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, http://dorothygaines.org/, 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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