A Tale of Two Inmates: The Human Toll of Incarceration

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Opponents of criminal justice reform and drug legalization often believe that those behind bars are all dangerous criminals. At Cato’s conference in December, “The State of American Criminal Justice,” two speakers challenged those assumptions with their personal stories. Kevin Ring, the president of Families against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), explained how encountering the justice system firsthand dramatically changed his mind on justice issues. Keeda Haynes, a public defender in Nashville, discussed her experience being imprisoned for a crime she did not commit.

KEVIN RING: I’ve thought about the issues that make up criminal justice reform a lot over the past 20 years, and I’ve had the unique opportunity to see them from very different sides. In the ’90s I worked on Capitol Hill as a tough-on-crime Republican staffer, both in the House and the Senate. I worked as a counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, drafting anti-crime legislation. I then observed the legislative process from a different perspective as a lobbyist.

Ultimately, my work as a lobbyist brought me under federal scrutiny. After two trials and appeals, I was sentenced to serve 20 months in federal prison. I spent 15 1/2 months at the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Maryland. My bunkmates were mostly guys serving long sentences for drugs and guns. I was released last April, spent two months in home confinement, and I’m halfway through 30 months of probation.

As they tried to make cases against me and members of Congress and staffers whom I knew well, I learned a lot about the enormous power that federal prosecutors wield. I saw how important it was to have an independent judge who could referee what quickly became an adversarial relationship. And I’ve realized how dangerous it was for prosecutors to have that power, and then on top of that to have power over sentencing, which is what mandatory minimums give them.

But it was working for FAMM that exposed me to the toll that prison-reliant policies have on real people. I had started working there before I was indicted, and continued to work there during my trials. Now keep in mind, again, I came from a law-and-order mindset. I did not and still don’t think that being tough on crime is a bad thing. I certainly don’t think that people who break the law are victims. FAMM is not the Innocence Project. Everyone that we profile and that we advocate for did it. They committed crimes, sometimes serious crimes. But that was the problem — while only some had committed serious crimes, they all were being punished as if they had. There was no sense of proportionality. Gone was the idea that the punishment should fit the crime.

I was reading story after story about men and women, mostly men, mostly men of color, who served or were still serving absurdly long prison sentences. And at first, my cognitive dissonance would kick in — there must be something I don’t know, these folks did something more that’s not in the files. And because I’d worked in the government — I’d been a member of the establishment — I needed to believe that the American criminal justice system wouldn’t produce the outcomes that I was now seeing.

Early on at FAMM I read about a young woman named Stephanie Nodd. She lived in Mobile, Alabama. She wasn’t married, but had three young children when she agreed to sell crack for a friend who had moved into the area. Stephanie’s case triggered all my biases, explicit and implicit. This was a case I was predisposed to dismiss. A young, black, unmarried Alabaman with three kids she couldn’t afford is selling crack. I didn’t know anyone who shared one of those characteristics, let alone all of them. And even though I had troubles of my own, I separated myself from a case like that.

But then I learned more. Stephanie had only helped her friend sell drugs for one month. One month. She had moved away from the area after that month. Then her boyfriend, who was under investigation, gave up Stephanie’s name. She was indicted and had to go back. She was told she was a conspirator and would be held accountable for all the drugs this guy had sold during the course of his business. She wasn’t a lawyer but she knew that she wasn’t responsible for all those things, especially the things that happened after she was gone. This was her first offense, and she had three kids and was pregnant with another. So she went to trial — and she lost. In place at the time were mandatory minimums and mandatory guidelines that were tied to those minimums, and so Stephanie’s judge gave her the sentence that corresponded not to her minor role or her short involvement in the conspiracy, but to the quantity of drugs her friend and others had sold. So at 23 years of age, Stephanie was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.

Soon after Stephanie got there, she gave birth. When the doctors cut the cord and tried to give the baby to Stephanie, she refused. She expected to spend the next 25 years away from this child of hers. She was scared to hold this baby because she knew that she was going to have to give it right back. It boggles the mind that anyone in government, let alone involved in her case, could be a party to such a massive miscarriage of justice. And here’s the thing about Stephanie’s case: the U.S. attorney’s office that prosecuted her was run at that time by a guy by the name of Jeff Sessions.

Stephanie’s case was one of dozens I read about when I first got to FAMM, and they blew my mind. These were not choir boys or girls, all had made mistakes, but the sentences made no sense at all from a public-safety standpoint, let alone a moral or economic viewpoint. But Stephanie’s case stuck with me. I reached out to her in prison and I started to correspond with her. I wrote some op-eds for her, and I told her that I was in the midst of fighting my own battle with the government. We tried to lift one another’s spirits. We talked about our kids mostly, and were worried about the impact our troubles would have on them.

After a mistrial was declared in my first trial, I was convicted on half the counts at my second trial. The government had asked for four and a half years for the leader of the conspiracy in my case. They turned around and asked for 17–22 years for me. Like Stephanie, I had exercised my constitutional right to go to trial, and I was being punished for it. Fortunately, unlike in Stephanie’s case there was no mandatory minimum. The guidelines were now advisory, so my judge sentenced me to 20 months.

Even though I had read about much worse cases while working at FAMM, I was still devastated at the prospect of being away from my young daughters. It was Stephanie, who at the time had been sitting in prison for nearly 20 years, who wrote to me asking me what sizes my girls were and told me that if she got out first she would buy them dresses for the holidays. I always think about that when I hear someone say that all people serving long sentences in federal prison are scary, dangerous people.

Ultimately, FAMM and others were able to convince the U.S. Sentencing Commission to lower its recommended guidelines for crack offenses. Then Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which lowered crack sentences even more. So in 2011 after serving 21 years in federal prison, Stephanie Nodd was released to go home. What’s interesting is that one of the leaders in pushing for the Fair Sentencing Act was Jeff Sessions. He had sent a lot of people away under that law and he might have known better than most the impact it was having.

Some have viewed that support as a sign that he’s open to additional reform, although I happen not to share that optimism. Working at FAMM while going through my trials, reading about cases like Stephanie’s, and meeting others who would come into the office who had served unbelievably long sentences taught me quite a bit about the human toll of incarceration. But I learned more than I wanted to know when it was my turn to actually go to prison. My time in Cumberland confirmed my growing belief that many people are serving sentences that are longer than necessary to protect public safety. They certainly were not of value as a deterrent.

One reason lengthy sentences can be so counterproductive is because prison infantilizes people. Everything we did and everything we needed was on campus. Inmates had very few responsibilities. Within a couple years, people start to become institutionalized.

They know what it takes to get by day-to-day in prison, but they lose all sense of what it’s going to take to get by on the outside. While some people absolutely deserve prison time, our goal should be to give them as little as is necessary to accomplish the purposes of sentencing. While people are in prison, the world does not stop. Technology advances, job markets change. Guys I served with had no idea what an iPhone was. We really need to be mindful that 90 percent of prisoners are going home someday. And we want them to be successful, if not for their own sake then for ours. Because we want to live in communities that are safer. Which leads me to my last point.

As advocates, especially in this political environment, we need to be willing to meet people where they are. While reform advocates tend to focus on the justice in criminal justice reform, the public is mostly focused on the criminal in criminal justice reform. They want less crime. We need to show people that we value what they value — safety for their kids, for their communities. Fortunately, we can do that. Because many of the reforms we support would not only restore balance in the constitutional system created by our Founders, they would likely increase public safety. Which is why we must push for reform, no matter if the crime rate is rising or falling, and no matter who holds political power at a given moment.

KEEDA HAYNES: I am a public defender in Nashville, Tennessee, and every single day, I go into that courtroom and fight for justice for my clients. But 10 years ago, I was 00017011. That is a federal inmate number. For 3 years and 10 months, I was “triple zero seventeen zero eleven” for a crime that I didn’t commit.

At the age of 19, I was a sophomore in college, majoring in criminal justice. I met a guy and we dated off and on for a few years. And so when he asked me if I would accept packages for his family business, I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t realize that there was something wrong until my sister was arrested and under investigation by the federal government for selling marijuana.

I was harassed by the government on a daily basis for nearly two years. They came to my house, they came to my job, they contacted family, they contacted friends. I lost jobs, I lost friends. The government even threatened to take my little old Mustang that they said I had bought with the proceeds of drug money. When they came to my house to arrest me, they brought a SWAT team. They had a whole perimeter set up in my neighborhood, and they even had helicopters flying over. They came to the door in SWAT gear with their guns drawn.

In an attempt to scare me into pleading guilty along with the other 28 people who were indicted, the U.S. attorney filed a motion to detain me. I was held in a facility in Kentucky, right outside Bowling Green. And two days after he filed this motion, he withdrew the motion because he knew that my attorney was going to be out of town and that I would continue to sit in custody for an additional five days before we could get back to court. They threatened me with ten-plus years in federal prison, simply because I chose to exercise my right to have a jury trial. I refused to plead guilty for a crime that I didn’t commit. During my seven-day jury trial, left with nothing else to prove their case, the government fell back on the argument that “I should have known.”

The judge bought the government’s case and sentenced me to seven years in federal prison. And so in 2002, I graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in criminal justice. Two weeks after that, I had to report to federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia.

The first time my case was appealed, we appealed it to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. This was around the time that the Supreme Court issued opinions in United States v. Booker and United States v. Fanfan, and the Sixth Circuit was confused as to whether sentencing guidelines were no longer mandatory. So first they granted my appeal, then they denied my appeal, then they granted it again, and then they denied it again. We ended up having to appeal my case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted the appeal and remanded my case back to the middle district of Tennessee. When I got back to court, the judge told me that because of the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines she could not send me home. I had a five-year mandatory minimum sentencing guideline, so she resentenced me to 60 months, and, at that point, I had to go back to prison for another 18 months.

At the age of 28, after serving about 3 years and 10 months, I was finally released from federal prison. Three days after I was released, I was employed as a law clerk for a criminal defense attorney in Nashville. I graduated law school in 2012 and was sworn in as an attorney in Nashville. But I recognize that I am blessed and fortunate to be in the position that I am. My clients don’t have the same opportunities that I had. And I’m reminded of this every day when I go into the courtroom, and when I see that African Americans are over-policed in their communities, and as a result there are more African Americans in the criminal justice system. There are more African Americans whose rights are violated, more African Americans with criminal records, more African Americans unemployed or underemployed, more African Americans living in poverty, and more African Americans who are disenfranchised. It is this knowledge, coupled with my own personal experience, that drives me to go into the courtroom each and every single day to fight for my clients in an effort to make sure that they too do not become casualties of the criminal justice system.