Posted Friday May 12 2000
Published: Monday, May 8, 2000 St. Paul Pioneer Press
Drug laws are creating hardships for mothers
Ruben Rosario / Staff Columist
Mary Gaines made a mistake a decade ago that cost her nearly eight years in federal prison and separation from her three children. Lynette Ford made a recent one that will cost her time and likely her 8-year-old son.
Ford and Gaines -- first-time federal drug offenders and mothers who had no criminal record, child protection history or drug abuse problems -- are the unlikely spoils in the so-called war on drugs.
They are among the trophies of some federal and state drug laws -- and their mandatory minimum sentences -- that many critics say have done little but bloat our nation's prison population to record levels with nonviolent offenders. If these are increasingly the kind of prisoners of war we're capturing, a cease-fire is in order.
Nearly half of the nearly 2 million people in prison are nonviolent offenders. They include first-time drug offenders and parents of dependent children who study after study conclude would be better served by more efficient and cost-effective community-based sentencing options.
The federal law, designed to target hard-core drug dealers and major drug rings, virtually eliminated judicial discretion and gave prosecutors more sentencing power in filing charges that carry mandatory minimum terms ranging from five to 30 years in some cases. It is not uncommon for low-level drug offenders to serve longer prison sentences than repeat rapists, child molesters, murderers and other violent felons.
"It's unbelievable,'' says U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum of Minnesota, an outspoken critic of the law's shortcomings and misapplication when it comes to first-time offenders with dependent children.
"When a man goes to jail, he usually leaves behind his children to his wife or girlfriend,'' he adds. "But let's face it. It is mothers who primarily care for children.
"What happens when they go to prison?'' Rosenbaum explains. ``It is extraordinarily infrequent that a male cares for them. What happens is that these children are either sent to live with a sister or a mother or become wards of the state.''
Gaines, 37, was convicted in Minneapolis on a federal drug conspiracy charge after she agreed, at the urging of a friend, to introduce a drug buyer to a heroin dealer she knew. She was unaware the buyer was an undercover federal agent and that the friend had been busted with $24,000 worth of heroin. Although she was not involved with the drug ring, Gaines was convicted on a conspiracy charge and served a term of seven years and nine months. The friend, the one caught with the drugs, cooperated and was rewarded with a prison term of less than five years.
Ford, 29, was arrested after agents executed a search warrant at her mother's home in St. Cloud last summer. Ford was charged with possession of about 20 grams of crack cocaine. She pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to an unusually low mandatory minimum prison term of 37 months, courtesy of a compassionate prosecutor.
But prison is the least of Ford's worries. Because her son was present in the home at the time of the arrest, he was placed in protective custody. Ford's three other children were not at the home and are staying with an aunt.
Because the son was 7 at the time, he falls under a recent change in the child protection law. The statute authorizes authorities to automatically move to terminate parental rights if a suitable home for a child under 8 is not found within six months. Because her likely 15-month prison term exceeds the time limit, Ford must find someone qualified to care for the child.
The only hope is a grandmother of the boy who lives near Chicago. But in order to be considered, the woman would have to live in Minnesota until she establishes a bond with the boy to the satisfaction of county child welfare officials. The woman is willing, but she does not have the financial means or the work flexibility to take time off to make the extended trip.
"The grandmother is truly the last resort,'' explains Muriel Varhely, an assistant public defender in Stearns County who is representing Ford in the custody case.
"That would be a shame because by all accounts, Ford has not been a neglectful mother,'' Varhely adds. ``But she's between a rock and a hard place, and there's a very real danger that she will lose the child.''
Rosenbaum and Katherian Roe, Ford's criminal defense lawyer, point out that there's another critical side issue to the federal drug laws that have a devastating impact on female inmates from Minnesota: There is no federal prison for women in the state.
The closest federal female facility is 800 miles away in Pekin, Ill. As a result, female prisoners from Minnesota and four surrounding states -- the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and Iowa -- are shipped to prisons across the country, making it very difficult for their children and relatives to see them.
"We're talking women and children from poor families who don't have the money to jump on a plane or a bus to make these trips,'' Roe says.
Such was the case with Gaines, who served her time in Pekin and facilities in Connecticut and other states. She never saw her children until her release three years ago.
"I don't think people understand that when a mother is incarcerated, in a sense, so are her children,'' Gaines said last week. ``There's not one woman in federal prison for drugs that I know of who says they're innocent or they shouldn't do some time. What we're saying is change the law to make the time fit the crime, and let them have contacts with their children.''
Gaines is the founder of Federal FORUM (Females Organizing and Restoring Unity for Mothers), a nonprofit, volunteer group in St. Paul that assists female federal inmates with dependent children with visits, education and job-training opportunities. Her efforts as an advocate for women in federal prison recently earned her a Newsmaker of the Year Award from the Minnesota Women's Press.
Last November, the group sought approval from officials in Pekin to transport the children of 68 Minnesota mothers to the facility for visits. The request was referred to U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials in Washington. Gaines said she's still waiting for a response.
Meanwhile, Ford's visitation rights were recently discontinued out of concerns that the son becomes more traumatized each time he has to say goodbye to his mother.
"I raised my son from birth,'' says Ford, whose prison term has been delayed while the custody matter is pending. ``I made a mistake and I'm willing to go to prison.
"But I'm all he knows,'' she adds. ``Why do I have to lose rights to my son even though I'm willing to do what it takes to keep him?''