Sharanda Jones thought she would die in prison, until President Barack Obama granted her clemency. Her case received national attention and was most recently mentioned in the Ava DuVernay documentary 13th, which depicts the discriminatory policy known as mandatory minimum sentencing. In our second look at people living under the weight of these predatory policies, Jones pens an essay for REVOLT about her experience.
In 1999 I was sentenced to life in federal prison as a first-time nonviolent drug offender. With no parole in the federal system, I was to never be free again. My back was up against the wall. All odds were against me.
After a jury trial, I was acquitted of six counts of possession of crack cocaine and aiding and abetting but convicted of one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. When the judge said he was sentencing me to life in prison, I just felt numb. This was my first time ever being in trouble with the law. I had never even been arrested before — not even for a traffic ticket — so to be told I was going to spend the rest of my natural life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense…I couldn’t understand it.
I take responsibility for my participation in the conspiracy and know that I deserved to be punished. But for the rest of my life for my first ever arrest and conviction?
From day one of my incarceration, I worked hard to better myself. I refused to become bitter. I held on to hope and signed up for every kind of education and rehabilitative programming that I could. I kept a positive attitude and worked daily on personal growth and development. My time in prison was not easy. The hardest part was being separated from my only child, Clenesha. She was only 8 years old when I went to prison and even though we maintained a close relationship, there is nothing like a mother physically being there for her child. I missed out on so much of her life and that is my deepest regret.
I knew that I had to make the best of my situation, stay prayerful, and keep the faith that I would not die in prison. God sent me an angel in 2009 in the form of a young law student, Brittany K. Byrd. She vowed to help me with my case no matter what it took. The laws provided me no relief so we quickly found that my only hope for freedom was clemency from President Obama. Brittany worked for years pro bono on my case and filed a clemency petition on my behalf in 2013. She also worked to raise awareness for my case and I am forever grateful for the amount of support I received across the nation.
Two years later, on December 18, 2015, I received news from Brittany that President Obama granted my petition for clemency and that I would be released April 16, 2016! I immediately started crying and thanking God! With the stroke of a pen, President Obama literally saved my life. I hope to one day be able to thank him in person for his mercy and for believing in me. I will not let him down or take this blessing of life for granted.
Last week I watched Ava DuVernay’s amazing documentary, 13th. It is such a powerful film. I was surprised and thankful to see that Ava highlighted my story in the documentary. Some people find the link between slavery and mass incarceration shocking. But myself and millions of others know from firsthand experience that this country’s prison system is just slavery evolved.
For 16 years and 9 months I walked through the valley of a shadow of death in prison. Literally.
I cannot sit and do nothing when mass incarceration is destroying lives, families, and entire communities. The 13th documentary motivated me even more to do my part to make a difference. I have to use my story and my voice to raise awareness for the desperate need of criminal justice reform to help those I left behind. Many of the woman I was incarcerated with all those years became like family to me and are just as deserving as me of a second chance. Criminal justice reform is long overdue.
I pray my story gives hope to those in prison serving unnecessarily harsh sentences like I was. I want them to know that anything is possible and to keep the faith.
This time last year I was set to die in prison. Today, I am FREE. I am also a new grandmother. The joy I felt being able to be there when my first grandchild was born this past May is indescribable. My daughter and granddaughter are my world. I am a walking miracle and extremely grateful to President Obama for saving my life.