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Dorothy Gaines



Keeping the faith
By Chuck Armsbury, Sr. Editor The November Coalition

She was raised by her grandparents, growing up in a small Alabama town, Putnam, where her grandmother cooked for a white family, and her grampa was a logger. She insists she first learned about racism while battling for justice in courtrooms, learning more during her six-plus years in federal prison about racism in American than the lifetime preceding her arrest. She is Dorothy Gaines, and she was released by President Clinton's order of clemency on December 23, 2000.

Clinton also commuted the sentence of Kemba Smith, a young mother serving 25 years for a drug conspiracy she knew little about. Kemba served 6 years and is able to mother her son for the very first time; she gave birth in shackles not long after her arrest. Both women had law firms supporting their presidential commutation requests as well as organizational exposure from a variety of drug and sentencing reform organizations that assisted in publicizing the obvious injustice in their cases.
During our phone interview Dorothy talked about her children: Natasha, now 26; Phillip, 16; and Chara, 17. Natasha, like many young victims of the drug war, became parent to her younger brother and sister. Since her release Phillip has already benefited from having his mother at home.

"He's getting up earlier, showing interest in school and speaking up more," Dorothy said. She described a young boy left withdrawn, 'holding things in' after mom was taken away. "He was not happy with kids teasing him about his mom, and you know, Chuck, he just couldn't concentrate under that stress," she told me.

Her children are no longer innocent, no longer naïve as she feels she was before prison. "My kids are now very aware of how things go in different prisons. They ask more questions and watch things better," said Dorothy. "For me, though, I am very leery, and I have learned not to trust anyone, and I was taught to love growing up in rural Alabama where I don't remember hating or being hated," she continued.

"When and how I got out of prison began the day I stepped into prison. I asked God to give me knowledge since I didn't have money. So give me knowledge instead, I prayed. I soon found that many doors are locked to the prisoner, but I began writing every day, and I put my faith to work and never gave up. Unlike many prisoners around me, I determined from the first day to stand up for something so I wouldn't fall for nothing," Dorothy related to me with conviction.

It ought to trouble readers that Dorothy Gaines had to learn about racism in the courts and prison. "We teach racism in those systems. I wasn't taught prejudice as a youth, didn't notice it in Putnam, but after seeing the sentencing disparities, I began to see it for the first time. Folks ought to teach their young that all blood is red, there's no white heaven, just one heaven," she told me.

I asked Dorothy to tell us what she wants everyone to learn from her experience.

"There are good people in prison. I left many behind, and we need to support people in prison. If each family, one neighborhood, one person would reach out to one prisoner, then imagine all that working, one by one, all across the country. People on the outside need to open their minds and hearts, find out the whole story on people, not just get trapped by the words of fear about criminals and mostly stop being naïve about conspiracy laws."

Dorothy has upcoming appointments with People Magazine, plans to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus and hopes to thank President Clinton personally before he leaves office. Dorothy needs to be online. Is there a reader who can donate funds or a reliable, user-friendly computer system to Dorothy Gaines in Mobile, Alabama? She came home only to her children- no clothing except the red dress brought to the prison for her to wear home- no job and sharing housing with Natasha and her husband. Please contact our office if you are able and willing to support this special request the November Coalition is making on behalf of Dorothy Gaines who never so much as asked for any personal help beyond getting her home to her children. If you can help Dorothy re-establish her life on the outside, email me at: or call our office at (509) 684-1550.

Essay by Rob Stewart, Editor, The Drug Policy Letter
Reprinted with permission from the Winter 1998 Drug Policy Letter, pp. 7-18. See below for contact information.

The U.S. government offered Dorothy Gaines a deal: a five-year sentence for all Gaines knew about a drug trafficking ring in and around Mobile, Alabama. Gaines turned the offer down, saying she was innocent of charges that she helped supply the ring with cocaine.

Today, Gaines, 39, is in the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, Florida. She is serving a 19-year-and-seven-month sentence for two counts of conspiracy to possess and distribute over one and a half kilograms of crack cocaine.

The amount of drugs is vague because the government did not have material evidence of the drugs associated with Gaines. A search of Gaines' house turned up no drugs, no money, and no paraphernalia associated with drug dealing. All the government had on Gaines was the testimony of others - some of whom were defendants from the same busted drug ring who faced long prison terms unless they cooperated with the prosecution and built cases against other suspects.

Gaines was a suspect because she dated a crack user, Terrell Hines, who knew Dennis Rowe, the alleged leader of the Mobile cocaine ring.

"When I found out [Hines] was using drugs," Gaines said, "I put him into rehab. I split the relationship when he went back to drugs."

At first, things seemed to go Gaines' way. The Alabama state court rejected the case because the charges against Gaines could not be corroborated with concrete evidence - all the prosecution had was testimony.

Unfortunately for Gaines, she lived in one of the nation's most active federal judicial districts for prosecuting local drug cases. In addition, Gaines did not realize that federal law permitted the prosecution to use uncorroborated testimony in a conspiracy case. Since a combined local and federal drug task force arrested the suspects, the case was moved up to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama in 1994.

After Gaines turned down the plea bargain, the U.S. attorney's office tried Gaines and three other defendants at the same time. Gaines, however, was confident that the jury would find her not guilty.

Instead, the jury saw the determination with which the other witnesses testified against Gaines, describing her as integral to the crack distribution network. In retrospect, Gaines sees that the jury probably convicted her because of the weight of the evidence against her codefendants.

Because Gaines, a first-time offender, did not cooperate, her sentence was not reduced from the prescribed 235 months. One witness, who was already serving time for prior felony convictions on gun and drug charges, was released early. Rowe, the ringleader, was facing a possible life sentence, but he helped the government build cases against others including Gaines and will be out in 2004. With good behavior, Gaines will be in prison until 2012.

Besides the lack of direct evidence against her, Gaines points to indirect evidence that she was not a player in the drug ring. Gaines was living in public housing when she was arrested and is missing several teeth because she could not afford proper dental care. That summer, her car had been repossessed. Her accusers did not contend that Gaines used drugs or spent drug-trafficking money on herself. But Gaines' court-appointed attorney failed to introduce the records documenting her low income or the high level of community support for her.

The case has other inconsistencies. The testimony about how much cocaine Gaines knew about changed throughout the proceedings. Testimony about one night's crack buy fluctuated between the grand jury hearings and the trial. Some cocaine, allegedly kept by Gaines at her house, transformed from its powder form to cocaine base or crack, which carries a heavier federal sentence.

Another problem is the allegation that the government's witnesses coordinated their testimony with each other while being kept in the same holding cell during the trial. When one of the witnesses (who was being tried separately from Gaines) reported the collusion to the court, Judge Alex Howard interrupted the trial to investigate. But, the judge did not find sufficient evidence of collusion to end the trial nor was the jury informed of what happened.

A combination of bad law and poor counsel helped land Gaines behind bars, but she is good-hearted, even generous, in fighting her imprisonment.

"My goal upon release is to go into the schools to tell the kids what happened to me," Gaines said. "You don't have to sell drugs to get into trouble. I just dated someone who used drugs."

Gaines has, by all accounts, become a model prisoner. She has commendations from the warden for the two times she has saved inmates' lives and, on one occasion, for helping a sick staff member. Yet, a year of good behavior earns Gaines only a 54-day reduction in her sentence.

Everything Gaines relates about her experience comes back not to the trial but to her family. She is the sole parent for her three children. Her oldest, Natasha, left college in 1996 to raise her sister and brother in addition to her own children.

Gaines is concerned about all of them and is particularly concerned about her youngest child, Phillip, 13. He told his mother that he wanted to break the law so that he could join her in prison. "I assured him that, if he gets in trouble, he doesn't come to mom," Gaines said.

Gaines describes the day that Phillip said he wanted to kill himself rather than live without his mother as "devastating." She says she talked Phillip through his ordeal. During and after the trial, Gaines encouraged him to pray. During and after the trial, Phillip had dealt with the stress by sending letters to the judge and, later, to President Clinton.

Whereas his mother had nothing to exchange for a reduced sentence, Phillip thought he did. Just before his 10th birthday, Phillip wrote Judge Howard offering to mow the judge's lawn and wash his car in exchange for not sending Gaines away to prison. Phillip's gesture was in part an expression of gratitude to the judge who did what few would have done for a convict facing such a long sentence: Judge Howard released Gaines on her own recognizance in August 1994 after her conviction until her sentencing in March 1995.

Gaines would prefer being confined to home rather than to a prison cell. "If I could take life on probation or an ankle bracelet, I would," she said. "I've seen seven women go home from here, only to come back a few months later. I asked them, 'How can you hurt your family by coming back to prison?' If only I had the chance to go home."

Gaines has a lot to say about the justice system. In a summary of her case that she drafted, Gaines wrote: "Where is justice? I beg for the return of federal parole, the release of first-time, nonviolent offenders, and the rehabilitation of the drug addict. Incarceration is not only costly to the taxpayers, it is totally destructive to the individual's family."

"My last word to the nation: The mandatory minimum sentences plus the conspiracy laws are at the root of the growing federal prison populations. You are getting people, not drugs, off the streets."

(To Read Philip's letter, CLICK HERE)

Copyright 1998. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the Drug Policy Foundation, 4455 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite B-500, Washington, DC

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