Last week, Stephanie George, a single mother of two, changed out of her prison khakis and into a white blouse and white slacks, then stepped outside the gates of the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, Fla. After spending 17 years behind bars for a minor role in a drug-dealing operation, she was headed home to Pensacola. At an emotional gathering at her sister’s house later that day, George’s family sat around a table laden with turkey, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese -- a Thanksgiving dinner three days before Easter.
Until then, George was one of thousands of Americans serving life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense, as the ACLU documented in a recent report. When she was 25, police found a half-kilogram of cocaine that the father of one of her children had stashed in her attic. Although George denied knowing anything about the drugs, six admitted drug dealers testified that she'd been paid to keep the drugs hidden. They received reduced sentences in exchange for their cooperation with prosecutors.
At George's sentencing hearing, Judge Roger Vinson expressed misgivings about locking her up for life. But the federal government’s mandatory sentencing system left no alternative, in part because George had previously been convicted of selling small amounts of crack.
In December, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight people convicted of drug offenses, including George. On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the administration plans to further expand its clemency process, in order to allow more people like George to return to their communities and families.
“I never stopped fighting for my freedom,” George said on the phone from her sister’s house in Pensacola the day after her release. She spoke of the darkest moment of her years behind bars: Learning that her 21-year-old son, William, had been murdered last October. “Even if they find out who did it to him, I can honestly say that I can’t even think of wishing any prison time on no one,” she said.
Here is George’s story, in her words:
I worked at the prison call center, sometimes for 16-hour shifts. We got paid less than $2 an hour, but I couldn’t complain. I was happy to be working there, to provide for myself, and so I didn’t have to be a burden on my family.
We answered calls from the free world. It took you out of a prison setting and into a business setting. It felt like you were connected to the world, talking to real people that you didn’t know. If they asked where we were, we were able to say Florida, but we couldn’t tell them in prison.
I had good friends, like Teresa Griffin. I consider her as a sister to me, and she was my rock. I was like, ‘Wow, here is somebody that has three life sentences, and I have one.’ So we kind of really held each other up.
I turned 26 two days before I got sentenced. I mainly remember my mom screaming when they sentenced me. I was so numb, because I didn’t believe it.
For a long time after I was sentenced, I was so hurt I couldn’t even look at my legal paperwork. It took me probably into my fifth year. Something hit me, and I woke up to where I said, ‘You have to leave here.’
I spoke with my children on the phone every Sunday. They lived with my sister in Pensacola. I always said, ‘I’m coming home, hold on.’ And they were like, ‘When?’ And I said ‘soon.’ They believed in me.
I applied for my commutation in March of 2012. When you file for a commutation, that’s the last resort -- it means you’ve exhausted all your other remedies. Every certificate I ever had from prison, I put in there. I have my associate’s degree in business. I accomplished a lot in there.
In October of that year, the Washington, D.C., law firm Crowell & Moring got in touch with me through Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that fights unfair sentences. They helped me revise my application. A lawyer can do a lot more than you can do on your own.
I got my news on Dec. 19th. I was called to the front office to speak with my attorney. Tears were falling, but they were tears of joy. A few weeks later, I started helping Teresa with her own application. I told her, 'I have four months to help you.' I didn’t want to leave and not know she’s done it.
As my days got shorter, I never got to the point where I was nervous, jittery, couldn’t sleep. The girls were like, ‘Are you nervous? Are you ready?’ I was just as calm as you can be.
On the last morning, I told each one of them individually that I loved them. There were probably 30 or 40 women standing there. It was a beautiful day. When I touched both of my kids and had them in my arms, it was the best moment in my life. Just to tell them, ‘It’s over. Didn’t I tell you I was coming? It’s over.’
Coming home was overwhelming, too. Just having to learn how to use this phone I’m holding, and seeing these computers -- oh my God. My stepfather bought me this Galaxy 2 phone, and it has everything on it, so I’m playing with something I really don’t know about. I’ll take to it eventually, but I don’t think I’ll be doing a whole bunch of texting.
What I want to do now is help people. I want my story to be heard. I want to be able to help people to know how easy it is to get in trouble and how hard it is to get out of trouble. Especially the young generation. I don’t want them to make the same mistakes.
This article has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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