Words From Prison: Drug Policy, Race and Women's Incarceration

Yvonne worked as a hair stylist in an upscale unisex salon in Harlem. Although the salon attracted an clientele with means, Yvonne barely earned enough with tips to support her two little girls and her extended family. Yvonne lived with her grandmother, her brother, and her sister in a small apartment in a housing project near the salon. She was the only one in the home who was regularly employed. Although she worked long hours to support everyone, it was difficult to make ends meet.

Despite the financial challenges she faced, Yvonne enjoyed her job, particularly the interesting people she met. She had a regular customer, John Williams, who was one of the few white guys who seemed to spend a lot of time in Harlem. He came in every other week for a wash and cut, and in passing, Yvonne often shared with John some of the challenges she faced as the sole supporter for her family. John always seemed sympathetic and indicated that he would be willing to help her out if she performed a small job for him. Yvonne initially declined; she wasn't sure what this small job entailed, but she suspected John was involved in drugs and she wanted no part of it.

Yvonne also wanted no part of her boss's designs and routinely resisted his repeated demands for a date. Derrick, the owner of the salon, fancied himself a ladies man who could win the attention of any woman he set his sights on, but Yvonne's persistent rejection angered him and made him obsess over her even more. One day while stacking supplies in the ready room, Derrick came up behind her and pinned her against the wall. He groped under her skirt and struggled to remove her panties but Yvonne broke free and attempted to knee him in the groin. She reached for the door but Derrick pushed her aside and blocked her exit. Catching his breath, he told Yvonne that the games were over. Either she would give him what he wanted or she would be fired. Convinced that she needed the job too badly to walk away, Derrick was stunned when Yvonne quit. She'd be back, he declared as she slammed the door behind her.

Yvonne's decision proved costly for her family. Her salary was meager, but it did provide the low cost health care that her asthmatic son desperately needed. Because she had quit her job, she was ineligible for unemployment and it would take months before her son would be covered under a plan for needy children. Within weeks after quitting her job, Yvonne faced the possibility of having to choose between buying the medicine her son needed, or buying food for the family. She decided as a last ditch effort to reach out to her former regulars to work free-lance on an on-call basis. The first call she received in response to her flyers was from John. However, rather than seeking a hair cut, he had another job in mind for Yvonne: he would pay her $3,000 to carry a small package to Albany. Although he only said that he was delivering "product" to a buyer in Albany, Yvonne was led to believe that she would be carrying a small amount of cocaine upstate. Yvonne had been around drugs her whole life, but she had never used them more than once or twice, nor had she ever sold drugs or worked as a "mule" although she knew plenty of others who did. Yvonne didn't think she'd get into too much trouble for carrying 5 ounces of cocaine for John just once.

Women generally play very minor roles in drug crimes, serving as small-scale carriers, sellers, or couriers (also known as "mules").

On a cold Thursday morning, Yvonne shoved a small, brown paper package in the front of her jeans and walked out of her apartment to catch a train to Albany, where John would meet her. During the whole two and a half hour train ride, Yvonne was nervous, knowing she was taking a huge risk carrying the cocaine on her body. But her family desperately needed the cash and her son might not survive without the medication he needed.

John met her at the train station and took her to a room at a local motel, where two more men were waiting. Yvonne dropped the bag into John's hand. To Yvonne's surprise, the package contained five ounces of crack rather than powder cocaine. Someone placed the bag on the scale, and the three men agreed to a price. The buyer left the room and came back with several stacks of cash. Seconds later, a group of armed police officers stormed the room.

Yvonne was arrested and charged with conspiracy to sell drugs.

In 1988, Congress added conspiracy to commit a drug offense to the list of crimes receiving a federal mandatory minimum sentence. New York state has a similar conspiracy provision in its Rockefeller drug laws. Conspiracy provisions have expanded the range of people ensnared by drug laws and have contributed to the explosion of women's drug convictions. Once a "conspiracy" is established, every participant can be held liable for the actions of every other member, even if the participant did not have any knowledge of the actions or existence of other participants. So, even though women often play minimal or peripheral roles in drug sales, they are held accountable for the amount of drugs attributed to the entire conspiracy.

At her arraignment, Yvonne's first thought when she was taken into the courtroom was that she was the only black person there: her lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge were all white. That automatically made her nervous. She had previously met with her public defender for a few minutes in her jail cell, and he had advised her to take the deal the prosecutor offered: plead guilty, work as an informant, and get five years to life in prison. He warned her of the long sentence she'd get if she lost at trial. But Yvonne couldn't imagine working with the police, wearing a recording device, and setting up people she knew in the neighborhood. She decided to go to trial, trusting that if she just told the jury how she'd been set up and the small part she played, they'd see it from her point of view.

Although women of all races use drugs at approximately the same rate, women of color are arrested and imprisoned for drug use at much higher rates. In New York, women of color are 91% of those women sentenced to prison for drug crimes although they make up just 32% of the state's female population. Although incarceration rates for all women are skyrocketing, since 1986, the rate of increase for African-American women has been 800%, compared to an increase of 400% for women of all races.

At her trial, Yvonne learned that John was an informant, helping the cops arrest new people and testifying in court, and earning money and avoiding prison in exchange. She learned that the "buyer" was a state police officer. What Yvonne couldn't have imagined is that in the state's "war on drugs" the cops and prosecutors commonly lured people from New York City to Albany because of its tough-on-drugs judges and juries. And Yvonne had never heard of the state's "Rockefeller drug laws," which mandate long, harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

New York's drug laws, enacted in 1973 under then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, are among the country's harshest mandatory sentencing schemes. They impose long prison terms for the possession, sale or conspiracy to sell even small amounts of drugs. For instance, the statute requires a judge to impose a prison term of 8 to 20 years for anyone convicted of selling 2 ounces or possessing 8 ounces of a narcotic substance. The penalties apply without regard to the offender's background, character, role in the offense, or threat to society.

After a two-day trial, the jury found Yvonne guilty of first-degree sale, a felony, and the judge sentenced her to the maximum – 20 years in prison in New York's largest women's prison, hundreds of miles from New York City and her two children. Most of the women she met in prison were also there for drug crimes.

More than eight times as many women are incarcerated in the United States today than were incarcerated in 1980, primarily as the result of an increase in enforcement of and sentencing under draconian drug laws. Between 1986 and 1999, the number of women incarcerated in state facilities for drug-related offenses increased almost 900 percent.


  • Support the New York state legislative bill A-8098. The bill seeks to expand drug treatment for nonviolent offenders and increase judicial discretion in sentencing first and second-time drug offenders to treatment and probation instead of prison. Go to www.drugpolicy.org for more information.
  • Join the campaign to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws in New York State. Visit www.nyclu.org/rockefeller to become a campaign member and take action. You can also learn more about these efforts at the www.realreformny.org.
  • Learn more about the racial implications of the "war on drugs" and the ways in which low-income communities of color are targeted by law enforcement and harmed by current drug policies. Read Caught in the Net: The Impact of Drug Policies on Women and Families, which you can find at www.aclu.org/womensrights and www.fairlaws4families.org.

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