Interview with Dorothy Gaines 12/29/00

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Dorothy Gaines, 42, of Mobile, Alabama, was one of two imprisoned women drug offenders granted clemency and released from prison by President Clinton last week (12/22/00). She was sentenced to almost 20 years in federal prison on crack cocaine conspiracy charges although she was accused of only peripheral participation and credibly maintained her innocence throughout. Gaines was never found in possession of any drugs, nor was there evidence of her selling them or even being aware that her boyfriend at the time, a crack addict, was a sometime low-level dealer. State prosecutors dropped charges, but federal prosecutors charged her with conspiracy. When she refused to plead guilty or offer testimony against others, she was found guilty and sentenced to 19 years and 7 months.

Gaines and her family worked for years to see her freed, eventually gaining the support of drug reform and civil rights groups and a crucial offer of free legal assistance. Her story also appeared in magazines such as Marie Claire and Essence, where she became a poster child of sorts for drug sentencing reform.

The Week Online spoke with Gaines on Wednesday:

WOL: Congratulations. How does it feel to be free?

Dorothy Gaines: I'm still trying to adjust. I'm doing a lot of thinking. I want to say how much I owe to the law firm that took on my case -- that's Choate, Hall & Stewart up in Boston -- and their team, headed by Gregg Shapiro, Hugh Scott, and Tracy Hubbard. They worked on this for free. But there were a lot of people involved. Eric Sterling also worked on my case, and the Drug Policy Foundation really started the ball rolling. And I worked with FAMM and the November Coalition -- every man and woman in prison should be members of those two groups. It was a broad effort and I'm really thankful to everyone. If not for them all, I would still be there.

WOL: Now what?

Gaines: The hardest thing is trying to get back on your feet. You get out of prison after five years, now you don't have anything. I've got to get some financial support. My plans are to look for work as a counselor at a youth center. I'd like to do some prevention programs with boys and girls in high school. Maybe I can help keep some of them from starting down the wrong path.

WOL: And what about your family life?

Gaines: It's been real hard on the kids. I went in March 1995 and they sent me to Danbury (Connecticut). That's a long way from Mobile. I was in Danbury Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) for a year, then three years at Tallahassee FCI, and then last March I went to the federal prison camp at Marietta (Florida). My son Phillip stopped visiting because he couldn't stand to have to leave me there. He wouldn't even talk to me on the cell phone when I was coming home. He said, "Mama, I don't want to talk to you on a phone anymore." Now he comes up and hugs me, and it's like a miracle. He spent three years writing letters, he even wrote one to President Clinton, he was standing on the street corner holding a sign saying "Let my mother go." But he's had a hard time in school. I want to get my children back doing well in school.

WOL: Do you plan to speak out on these issues now that you're free?

Gaines: Oh, yes. If anybody wants to listen to me, I'm ready to go.

WOL: What most struck you about prison?

Gaines: To see so many older people and so many families brought down by this drugs stuff. And so many of them on hearsay evidence. How can someone who is barely involved become a "conspirator" and get more time than those who actually had the drugs? That's what happened to me, and it's happened to a lot of other people, too. I was sentenced on word of mouth evidence, I didn't have any drugs. And so many of the other prisoners were drug prisoners. I met one girl who's been in since she was 17, she has a 14-year-old son born in prison who has never lived with her. Then there's the grandmother turned in by her own son so he could cut a deal. They say they're fighting a war on drugs, but they're getting people, not drugs.

WOL: What would you say to the prosecutors who sent you to prison for 20 years?

Gaines: I don't have any malice in my heart. If I had a hard heart, God would not have delivered me. Those prosecutors thought they were doing their job. I will be very careful, though -- I'm going to watch who I date! -- because I never want to see them again, especially in court.

WOL: What have you learned from your experience?

Gaines: Heh. I learned that when you're poor, you don't get the legal defense you need. Look at all those poor people like me in prison, you don't see too many rich ones. I couldn't afford a lawyer. If I had those Choate, Hall & Stewart people at the beginning, I wouldn't even have gone to prison. And I learned how many people there are like me. Wouldn't hurt anybody, didn't hurt anybody, and people are spending their lives behind bars. There's no justice. But I also learned about my own strength. There are so many people who go to prison and give up, they say "you can't beat the feds." But I say "fight every day," and that's what I did. Every day, I wrote somebody about my case. Sometimes you get weary, but you never give up. After all, I wasn't there to learn how to crochet.

WOL: What do you think of Bill Clinton now?

Gaines: I love the President and I'd love to meet him.

-- END --
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Issue #166, 12/29/00 Clinton Frees Kemba Smith and Dorothy Gaines, More Pardons Possible as 450,000 Non-Violent Drug Offenders Remain Behind Bars | Interview with Dorothy Gaines | Ashcroft Nomination for Attorney General Bodes Ill for Drug Policy Reform | Uruguayan President Becomes First Head of State to Call for Legalization of Drugs, Story Ignored by US Press | FCC Chastises Networks for Drug Czar's Media Campaign, NORML Complaint Brings Victory | Kubby Trial Ends in Mistrial, Eleven Jurors Accept Prop. 215 Defense | Which State Has More People -- Your State or the Prison State? | Urgent Action: Ashcroft, Clemencies, Hemp | NYC and Budapest Job Opportunities | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: Awakening from Kemba's Nightmare
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