Metz says of her Dublin, California facility. "Even some of the officers say, ‘I'm tired of seeing you here.'" She misses her kids, who've long been her staunchest supporters, and at 47, admits she's growing weary. "I'm the person who's always happy for those who get relief, and the same person who goes back to my cell and cries, 'When is my turn going to come?'"