Former federal drug inmate recalls the life she saved, and the judge who showed her compassion, in her remarkable story.

Dorothy Gaines spent five years in federal prison on a drug charge ... until she saved the life of a corrections officer, and won a pardon from President Clinton. Today she's an activist against racially discriminatory drug sentencing laws.

MOBILE, ALABAMA — For a while, Dorothy Gaines had a title: inmate.
“Back in 1995, I was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison,” she said. “I was convicted in 1994 of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.”
Then her title changed again, and she became known as something else: hero.
“They never thought I would show that kind of bravery,” Gaines said of federal prison officials. “But anything that you do to show you are not the typical inmate, that your heart isn’t hardened, it helps you.”
It helped convince President Bill Clinton to grant Gaines a pardon in December 2000, releasing her from federal prison after five years. At that point, Gaines took on yet another moniker: activist.
In the past decade, she’s testified before Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission about unfair sentencing laws in the United States when it comes to cocaine.
For Gaines, 53, this has been a long, complex journey. Today, like many other Americans, Gaines is struggling to cope with a weak economy that’s created limited opportunities for so many.
“It’s been a tough time for the last two years,” she said on Saturday, May 28. “Yesterday I celebrated my 53rd birthday, and it was one of the most depressoing birthdays I’ve ever had. I’m going through a tough financial time, even with all the hard work I’ve given to society for the last 10 years. I’ve gotten people out of prison. They told me the laws were changed because of my hard work.”
Again, it’s been a long journey. And one of the most difficult moments came recently, when the federal judge that sentenced her to prison, Judge Alex T. Howard Jr., died.
Howard was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 to serve on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, and was its chief judge from 1989 to 1994.
“When I heard of his death, I went into the hospital and stayed on a ventillor for one week. That’s how hard I took it,” Gaines said.
The reason Gaines took his death so painfully is that when she got arrested in 1994 on the crack cocaine charge, the judge felt the 20-year-prison sentence she was facing was too harsh. He was reluctant to go along with such a stiff sentence.
“He didn’t want to sentence me, and my sentence bothered him,” she said.
That was not long after Congress had voted for the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which stiffened the penalties for crack cocaine as opposed to powdered cocaine. In the years since, the law has been criticized as being racially discriminatory, and that criticism led to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, signed into law by President Obama last August, which reduces the disparity between U.S. federal criminal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. The law also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
But in the mid-1990s, Gaines was among those convicted under the law, even if Judge Howard was disturbed by the lengthy sntence he was mandated to impose.
“He wrote a letter to the president and said these laws were unconstitutional,” Gaines said. “When he died last month, I took his death very, very hard. He showed so much compassion, even when I was sentenced.”
At the time of her sentencing, Gaines was a single mother with three children, who was also caring for her own mother, who was dying. She thought she’d never get a chance to ensure they were taken care of.
“When I was convicted, they immediately locked me up,” she said. “I had three small children that I was leaving on the outside, and I needed to get them in a place situated for housing, and my lawyer refused to write a letter to the judge. He said it wasn’t going to do any good because I did not help the prosecutor lock up others.”
Gaines said at the time, she refused to work with the federal prosecutors in helping to incarcerate other people arrested on drug conspiracy charges.
“I could not bring someone to a place I didn’t want to be,” she said. “So I wrote a letter to the judge myself.”
To her surprise, the judge agreed to release Gaines on a bond so she could take care of her children and her mother before she started her prison sentence.
“He granted me a bond,” she said. “The prosecutors said they were going to appeal it, but the judge said, ‘I don’t care if you appeal, I want her released immediately.’ I was out on bond from August of 1994 until March 1995. I was able to get my dying mother situated with other family members and my children situated with my sister.”
Over the next five years, Gaines was incarcerated in several federal prisons, including the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee from 1996 until 1999. That’s where something remarkable happened: she saved the life of a corrections officer.
“I had saved two inmates’ lives while I was in there, by doing the heimlich maneuver on them,” she said. “And there was one staff I brought to safety.”
That corrections officer had been sent to check on the prison’s electrical breaker. He hadn’t noticed that the floor was wet, and didn’t realize he was standing in water when he touched the breaker.
“He went into a break room where it was, and it exploded,” she said. “It was wet in there and he did something, and it just exploded.”
It was Gaines who pulled him out of the room.
“I noticed that he went in and he never came back out, and I kicked the door in and I pulled him out to safety,” she said. “All the other women (inmates) said I should have let him die, but I said I don’t have the heart for that. So I pulled him out to safety. He himself wanted me rewarded for what I had done, saving his life, and he asked the warden to reward me for that. I was the only inmate who came to his rescue.”
In the years since, Gaines became an activist for a change in federal sentencing laws, so that the penalties for crack cocaine are not significantly higher than for powdered cocaine. She used the analogy of a chicken while testifying before Congress. Even though a chef can cook a chicken in a variety of ways — bake it, barbeque it, fry it or boil it — it’s still a chicken, she noted. And likewise, crack cocaine can’t be made without the ingredients used for powdered cocaine. So why the difference in federal prison sentences, she demanded to know.
And she still mourns the loss of a judge who showed compassion for her at her darkest moments.
“He was the first judge to ever write a letter to the president, and said I should be released,” Gaines said. “President Clinton granted my release on December 22, 2000, to let me come home to my children.”
Today, Gaines has a web site,, and is actively looking for speaking engagements to talk about her experience with the federal drug sentencing laws. As her web site notes, she is “now scheduling speaking engagements in her journey to let people know that mandatory minimum sentences plus the conspiracy laws are at the root of the growing federal prison populations. These laws are getting people, not drugs, off the streets.”
To learn more about Gaines or to book her for a speaking engagement, call 334-268-2094.

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High IQ group celebrates in Tampa, with the apocalypse still to come.

Mensa hosts plenty of regional gathering for its members to enjoy. (Photo by Dave Raith).

TAMPA — Trivia question: what does car racing, radical physics, puzzles and Oak Ridge, Tennessee have in common?
One word: Mensa.
What do zombies, the apocalypse and golf have in common?
Once again, the answer is Mensa.
Mensa is, of course, the largest and oldest high-IQ society in the world, for people who score at the 98th percentile or higher on Mensa’s intelligence admissions test. Mensa has its own admissions exam, and Mensa International consists of more than 110,000 members in 50 national groups.
There are regional chapters of Mensa, including the Tampa Bay chapter, which hosts an annual gathering over Memorial Day Weekend. This past weekend’s event was known as the “HavAnArrr-Regional Gathering,” and was held at the Hampton Inn in Ybor City. It was a weekend of socializing, balloon-making, ghost tours in Ybor City, a discussion on high speed rail and an orchid show — a reminder that Mensan’s enjoy a relaxing break as much as the next person.
“I’m getting feedback that everybody had a good time,” said Thomas G. Thomas, one of the organizers of the Tampa Bay event. “It you didn’t, let us know.”
Mensa’s Region 10 — which covers Florida, Puerto Rico, and south Georgia — host plenty of regional gatherings throughout the year, including several upcoming ones. One is the Broward Mensa “FLoRanGe 2011: The ‘Working Title’ RG,” which will be held in Fort Lauderdale on Labor Day Weekend from Sept. 2-5 at the Sheraton Suites Cypress Creek hotel.
Jason Knight, a member of Broward Mensa from Pomano Beach and organizer of that event, said it will be a weekend of speakers, contests, demonstrations, tournaments, an auction, 24-hour games, meals, and more –all designed to keep those with high IQs irresistably entertained.
“Broward Mensa is known for three things — hospitality, our scholarship auction, and our programs,” Knight said.
This year, there will be speaking programs on radical physics, car racing, puzzles, and what Knight called “Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the secret city. It’s a three-night, four-day RG.”
Closer to Orlando, the Central Florida Mensa Regional Gathering is hosting “2012: The Year of the Apocalypse” in Lake Mary, which aims to have some fun with the concept of 2012 being the year that the world ends.
Rob Goldsmith, head of the Central Florida Mensa’s RG committee, promised a good time would be had by all who attend the event at the Lake Mary Mariott from Jan. 27-29 next year.
“We’ve always had great regional gatherings,” he said. “We’re known for our great hospitality.”
End of days prophesies, he added, were simply too tempting to resist as a main theme.
“A few things are seen as the end of the world, so we’re going to have some fun with that, with zombies and things,” Goldsmith said, adding that the hotel would providing Mensa with “a lot of free conference room space. We’re going to have a large game room, we’re going to have a large speakers room.”
The three day gathering would also host an optional golf outing, Goldsmith added.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said.
To show that high ID people enjoy a good laugh as much as the next person, the Tampa Bay chapter gave out awards on Memorial Day for such things as “Best Pretentious Drink” (toffee liquor).
And at the end of the awards ceremony, everyone who attended was encouraged to take home as much leftover food as they wanted, since there was still a lot more fried chicken, sweets, soda and bottles or beer ordered than consumed over the three-day event — not necessarily a bad sign, Thomas noted.
“If you need anything for the road, we have sodas and bread — lots of bread,” Thomas told the departing members. “Of all the RGs I’ve attended, this one ate the least, bucking the American trend — which shows we’re smarter than most.”

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From rolled cigars to hand-rolled meatballs, Ybor City Italian restaurant combines history with hearty meals.

The Spaghetti Warehouse is in the historic part of Tampa's Ybor City Latin Quarter.

YBOR CITY — Consider this: the building that houses the Spaghetti Warehouse in Ybor City used to be a cigar making factory — and every first Monday of the month, this very good Italian restaurant hosts an Elvis Fun gathering.
Stogies, spaghetti, and Elvis … I suspect there’s a really good punch line in there somewhere, but at the moment it sadly escapes me.
No matter. In a state where history sometimes feels like anything built a year or two before the last colossal, high end subdivision opened its doors, one of the things I like most about Tampa’s great Latin Quarter is the red brick buildings that housed the cigar factories that put Ybor City on the map.
If Ybor City’s New Orlean’s-style 7th Avenue is better known today for its party-hearty night life, the truth is it also has more preserved history than so many other overdeveloped sections of Central Florida. Martinez Ybor opened his first cigar factory here in 1868, and that building still stands today, like so many other historic red brick structures along Ybor City’s La Setima (7th Avenue).
Just a few blocks away is The Spaghetti Warehouse Restaurant, located at 1911 N. 13th St., at the corner of 9th Avenue. Still a part of the historic section of Ybor City, it takes up part of a factory that continued hiring workers to roll fresh Cuban cigars straight into the 1980s. Spaghetti Warehouse is the kind of place that works hard at creating a spirit of fun and enjoyment, by celebrating things like Meatball Madness day (when $4.99 Spaghetti & Meatballs meals get served all day.)

The Spaghetti Warehouse is in a former cigar factory in Ybor City.

It’s also the kind of place that, as previously noted, hosts Elivs Fun Gatherings every first Monday of the month from 6-9 p.m. — better known as Jeremy Ewbank, a 42-year-old Tampa resident who owns a carpet cleaning business and does Elvis impersonations for fun and to entertain the spaghetti eaters. The Spaghetti Warehouse is nothing if not about the sheer pleasure of getting outdoors with friends and family for a relaxing meal. The decor helps set that mood. It’s a spacious restaurant, with three separate dining rooms, each one surrounded by those magnificent and all-too-rarely-seen (in Florida, anywhere, if not Pittsburgh) red brick walls. There are giant billboards decorating the walls, obviously collected from decades past — “Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, World’s Biggest Menagerie” reads one, with a painting of a rhino racing across it.
But the best is the trolley car located inside one of the dining rooms, with a flashing green traffic light hovering just above the front end — as if giving that trolley car the signal to start its engine. Happily for the diners who get to sit at the tables inside the trolley car, it never does. But considering that Ybor City still has a trolley system that takes visitors around town, it’s a fitting tribute to both the city’s history and Spaghetti Warehouse’s penchant for making it all a playful experience.
And then there is … l’alimento. Eccellente, i miei amici! Consider these choices (and ponder the dilemma I faced narrowing it down to one): You can be very traditional, and try the spaghetti and meatballs plate, which offers pasta topped with homemade tomato sauce and two hand-rolled meatballs.
A bit more adventurous, you could have the Incredible 15-Layer Lasagne — noodles baked with layers of meat sauce and a blend of cheeses, herbs, and spices.
The Fettuccini Alfredo, which I ordered and found to be an absolutely delicious gourmet meal, won me over, though I did still have the temptation of trying the Four Cheese Manicotti (two pasta tubes filled with a blend of cheeses, and topped with tomato and alfredo sauce), or the Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad.
Your waitress starts you off by bringing to your table a large bowl filled with house salad in Italian dressing for everyone in the party to share, along with sourdough bread served hot and fresh from the oven. The main dishes arrive quickly — the service is prompt and friendly.
That, the quality of the food and the appeal of dining in one of those historic brick buildings all sold me rather quickly on Spaghetti Warehouse’s appeal. And as I was leaving the restaurant and walking back to my hotel, the feeling of satisfaction after a good meal slowly morphed into a question that began to haunt me.
From hand-rolled cigars in the “Cigar Capital of the World” to meatballs in a trolley car — I know I’m missing a good one-liner here somewhere. I spent hours trying to think of a clever gag, but my mind kept going blank.
Oh, well. I do know this: the real joke is on anyone who visits Ybor City and bypasses Shaghetti Warehouse. Dining rare seems this fun, or rich, or tasty.
To learn more, call the restaurant at 813-248-1730.

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