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Nov 13, 2009

More evidence that innocence does not matter enough in criminal justice.

The Conspiracy Charge Traps Women

By Tri-State Defender Newsroom

The cost of incarceration — Part III
By Patrice Gaines
NNPA News Service

“The Cost of Incarceration” is an eight-part occasional series written by Patrice Gaines, former Washington Post reporter; author and co-founder of The Brown Angel Center, a program in Charlotte, N.C. That helps formerly incarcerated women become financially independent.

Charlie Mae Mays is 77. She has been diagnosed with lung cancer but it is in remission.

Of course, that makes her happy. But she measures her life in terms of whether or not she will one day see her daughter walk out of prison free.

[Her oldest daughter Michelle, was arrested on] the policy of charging people with “conspiracy.” ... She is one of thousands of women some call a victim of a law that created the “girlfriend problem.”

“Women romantically involved with drug-involved men often get caught in the conspiracy net cast by the war on drugs, many times receiving harsher sentences than the drug kingpins,” says Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Institute (OSI), a private grant-making foundation that aims to shape public policy regarding issues such as human rights and social reform.

This kind of prosecution of women does not allow a judge or jury to take into consideration the reasons why a woman may remain silent or stay with a drug dealer.  The court ignores factors such as domestic violence, economic dependence, or disability that makes one reliant on someone to provide financial support.

Michelle West was a single mom with a nine-year-old daughter. She once dated and lived with Olee Wonzo Robinson, a man police said was a drug dealer. West and her family say he was physically and verbally abusive to her. Finally, she left and moved in with her mother.

“She was trying to go on with her life,” her mother remembers.

 A couple of years later police came knocking. Michelle says they threatened her with drug charges if she didn’t cooperate in their investigation of her ex-boyfriend. She was petrified because her ex had warned her he would kill her daughter and mother if she ever talked to police, she says.

West was convicted of charges that include conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and aiding and abetting in drug-related homicide. Witnesses testified that West did whatever Robinson ordered her to do. She denies having anything to do with a murder or drug dealing. One of the informants who testified against her was the triggerman in the murder and received immunity for his testimony. West maintained her innocence. Still, she received the same sentence as her ex-boyfriend.

The policy of using “conspiracy” charges allows drug laws to punish not only the kingpin but his girlfriend, who may have had nothing to do with his drug business or could have done something as small as drive a boyfriend to drop off drugs. The number of women in prison has increased at nearly double the rate of men since 1985, according to the U.S. Department of Justice statistics. African-American women are incarcerated at a rate eight times that of white women and represent 30 percent of all females incarcerated under state or federal jurisdiction.

A large percent of these women charged with conspiracy in drug cases have histories of physical and sexual abuse and/or untreated mental illness. Court documents show that while West was incarcerated and awaiting trial she reported Robinson sent her threatening letters and made threatening calls. The administrator of the jail testified that he had seen West in tears, expressing great concern over the safety of her daughter.

Today, West, 48, says by email, “The FBI gave me an ultimatum to cooperate with the government – a risk that would have been a death sentence to my daughter – or go to trial and face life.”

In the late 1990s the story of Kemba Smith, a Hampton University college student, grabbed media headlines. Smith had been in an abusive relationship with a drug dealer. When the boyfriend was murdered, the government held her accountable for the $4 million drug ring; although there was no evidence she ever sold, handled or used drugs. In 1994 she was sentenced to 24.5 years in prison.

Smith gave birth to a son while incarcerated and served 6.5 years. In December 2000 President Clinton granted Smith clemency. She has since earned a college degree and is married and living in the Midwest.

“It still troubles me that I know women that were there (in prison) while I was there and they are still there,” said Smith, who is also a motivational speaker who does advocacy work focused around drug policy reform. “My situation is no different than theirs except I had the public outcry.”

There are signs that a change in conspiracy laws could happen during the Obama administration. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) has introduced the “Fair Sentencing Act of 2009.”

 “In addition to focusing on major traffickers as opposed to bit players in the drug trade, the Durbin bill also addresses mitigating factors such as whether the defendant acted on impulse, fear, friendship, or affection,” said Nkechi Taifa of OSI. “This helps to eliminate concerns such as ‘the girlfriend problem’…”

“The thing about conspiracy is it is so un-American in many ways,” said Jennifer Seltzer Stitt, director of Federal Legislative Affairs at Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). “People are being hauled in with no evidence or very little.”

If the legislation passes, it’s long overdue, said Dean Dannye Holley, Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University. He remembered that 30 years ago, when he got out of law school, one of his first cases was representing a woman who lived with a drug dealer.

“This (conspiracy charge) is a common practice, especially in minority neighborhoods… where so often drug cartels are gang-related and dominated by males who have females associated with them,” said Holley.

But even a new law may have no affect on Michelle West’s sentence. Still, Miquelle West, the daughter Michelle left behind, believes any shift in attitudes could help her mother.

The recollection of their abrupt separation still makes Miquelle, now 27, emotional.

 “It was May 3, 1993. My mother dropped me off at school and said, ‘I’ll see you later.’ I never saw her on the streets again,” said West, a fashion stylist who lives in New York.

“I remember my mom telling me that when I was born that they used to give babies shots in their foot and she said she felt my pain when they did it,” said Miquelle. “I understand, because now I feel that way. I feel her pain.”

Charlie Mae Mays was so distraught she didn’t even have the strength to walk on the day of Michelle’s sentencing, so her daughter “Pete” insisted she stay home. Now, Mays says, “I want to live to see her walk out free.”


How did black women get an incarceration rate that is eight time higher than white women?  The conspiracy charge in the war on drugs is used to arrest girlfriends of drug dealers, regardless of their innocence, and give them same sentence as their romantic partners.  The women are apparently "guilty by association." This helps keep prisons full and provide prison workers - at tremendous cost to taxpayers ($50,000 per woman per year plus foster care costs for children left behind), the women, their children, and their communities.  Children who are separated from their mothers at an early age often develop separation anxiety disorder and feelings of rejection.  This can lead to mental illness.  Therefore, taxpayers keep on paying in future decades for the greed of prison profiteerism.  The prison cost is currently over $50 billion per year, and 2/3 of inmates were not convicted for violent crimes.   In fact, 1.25 million prisoners are actually mental patients who should be in treatment, not prison. 


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Assistance to the Incarcerated Mentally Ill 



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, 5, 2 children
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