On July 7, 2000, I burst through the gates of FCI Dublin — a women’s federal prison facility near San Francisco. I could hardly contain the flood of emotions, because being granted my freedom wasn’t planned. Rather it was a shock.
I heard my name drone through the scratchy loudspeakers, demanding that I “immediately” report to Ms. Johnson, my case manager. That usually means bad news — such as a family member passing away — so my heart was pounding as I braced for more bad news. And in this “tough-on-crime” era of mass incarceration, the only news we ever seemed to get was bad or worse.
Ms. Johnson didn’t do pleasantries. She demanded the details of where I was releasing to. The question was bewildering. It made no sense. I still had another 14 years to serve.
“To my parents’ house, I suppose,” I mustered. “I don’t have a home anymore.”
More questions ensued, while Ms. Johnson thumbed through my file. Now fixated on my file, she barked at me to sit down.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Hopes and Dreams are Hard to Acquire in Prison
Word spread quickly across the compound.
“What happened?” some of the women running up to my window hollered. “Did you win your appeal?”
“No,” I shouted back. “President Clinton just granted my clemency petition.”
“How did you get it?” my friend TC, who also had a clemency petition pending, asked. “Is there a list? Am I on it?”
I had no answer. While my shock was now wearing off, I was still asking myself the same questions.
Once packed, I refused to be escorted across the compound by prison staff in what’s called “closed movement,” when prisoners can traverse the grounds only with a babysitter in a badge by our sides. I would soon be a free woman. I’d marched countless friends to the prison doors, most once they completed their sentences. But this was different.
I decided to wait until “open movement” — a 10-minute window to get from point A to B on the compound — because I wanted my friends, not some guards, to escort me. The energy was intoxicating.
A prison is a sea of sadness. The environment — from the monotonous regiment forced on us to the time of day we’re allowed to eat and bathe — is meant to inflict sorrow and prolonged pain in the hearts and souls of the human beings locked inside.
It was under that purposefully drab backdrop that my hope-filled news greeted my gals — and even ones I’d never really gotten to know — and filled their lonely, aching hearts with waves of happiness. Hope. And not aspirational hope: Hope realized. Yes, miracles can happen!
Still, even with glee in the air, many of the women had desperation in their eyes. The same uncertainty I’d felt seeing countless friends cycled out of these gates over the years. Every time someone was released, my heart would go from elation to loneliness in a span of minutes — wondering if I’d ever hear from them, my friends, again. We also wondered if they’d even remember any of us once they passed through the gates of hell and entered the kingdom of heaven on Earth — the real world, or, as we called it, “the free world.” Your world.
“I won’t forget you,” I told the women who escorted me to the promised land. “I’m going to fight for us.”
Once outside, I was beyond elated — waves of joy washed over me — because I finally regained my freedom. After serving nine years and three months of a 24-year sentence for drug conspiracy, I remember being driven down the same freeway I’d monitored from the law library — the one I spent countless hours in, slaving over case law in search of my path home.
The first thing I did was call my parents. We screamed, cried and sent up thanks to our Father Almighty. More calls ensued. Then, reality hit.
“That was so unnecessary,” I told the driver, meaning the nine-year nightmare which had just magically evaporated into thin air.
Razor serpentine wire on every horizon had given way to buildings flying by so fast I couldn’t keep up. No one told me the speed limit had been raised from 55 mph to 75 while I was away, landlocked on a 20-acre compound like animals in a zoo.
My jaw tingled, like it does before you barf from motion sickness. I closed my eyes to block out the shimmering city lights — that’s when all those faces came rushing into my head. My friends. Even a few best friends who I had not had time to say good-bye to, such as Danielle Metz serving triple life, Josephine Ladezma also serving life and my law library buddy Angie Jenkins. I wondered what they were saying now that I had left. How could I help them? I needed a plan.
Back then, more than two decades ago, no one was receiving any relief from this now-50-year-old nonsensical, corrupt and insanely injurious War on Drugs.Like so many girlfriends, wives and other family members of an alleged drug dealer, I wasn’t locked up for my own decisions. I was imprisoned due to the abusive conspiracy net common in the U.S. justice system, where ancillary figures like me get swept up and indicted based on association alone.
Even my prosecutor told David France, an Oscar-nominated journalist who broke my story in Glamour magazine in 1999, “Had she…cooperated, I would say there’s a probability she wouldn’t have been prosecuted.”
In other words, we are not serving time for drug dealing. We are serving time for refusing to become a working informant for the feds.
My Parents Home Became My War Room
Once home, I was on a mission, determined to get more people out before President Bill Clinton left office.
I’d previously studied my cellmate Lau Chin’s case. I wrote her clemency petition. She was confined for more than 17 years for merely taking a phone message and passing it on to her then-boyfriend. She had no idea the man who called was a cooperating informant trying to work his way out of a mandatory sentence. His plea bargain required him to compromise others, because he had to provide “substantial assistance.”
Substantial assistance is the process by which a federal criminal defendant helps the government investigate and prosecute crimes committed by others, just so they can skirt the same “20-to-life” sentences most are threatened with if we refuse to enter force-fed plea deals.
I liken it to a pyramid scheme. To get a sentence reduced, one must recruit, set up and/or testify against others. Cops and prosecutors alike target people facing long prison sentences for these trades — cooperation that shackles someone else in exchange for a lighter sentence.
In reality, the only people who end up with long prison terms are those who exercise their 6th Amendment: constitutional right to a trial. It’s now referred to as the “trial penalty phase.” Chin was a prime example of this.
Much to my amazement, my pleas on Chin’s behalf paid off. Glamour magazine featured a follow-up article focusing on my clemency, and I asked them to spotlight her case. Senator David Pryor, one of my staunchest supporters, put me in touch with Associate White House Counsel Meredith Cabe. It was her job to coordinate with the Office of the Pardon Attorney on clemency cases and pardons.
I floated several names to Meredith, including Chins. Then, on Clinton’s last day in office, I was given a heads-up and by the grace of God I was able to give Chin the greatest news anyone in prison can ever receive.
“You’re going home,” I said.
She didn’t believe me. Her case manager had already told her that only one woman received clemency from FCI Dublin and her name was Linda Evans. But I knew better.
“Chin, pack your things. You’re going home,” I told her.
“Really?” she asked, with hesitation.
I could tell she didn’t want to get her hopes up only to have them shattered, but it was true. Chin went home to Hong Kong that day, where she was finally reunited with her three children.
I’ve discovered the magic bullet to freeing other women, I naively thought at the time.
That’s when I founded the CAN-DO Foundation, which stands for Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders. I filled the site with the faces of women I’d served time with and created bios on their stories.
What I didn’t expect that year was for George W. Bush to capture the White House. After all, he’s the son of the man who resurrected Nixon’s drug war and then injected it with steroids as vice president during the Reagan administration. Former Director of the CIA George H. W. Bush knew exactly what the Department of Justice needed, and in short order our leaders in Washington — from both sides of the aisle — were clamoring to out-tough-on-crime one another, passing punitive legislation hand over fist.
Every conceivable tool was loaded into the DOJ’s war chest: a broad reading of “conspiracy” statutes, rigid sentencing guidelines, unforgiving mandatory minimums, legalized bail bondage, the entrapment defense and trial penalty phases — instruments that would force American citizens to “cooperate” or lose their freedom.
Sadly, after 50 years of this so-called War on Drugs, none of our elected officials are demanding an exit strategy. The war has been sold to — or forced on — generations of Americans based on the premise this is all being done for our own protection, to save lives from drug use or addiction. Inanimate objects are never a casualty of war. People are.
Still, the “war” rages on.
Fighting a Manufactured Drug War is Exhausting
I’ve been on the front lines for 21 years now, and although we’re making progress, I’m now 61 and weary. My own personal PTSD kicks in with every case — every person — suffering from the same draconian sentencing structure I escaped from.
Currently, CAN-DO has approximately 40 cases on our site. We personally communicate with more than a thousand prisoners on the inmate email system.
My prison outreach coordinator, Malik King, communicates with more than 600 prisoners. I communicate with almost 200, and we have a Guardian Angel program that assigns earth-angels to prisoners needing advocacy, headed up by Maurenne Griese, a full-time nurse who generously shares her spare time assisting CAN-DO.
Two of my board members, Pat Williams and Cheryl Ward, are fabulous women I met in prison. Pat was my bunkie and graduated at the top of her class at Wharton School of Finance. Cheryl was the choir leader, a woman of God who works full time and also volunteers at CAN-DO. Anrica Caldwell, vice president of CAN-DO, is a school teacher-turned-tenacious advocate. Her conversion to advocacy came after her fiance received a life sentence. He miraculously came home after President Trump granted him a rare second clemency, after President Obama reduced his sentence from life to 30 years.
Our small, rag-tag nonprofit — though surely tenacious, scrappy, devoted and powered off love and our inescapable memories from the inside — constantly has limited resources and our time is often cannibalized by so many desperate Americans who write, call and beg us for help.
I can’t even enjoy my own, hard-won freedom, which never would have happened if two senators from Arkansas, especially Senator Bumpers from my small hometown of Charleston, hadn’t personally delivered my case to President Clinton, who hopped from the governor’s mansion in Little Rock to the White House. I was insanely lucky due to my Arkansas roots and a merciful God who moved chess pieces around the board in answer to my nagging, endless prayers for grace.
But why me? Why can’t others who deserve God’s mercy find their way home?
This flawed, uniquely American system must be overhauled. More than 14,000 clemency petitions are currently pending. Under the current structure, the Office of the Pardon Attorney is hostage to the Department of Justice. They allow their prosecutors to determine who gets a favorable recommendation, and only those cases advance to the White House.
The president doesn’t have access to the pardon office, which is overflowing with cases like mine — people like you too. Prison conditions tenants to accept their fate. Prison officials do not encourage or assist with clemency petitions. It’s a hopeless place. Hence, there’s little hope in clamoring to win a random clemency lottery, like the one that rescued me.
To date, the CAN-DO Foundation has fought in the trenches for more than 150 prisoners who are now breathing the same free air as you and I. There’s hope on the outside, but it takes a village of family members, concerned citizens, advocates and the prisoners themselves to bust through the walls of this massive American gulag we’ve allowed to be erected in our names, even as it is destined to go down in history as one of our nation’s darkest hours.
Many still don’t see it, but the fog of war is lifting.
Now lawmakers in both parties are already jockeying to pass the blame. There’s no passing this blame.
We need a president and Congress with a moral compass and the willpower to say “ENOUGH.” We’re waiting. Our patience is growing thin. Those of us devoted to ending this War on Drugs are on the right side of history. American politicians know it. World leaders do too. And so do the millions of Americans left scarred from a war they never signed up for.
Take a position. Please join our crusade to end the oldest running war the nation’s ever known — the one our elected leaders have waged against their own citizens for 50 straight years now.
Enough is enough. We can do this, but only with your help.
For information on how to donate to or volunteer with Amy’s foundation — and ultimately the prisoners they serve — please visit www.CanDoClemency.com.