For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.
Patrick W. Matthews
Stealing Tools from a Tool Shed
Patrick Matthews was arrested while riding in the truck of a friend who pawned stolen tools and a welding machine, which he was convicted of stealing. Patrick is now 25. Since he was sentenced to die in prison three years ago, he has completed his GED, and participates in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. “I never in the world would’ve thought that could happen,” he says. “Made one mistake and was treated like a murderer.” Patrick had no violent criminal history and had never served a single day in a Department of Corrections facility. He desperately misses his two young children, Blayton and Hayley, who are eight and six years old. One of the judges who reviewed Patrick’s appeal said he did not “believe that the ends of justice are met by a mandatory sentence for this 22-year-old,” but that legislation mandated sending Patrick away for the rest of his life because of unarmed burglary convictions when he was 17.
Carrying Drugs for an Abusive Boyfriend
Teresa Griffin was sentenced to die behind bars for her first offense. She was 26 and seven months pregnant when police apprehended her with $38,500 of her boyfriend’s cash and half a pound of his cocaine. Several years before, she told her boyfriend that she was leaving him. According to Griffin, he hit her and threatened to kill her and take two of her children away if she left him. He was extremely jealous and controlling, and forbade her to go to school or work. Teresa says her boyfriend used her as a mule to transport drugs between Texas and Oklahoma, and forced her to pick up the cash proceeds of his drug sales. Griffin, now 47, has served 22 years in prison and says she feels immense remorse for her actions. “I would give anything…to be able to make different decisions,” she says. “I know I did something wrong, but not enough to take away my life.”
Video: A Living Death
Can you imagine a mother without her oldest son? A father who will never make it home for his kids’ birthdays?
It’s not too late to give these families hope.
Watch this video and help us fight extreme sentences for nonviolent crimes – sentences that have reached absurd, tragic and costly heights.
Anthony Jerome Jackson
Taking a Wallet from a Hotel Room
Andrew Jackson has a sixth-grade education and worked as a cook. He was convicted of burglary for stealing a wallet from a Myrtle Beach hotel room when he was 44 years old. According to prosecutors, he woke two vacationing golfers as he entered the room and stole a wallet, then pretended to be a security guard and ran away. Police arrested him when he tried to use the stolen credit card at a pancake house. According to Jackson, because his court-appointed attorney failed to properly prepare for trial and did not even know the charges against him, Jackson chose to represent himself but did not understand anything during his trial. Because of two prior convictions for burglary, Jackson was sentenced to mandatory life without parole under South Carolina’s three-strikes law. “I felt hurt and afraid [of] the ending of life,” Jackson said. He speaks weekly with his mother, a pastor.
Stephanie Yvette George
Having Someone Hide Drugs in Your Home
Stephanie Yvette George was a 23-year-old single mother of three when police found drugs hidden in a lockbox in her attic. The father of one of George’s children confessed the drugs were his, and George says she had no idea the drugs were hidden in her home. She was convicted of playing a minor role in a crack cocaine conspiracy. At her sentencing hearing, the judge said George’s role in drug dealing had “basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder.” He did not want to sentence her to die in prison, but his “hands [were] tied” because of her prior convictions for minor drug offenses three years earlier. George’s children desperately miss their mother. Her daughter, Kendra, says, “I wish she was around to talk with me, see me off to the prom, or come see me graduate from high school…I miss her so much.”
Borrowing a Co-Worker’s Truck
After serving two years in prison during his mid-twenties for inadvertently killing someone during a bar fight, Aaron Jones turned his life around. He earned an electrical technician degree, married, became an ordained reverend, and founded the Perfect Love Outreach Ministry. Years later, Aaron was hired to renovate a motel in Florida, and was living in an employee-sponsored apartment with two other workers, one of whom had a truck that was used as a company vehicle by all the co-workers. Jones decided to drive this truck home to Louisiana to visit his wife and four children. When Aaron’s co-worker woke up to find his truck missing, he reported it stolen. Aaron was pulled over by police while driving the truck. He has already served 14 years and will be in prison in Louisiana until he dies. He says of his sentence, “You are just waiting for your number to be called, to heaven or hell.”
Map: A Living Death
Of the 3,278 prisoners doing life for nonviolent crimes, 63% were sentenced by federal courts; the rest are in nine state prison systems. Click here to meet some of the individual prisoners waiting to die behind bars and see where they’re serving time. These accounts include interviews with prisoners’ parents, children, and spouses who have been punished emotionally and economically by their loved ones’ permanent absence.