POLITICS

These 32 People Are Spending Their Lives In Prison For Nonviolent Crimes

11/13/2013 12:00 am ET | Updated Nov 13, 2013

Robert Booker admits that he didn't really need the money he got from drug dealing. He grew up in a two-parent, middle-class family in Detroit in the 1970s, and his job as a lifeguard for the city's parks department paid "good money." But the drug business paid more, and by the late 1980s nearly all of his friends were showing up to the pool with new cars and expensive sneakers. "I was smarter than the average cat, and I was like, 'If they could do it, I could do it easy,'" Booker said by phone on Monday from the Federal Correctional Institution in Schuylkill, Pa. "I left lifeguarding and started hanging around."

Twenty-five years later, at 47 years old, Booker is two decades deep into a life sentence in federal prison for three related, nonviolent drug crimes: possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine, and operating a "crack distribution house." Although a trial judge initially sentenced him to 20 years in prison, the prosecutor filed two separate appeals, ultimately triggering an automatic sentencing mechanism that forced a federal judge to send Booker to prison for the rest of his life.

robert booker

Booker has used his time in prison to study law and write fiction. He published a crime novel, "Push," in 2006.

Booker is one of more than 100 prisoners featured in an extensive new report from the American Civil Liberties Union on the rise of life sentences without the possibility of parole -- the harshest penalty faced by defendants in the American criminal justice system apart from death. Many such inmates are there "off the laws," as Booker put it, meaning they were incarcerated because of drug laws and not because they committed acts of violence. The report calculates that 3,278 prisoners were serving life without parole for drug, property and other nonviolent crimes as of 2012, comprising about 6 percent of the total life-without-parole, or LWOP, population.

The thousands of nonviolent crimes that have resulted in LWOP sentences include possession of a crack pipe, a smudge of heroin in a bottle cap, and "a trace amount of cocaine in clothes pockets that was so minute it was invisible to the naked eye and detected only in lab tests," according to the report. In each case, the defendant had previously been convicted of other crimes -- often decades-old and mostly of the non-violent variety.

Prisoners serving life without parole make up one of the fastest-growing populations in the prison system, according to the ACLU's analysis of data from the United States Sentencing Commission, the federal Bureau of Prisons and state corrections departments. The report attributes this rise partly to the prevalence of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws and other punitive drug policies embraced by lawmakers who hoped to define themselves as "tough on crime" in the '80s and '90s.

In recent years, the rhetoric that accompanied the passage of those laws has begun to shift, with legislators from both sides of the aisle introducing measures that would soften the country's approach to drug crimes. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) are just some of the more prominent figures to take up the cause in Congress, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has called for sweeping, systemic changes to a "broken" justice system, directing federal prosecutors to step away from drug cases.

Not everyone hopes to see the justice system change course. At a recent Senate hearing on overcrowding in the federal prison system, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) both applauded tough sentencing laws, crediting those policies for the precipitous decline in the country's violent-crime rates over the last few decades. "It's hard to think of a more successful domestic policy accomplished over the last 30 years than the reduction of crime rates that we have," Grassley said.

The ACLU recommends that states and the federal government abolish LWOP sentences for nonviolent offenses and reduce the sentences of prisoners who are already serving them. "Life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent offenses defy common sense, are grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct they seek to punish, and offend the principle that all people have the right to be treated with humanity and with respect for their inherent dignity," argues Jennifer Turner, the report's author.

Booker has used his time in prison to study law and write crime fiction. He works as an administrative clerk in the kitchen, where he supervises other inmates. He tells them to get a GED or learn a trade, if only to "move on the time."

He regrets that he never got to raise his children -- "never got to play the tricks on my kids that my parents played on me," he said with a laugh. He has two daughters and two sons, who were all between 1 and 3 years old when he was sent away. He hasn't seen them in six years, though he speaks with them regularly. His oldest daughter, Shaprese, is studying criminal justice at Ferris State University in Michigan. "I help her with a lot of her homework," he said. "It's a hard way to learn, to have 20 years in the system. So I think I learned a whole lot."

Below are portraits of other prisoners who, like Booker, are serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes, as detailed in the ACLU's report.

  • Alice Marie Johnson
    via ACLU
  • Alice Marie Johnson, a single mother struggling to raise her five children, was sentenced to life without parole for acting as a middle man in several drug deals. She says she turned to the trade out of desperation in order to make ends meet for her family.
    While in prison, Johnson has become an ordained minister and has served as a mentor and tutor for other inmates. “It feels like I am sitting on death row. Unless things change, I will never go home alive," she told the ACLU.
  • Danielle Metz
    via ACLU
  • Danielle Metz is serving three life sentences for her involvement in her husband's cocaine distribution enterprise -- her first offense. Her jury was made up of 11 white jurors and one black juror, and she was convicted largely on the testimony of her aunt.
    Raised in New Orleans, Metz was the youngest of nine children raised in New Orleans, and first became pregnant when she was 17. She is now a mother of two.
    "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," Metz told the ACLU. "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."
  • Michael Wilson
    via ACLU
  • Michael Fitzgerald Wilson was sentenced to life without parole as a first-time nonviolent drug offender in 1994. Former President Bill Clinton commuted the sentence of the only white defendant involved in the case in 2001.
    Now 48, Wilson seldom sees his three sons, who are now in their mid-20s, because they live in Texas and he's imprisoned in California. He suffered a stroke in 2011 and his condition has improved very little.
  • Douglas Ray Dunkins Jr.
    via ACLU
  • Had Douglas Ray Dunkins Jr. been selling powdered cocaine instead of crack, he'd be out of prison by now. But the now 47-year-old has been behind bars for almost 22 years, sentenced to life without parole for manufacturing and distributing crack cocaine when he was in his early 20s.
    Even the judge in his case, Terry R. Means, had misgivings about putting Dunkins behind bars for so long. "It does seem unfair that the guidelines bind me to give you a life sentence," he said at sentencing. "It troubles me to think that you at your age [are] going to have to spend the rest of your life in prison. It troubles me a lot."
  • Altonio O'Shea Douglas
    via ACLU
  • Altonio O’Shea Douglas has been in prison for 20 years for his first and only conviction for conspiracy to possess and distribute crack cocaine, possession with intention to distribute and use of carrying a firearm during a drug crime. He was offered a four-year deal to testify against his co-conspirators, but he didn't want to go up against his relatives.
    "It is very scary … to have to die in prison," Douglas told the ACLU. "We all have to die one day, but you would like to die around your family. You die in a place like this, you just die in a room by yourself. It’s terrifying to think that this could possibly happen to you."
  • Timothy Tyler
    via ACLU
  • A vegan and a "Deadhead," Timothy Tyler was sentenced to two mandatory life without parole sentences for conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute LSD for mailing 5.2 grams of the drug to a confidential informant. His life-without-parole sentence was triggered because the judge counted not only the weight of the LSD Tyler sent, but also the paper it was placed on, putting the amount over the 10-gram threshold.
    Tyler first became a regular LSD user after high school, when he followed the Grateful Dead around to concerts and overdosed several times, resulting in some time spent in mental health institutions. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and came out as gay five years ago, and he says he feared being a target of violence.
    "Life, [the sentence] says, but life means you die in prison," he told the ACLU.
  • Larry Ronald Duke
    via ACLU
  • Larry Ronald Duke, 66, has served 24 years in federal prison out of his two life-without-parole sentences for conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. He and some co-conspirators attempted to purchase a large amount of marijuana from a government informant who had a prior marijuana arrest.
    Duke served in Vietnam and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. "I often thought I would probably die in a firefight in Vietnam, and then later, I thought maybe I’d catch a streamer while sky-diving and crash and burn," he told the ACLU. "Or perhaps, lose control of a car at a very high rate of speed, but never in my wildest dreams have I ever imagined I’d die in prison."
  • Roberto Ortiz
    via ACLU
  • Ortiz was arrested for trafficking cocaine as part of a sting operation in 2001. It was his first offense.
    In 2002, at the age of 31, he was sentenced to mandatory life without parole under the Florida Penal Code.
    "When he told me his story and that he was in prison for life, I could not believe it," one corrections officer who worked at Ortiz's prison told the ACLU. "There [were] inmates that were in for rape or killing someone that were getting out in 15 to 25 years. I had one inmate that was drunk and ran a stoplight, hitting a van and killing six people, including children, and only got 30 years, and he will be out in six years due to earning gain time. I kept thinking [that] something is wrong with this picture.”
  • William Dekle
    via ACLU
  • Former Marine William Dekle, 63, has served 22 years of his two mandatory terms of life without parole for conspiracy to import and possess large quantities of marijuana. He was sentenced in 1990, despite the trial judge characterizing the sentence as draconian.
    His sentence is like a death sentence, but one without peace, Dekle told the ACLU. "There are correctional officers and inmates here that were not born when I started this sentence. How much more do they want? Is my death here the only thing that will satisfy society?”
  • Clarence Aron
    via ACLU
  • At 23, college student Clarence Aaron was sentenced to three life-without-parole sentences for playing a minor role in two planned large drug deals. He wouldn't testify against his co-conspirators, but they testified against him and received reduced sentences.
    "At the time, neither Clarence nor I had any idea of how harsh a penalty he would receive for this error," says his mother, Linda Aaron-McNeil. "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."
  • Ricky Minor
    via ACLU
  • Ricky Minor says he was a meth addict when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2001. Originally charged on the state level after a tip from a confidential informant, Minor says a prosecutor threatened to "bury" him in the federal system unless he cooperated. He refused.
    "The sentence … far exceeds whatever punishment would be appropriate. ... Unfortunately, it’s my duty to impose a sentence," Judge Clyde Roger Vinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee, said at Minor's sentencing. "If I had any discretion at all, I would not impose a life sentence. … I really don’t have any discretion in this matter."
  • Steven Speal
    via ACLU
  • Speal was sentenced to life in prison without parole at the age of 25. He's now 42 and has been in prison for 17 years. He had two drug-related convictions at 18 and 19, and pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine at the age of 22 after he was arrested for riding in a car that was pulled over for allegedly making an illegal U-turn, and police found methamphetamine, marijuana and firearms inside.
    His appeals process has been exhausted and his commutation petition was denied in February of this year. "I know what I did was wrong but I did not know any other way at the time, and I just wanted to be loved," Speal told the ACLU. "They gave us a death sentence because we made mistakes when we were kids."
  • Donald Allen
    via ACLU
  • Donald Allen was just 20 years old when he was sentenced to two life-without-parole sentences. He says his court-appointed lawyer did not provide adequate legal representation and that he wasn't involved in the deal that resulted in his conviction on conspiracy and possession charges.
  • Sharanda Jones
    via ACLU
  • Sharanda Purlette Jones is serving life without parole for her part in a crack-cocaine conspiracy based almost entirely on the testimony of her alleged co-conspirators. Jones was arrested as part of a drug task force operation in Terrell, Texas, that netted 105 people. Actor Chuck Norris, who at the time was a volunteer police officer for the Kaufman County Sheriff's Department, reportedly participated in some of the arrests.
    "I will expire in the federal system," Jones told the ACLU of her sentence. It is really a slow death."
  • John Knock
    via ACLU
  • John Knock, 66, is a first-time offender serving two life-without-parole sentences for participating in a marijuana conspiracy in the early and mid-1980s. He was the target of a reverse sting operation in 1993 by a former associate who had come under DEA scrutiny. Though he said he had been out of the game for several years, Knock was convicted of conspiracy to import and possess with intention to distribute large quantities of marijuana.
    "I have been separated from my family for 17 years. I have watched our son grow from 3 into a young man of 22 through telephone calls and prison visiting rooms. My life partner since 1974 is now my ex-wife," Knock, who is known as "the professor" in prison, told the ACLU. "When a person goes to prison, the entire family pays the price. All do time of some sort."
  • Leroy Fields
    via ACLU
  • Leroy Fields was an unemployed 30-year-old father of three when he was arrested in New Orleans in October 1999 for possession of a stolen car. Fields borrowed the car from a friend and didn't know it was stolen. He says his state-appointed attorney failed to call the friend as a witness at his trial. He was sentenced to life in prison under a three-strikes law because he had prior convictions, one for possession of crack cocaine in 1993 and the other for simple robbery for stealing a $90 pair of shoes in 1986, when he was 17.
    "The court wrongfully took my life from me," Fields told the ACLU. "I felt like there was no help for me, and I was expected to die here in prison. And I still feel that … I’ll die here."
  • Teresa Griffin
    via ACLU
  • Teresa Griffin was 21 years old, going to college and working for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Florida when she says her boyfriend forced her to quit her job and follow him to Texas. Five years later, she was sentenced to the equivalent of life for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine through her boyfriend's operation. She had no prior criminal record.
  • Charles Frederick Cundiff
    via ACLU
  • Before his conviction, Charles "Fred" Cundiff had worked at a plant nursery, in construction, as a mortgage solicitor and as a stereo store manager. He was sentenced to life without parole for importing and distributing more than 1,000 kilos of marijuana and has been imprisoned since 1991.
    He says the trial judge told him he would be sentenced to 15 to 20 years, but that such a sentence would be reversed on appeal.
    Cundiff now has a variety of health problems and requires a walker. "If I should die and go to hell, it could be no worse," told the ACLU.
  • Craig Cesal
    via ACLU
  • Before he was arrested at the age of 42, Craig Cesal's only conviction was a misdemeanor -- for carrying a beer into a Bennigan's when he was a college student.
    Cesal owned and operated a towing and truck repair business for 23 years. One of his clients was a trucking company whose truckers trafficked marijuana.
    Cesal was arrested for his alleged involvement in 2002, and believed he would get a sentence of seven years if he pleaded guilty. He later tried to withdraw his guilty plea because, he says, prosecutors wanted him to testify against people he didn't know and two people who he thought were innocent.
    "In my case, those who did traffic marijuana received little or no prison sentences and resumed their activities. They patronize a different repair station now," Cesal told the ACLU. "I hope to die, sooner rather than later."
  • Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda
    via ACLU
  • Now 74, Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda was arrested at age 55 for serving as a middleman in the shipping of a truckload of marijuana.
    He was new to Miami at the time and struggled to find work. "At the time of my crime, I was willing to take a chance. Now that I know how a life sentence feels, I would never take a chance with my life," he told the ACLU.
  • Reynolds Wintersmith Jr.
    via ACLU
  • Reynolds Wintersmith Jr. has spent half of his life in prison. He was arrested at 19 for dealing drugs and declined a plea offer of 10 years, choosing to go to trial. He was only a street dealer, but he opened himself up to the life-without-parole sentence because he was held accountable for the entire amount of cocaine sold as part of a conspiracy.
    "This is your first conviction … and here you face life imprisonment. I think it gives me pause to think that that was the intention of Congress, to put somebody away for the rest of their life," the judge said at his sentencing.
    Wintersmith's commutation petition is pending, and his daughter has asked President Barack Obama to give him "a second chance at life."
  • Robert J. Riley
    via ACLU
  • Robert J. Riley was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1993 for distributing LSD and psychedelic mushrooms to other fans of the Grateful Dead.
    The judge in his case counted the weight of the blotter paper on which the LSD was dissolved, upping the total weight and triggering the harsh sentence.
    A George H.W. Bush appointee, the judge told Riley Congress was "keeping me from being a judge right now in your case, because they’re not letting me impose what I think would be a fair sentence." He later called the sentence the harshest he'd ever given and said it brought him "no satisfaction that a gentle person such as Mr. Riley will remain in prison the rest of his life."
  • Scott Walker
    via ACLU
  • Scott Walker got life without parole at the age of 26. He had two prior convictions as a juvenile -- he stole a bike and some aluminum gutters -- and had two adult misdemeanor convictions for underage consumption of alcohol at 19 and criminal trespassing at 22.
    Five hundred grams of marijuana were seized from him when he was arrested in 1996. His co-defendants testified against him to get reductions in their sentences.
    "Since I was a child, I was taught that America was the land of redemption," Walker told the ACLU. "But if you are a first-time offender sentenced under a mandatory-minimum sentence, this is not the case. Prison probably saved my life. I just hope I can get out someday to live that life."
  • George Martorano
    via ACLU
  • George Martorano believes he is the longest-serving first-time nonviolent offender sentenced to life in prison without parole in the federal system. He was arrested in 1982 at the age of 31 and pleaded guilty, assuming he'd get 10 years at the most. A sentencing report recommended around three to five years, but the judge gave him life.
    "When I came in, they called me 'the kid,'" he told the ACLU. "Now they call me 'pops.'"
  • Dicky Joe Jackson
    via ACLU
  • Dicky Joe Jackson left school in 10th grade to work in the trucking business with his father, and he soon began taking methamphetamine to stay awake on long drives. In 1988, he was convicted of possession of half a gram of meth, and the next year he was convicted of transporting a kilogram of marijuana. He served a year in prison and sold his truck to pay for legal fees.
    While he was in jail, his 2-year-old son, Cole, was diagnosed with Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome, a rare immunodeficiency disease. Soon, Jackson owed $200,000 in medical bills, so he began transporting meth for a supplier. In 1995, he sold half a pound of meth to an undercover officer and received a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole in a federal prison. Now 55, he has been in prison for 17 years.
  • Rudy Martinez
    via ACLU
  • Rudy Martinez got life in prison without parole for his first conviction at the age of 25. He had started dealing marijuana at 12 years old, and says he saw drug dealing as a way to escape poverty.
    Martinez says the alleged ringleader in his case, who ended up serving less than three years in prison, has admitted that she lied about the extent of his involvement in the conspiracy. All of his co-defendants have been out of prison for more than a decade.
    The judge in Martinez's case said the federal sentencing guidelines put "more trust in prosecutors than in federal judges."
    "No words could ever fully describe the pain within when you know that you will never spend any type of quality time with your children, for the rest of their lives," Martinez told the ACLU. "I wish that on no parent."
  • Stephanie Yvette George
    via ACLU
  • Stephanie Yvette George was sentenced to life in prison without parole at the age of 26 because of prior convictions for selling small amounts of crack cocaine. The father of one of her children used her attic to store cocaine and cash. Though George said she didn't know the drugs were hidden in her apartment, six cooperating witnesses testified that she was paid to store cocaine.
    The judge wasn't allowed to consider George's minor role in the case. "Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing for a number of years ... your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder. So certainly, in my judgment, it doesn’t warrant a life sentence," he said at her sentencing. "I don’t really have any choice in the matter. ... If there was some way I could give you something less than life I sure would do it, but I can’t. Unfortunately, my hands are tied ... I wish I had another alternative."
  • Anthony Jerome Jackson
    via ACLU
  • Anthony Jerome Jackson's life-without-parole sentence came for stealing a wallet from a hotel room in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
    Prior burglary convictions in 2006 and 2009 triggered South Carolina's three-strikes law, and Jackson, now 46, says he didn't understand the charges against him. "You will think that I kill[ed] someone with that kind of time," he told the ACLU.
  • Robert Jonas
    via ACLU
  • Robert Jonas served five years in prison for selling cocaine when he was 46 years old. Six years later, he was convicted of conspiracy to possess, import and distribute cocaine and marijuana and sentenced to life without parole. Now 75, Jonas told the ACLU that he passes the time in part by playing the trumpet and taming wild cats. The report notes, "He has been written up for a single disciplinary infraction: keeping a cat in his cell."
  • Jesse Webster
    via ACLU
  • Jesse Webster was never actually convicted of selling drugs. But in 1994, when he was still a teenager living on the South Side of Chicago, he helped arrange a cocaine deal that was later aborted. Months after that, he learned that the authorities wanted to question him about the failed endeavor, so he turned himself in. Rather than serve as an informant against a local gang that he wasn’t affiliated with, he went to trial, where the jury found him guilty of attempt and conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and filing false tax returns. He was sentenced to life in prison at 27 years old.
    "The world just got snatched out of me," he told the ACLU.
    When Clarence Robinson was 34, he was locked up for life without parole for playing a minor part in a drug operation. The jury had found him guilty of participating in the packaging of one shipment of crack cocaine and of assisting more senior dealers with "rocking up" -- turning powdered cocaine into crack.
    Because he had two prior convictions for crack cocaine possession and a conviction for possession of a firearm as a felon -- all crimes he committed between the ages of 18 and 22 -- he was subject to a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. Three higher-ups in the drug ring testified against Robinson and received reduced sentences of nine to 10 years in exchange for their cooperation.
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