Rethinking Life Behind Bars

Rethinking Life Behind Bars

“Courtney called out, ‘Mom, you promised you weren’t going to leave us no more,’ ” Ms. George recalled, her eyes glistening. “I still hear that voice to this day, and he’s a grown man.”

Stephanie George, serving a life sentence without parole in Louisiana for a minor drug infraction, still recalls the heartbreaking pleas from her eldest of 3 sons, Courtney, then 8, in 1997.

Ms. George is one of half a million people in the U.S. locked away in prison for non-violent drug crimes.

When Ms. George was sentenced 15 years ago, her children were 5, 6, and 9. They have been raised by her sister, Wendy Evil, who says it was agonizing to take the children to see their mother in prison. They would fight over who gets to sit on their mother’s lap.

A lockbox containing a half-kilogram of cocaine seized by police in Ms. George’s attic was sufficient evidence for Judge Vinson to be convinced of a crime severe enough for Ms. George to be separated from her children for the rest of her life.

Judge Vinson, whose reputation is anything but libertarian, defends that a formula dictated by the amount of cocaine in the lockbox and her previous criminal record was what determined Ms. George’s sentence.

Ms. George and Judge Vinson had conflicting views about the cocaine-filled lockbox stashed away in Ms. George’s home. Ms. George claimed the cocaine was hidden in the attic, and she was not aware it was hidden in her house. She insisted her drug-dealing boyfriend placed the cocaine in the lockbox and hid it in the attic.

Originally, Ms. George and Judge Vinson did agree on the fairness of the sentence imposed by the federal court because Ms. George was a known drug dealer, and the cocaine was found in her house, even though her boyfriend was responsible for putting it there. The punishment for drug possession does not entail a life sentence.

Ms. George’s family was stunned at the sentence that was handed down to then, 27-year-old Stephanie George. Judge Vinson had no other choice but to sentence Ms. George to life in prison because of the formula, which was the sum of an attempt to control crime; “the war on drugs ” and federal policies conspired to lower the crime rate, but have succeeded in raising the prison population.

After the sentence was read, Ms. George was swept from the courtroom to the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee to serve a life sentence in prison for a non-violent crime with no prior violent record. She was in shock, but her three children are the ones who have suffered the most from their mother’s punishment.

Prior to this arrest, Ms. George’s only involvement with the law occurred in the early 90s. Ms. George was raising her three young children alone. One of her children was fathered by her boyfriend at the time, Michael Dickey, a crack dealer who was incarcerated for drug and firearm convictions.

Ms. George believed her only source of income while her boyfriend was in prison was for her to take over the drug dealing business. Even though Ms. George claims she did not use crack, selling the stuff was a quick way to make money, and she knew all the contacts from being around Mr. Dickey.

The drug dealing business abruptly ended when Ms. George was caught by police making two subsequent crack deals. Each was tot-up as a separate felony. At 23 years old and a single mother, Ms. George was sentenced to nine months in county jail with a work-release program. The good news is she found a legal way to support her children, working in her mother’s hair salon in Pensacola, but the bad news is Ms. George was away from her children, working during the day and spending the night in jail. Ms. George promised herself and her children she would never be in a position where she was away from her kids again.

After her first scare with the law, Ms. George was serious about retiring from drug dealing. When Mr. Dickey was released from prison in 1995, she ended her relationship with him and thought she was staying away from drugs. Her only mistake was allowing her ex-boyfriend into her apartment to visit his daughter.

The evening Ms. George was in her kitchen braiding a person’s hair to earn a little extra money, she wasn’t aware her life was about to change forever. Mr. Dickey had just arrived at the house when the police showed up with a search warrant and a ladder.  Ms. George said. “They went into a closet and opened a little attic space I’d never seen before, and brought down the lockbox. Mr. Dickey gave them a key to open it. When I saw what was in it, I was so mad I jumped across the table at him and started hitting him.

”Ms. George’s son Courtney, then 8, was playing in the home. Sadly, he witnessed the police take his mother away in handcuffs.

Mr. Dickey told the police he had paid Ms. Dickey to store the cocaine at her home.

At the trial, other defendants said she was present during drug transactions conducted by Mr. Dickey and other dealers she dated and sometimes delivered cash or crack for her boyfriends. Ms. George denied those accusations, which her lawyer argued were uncorroborated and self-serving. After the jury convicted her of being part of a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, she told the judge at her sentencing: “I just want to say I didn’t do it. I don’t want to be away from my kids.”

Whatever the truth of the testimony against her, it certainly benefited the other defendants. Providing evidence to the prosecution is one of the few ways to avoid a mandatory sentence. Because the government formally credited the other defendants with “substantial assistance,” their sentences were all reduced to less than 15 years. Even though Mr. Dickey was the leader of the enterprise and had a much longer criminal record than Ms. George, he was freed five years ago.

“She was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable,” Judge Vinson said recently. “So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don’t have that information, get the mandatory sentences.

Ms. George’s children have grown up without their mother for the last 15 years. Their mother has been absent from their lives because she made a few poor choices over 15 years ago. Ms. George will most likely miss spending time with her grandchildren because of policies that have evidence of doing little to stem the flow of illegal drugs.

Research proves that goals like keeping street violence in check could be achieved without the expense of locking up so many criminals for so long.

Some social scientists are claiming mass incarceration in America is creating more crime over the long term by harming the social fabric in communities and permanently damaging the economic prospects of prisoners as well as their families.

Nationally, about one in 40 children have a parent in prison. Among black children, one in 15 has a parent in prison.

Ms. George’s children, now in their 20s, continue to struggle without their mother. Most of their problems originate from their anger about their mother being in prison.

The youngest child, William, now 20, dropped out of middle school. The older two, Kendra and Cortney, finished high school but did not take their mother’s advice and continued to college. Ms. George’s children believe circumstances would be better if their mother was there to inspire them because she was always the strong one.

Ms. George has survived living in prison without her children by staying busy. She has earned a college degree in prison and holds down two jobs. Ms. George’s jobs as a data processor and directory assistant pay enough for her to call her children every Sunday. Phone calls from prison cost Ms. George 23 cents per minute. She earns 92 cents per hour.

The roughest days for Ms. George are Christmas and Mother’s Day.

“I’m a real firm believer in karma — what goes around comes around,” Ms. George said. “I see now how wrong it was to sell drugs to people hooked on something they couldn’t control. I think, what if they took money away from their kids to buy drugs from me? I deserve to pay a price for that. But my whole life? To take me away from my kids forever?”