Josephine Ledesma

Josephine Ledesma was a first time nonviolent drug offender when she received a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. She served over 24 years before receiving clemency from President Obama on August 3, 2016. 

I was a teacher’s aide, married to my high school sweetheart.

We had three children. I had never used drugs in my life but I knew that a family member had starting involving himself with some questionable people. He had become like a middle man. We were very close, my whole family was very close, and he would sometimes use my home phone to make phone calls — I knew what they were for. 

One day he asked me to give an envelope of money to a friend of his who was going to drive cocaine from California to Washington, D.C in an RV. Foolishly, I agreed. The person driving the RV was pulled over in Tennessee, arrested and agreed to “cooperate.” Those phone calls made from my house, and a business card they found in the RV, made me by law part of a conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

I was arrested on December 5, 1990 in my home. They tore apart my whole house but they didn’t find anything. Like I said, I’ve never once in my life used drugs and I wasn’t associated with any of these people beyond some basic knowledge of what was happening. They interrogated me for hours but eventually let me go, explaining that the state of California wouldn’t be bringing any charges, but that they didn’t know what would happen with federal officials because the arrest happened in Tennessee.

Two days later the federal marshalls picked me up and brought me to Memphis. I was there for 3.5 months before my family raised enough money to bond me out.

My trial began on April 6 1992.

The trial started on a Monday and by Friday I had been found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The men in the RV and others all took plea deals and testified against me because I decided to go to trial. All they really said was that I knew what was going on — but that’s all they need for conspiracy. I couldn’t believe it. People who played an actual role were given lesser sentences and even financial compensation to testify against me. One or two of them didn’t do any time at all. I received enhancements for a leadership role and other enhancements that have since been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The first day in prison was scary.

I really had no idea what prison was. I was shaking and had to hide that as best I could. All I could think about was my children and how badly I wanted to be with them. 

On the bus ride to the prison there was a group of women who looked even more scared than me. They couldn’t speak English, so I started speaking to them in Spanish. I told them not to be scared, even though I was, and from that moment on they bonded to me. I realized then that I needed to be strong — that these were women I wanted to help.

One of the first things I did was apply for a job at the Warden’s complex.

It was a job doing secretarial work. I didn’t even have to go to the kitchen which is what everyone usually has to do first for at least three months. Really, I was determined to show that I didn’t deserve to die in prison and that I was a hard worker.

After some time, I applied to take educational courses but was told that I couldn’t because of my life sentence. Those resources, they told me, were for people with release dates. I said “what if leave tomorrow? What if I leave in a month? It’s not right to not give me a chance.” The next day I went back. And the day after that. They told me the same thing over and over.

Eventually, the woman in charge of education called me down and asked how long I was prepared to do that for. My answer was simple: until you let me in. Soon she agreed and I took every class the BOP offered. Every one. Those courses helped me to not always think about my life sentence. They helped me keep going everyday.

I was in prison for 24 years. 

Living in a small cell with different women all those years taught me the value of a human being and their struggles. I have lived with drug addicted women, alcoholics, prostitutes, and murderers. People who were abused sexually, physically, mentally, and then outcasted from society. Prison became a home for some who were homeless and had no reason to continue, and from each personal story, I learned to understand their reasoning and with the love of God have been able to be there for them to help them and never to judge them. My selfish person was destroyed, and now I can without a doubt understand the value of a human being regardless of their problems.

I had lots of jobs and studies but the work I did with my chapel prayer group fulfilled me the most. But even that was something I had to fight for. Initially the prayer groups we organized were shut down. I remember tears rolling down my cheeks as the chapel doors were literally closed in our faces. Of all the things they had already taken away from us and they needed to stop us from praying in a chapel? It was hard to believe.

But like so many other things, I persisted and eventually the chaplains gave us a slot for an approved prayer group. That group is still going today and it’s so needed because so many women have lost so much in there.

On August 3, 2016, President Obama granted me clemency. 

A few people had been working to get my case noticed by the president’s clemency initiative. My daughter Lizette started a petition and I remember telling her that nobody would sign something like that for me. Pretty soon she was telling me that 140,000 people had signed it. And Amy Povah, a woman I met in prison who received clemency from President Clinton, never stopped advocating for me.

Then, Jason Hernandez, one of the first people to receive clemency from President Obama, contacted me about helping. Jason had served 17 years and spent much of his time in prison studying law and thought he could get my case noticed. He worked on my petition for clemency and submitted it to the Pardon Attorney’s Office.

On the day I found out President Obama had commuted my sentence, I was working at my UNICOR where I handled payroll for over 200 women at the call center. When they found out the whole UNICOR just jumped and screamed.  The directors, guards, and staff, they all made sure to come up to me and say goodbye and tell me how happy they were for me. Those people spend year and years with us and they know we don’t belong there for so long and want to see us leave.

I enjoy everyday.

To me, each day is a new day and that means happiness, joy, and freedom. I’m able to get up every morning and walk out the door without being restrained, without being told I can’t.  This experience has taught me the love of God for all human beings, and for this broken world – a revelation acquired through the pain of incarceration, which has been my greatest accomplishment. To me, I don’t think I’ll ever stop thanking God for this.

I have an office job now doing clerical work. During the halfway house time I volunteered here and a little while after I was hired. Some accounting, HR, whatever needed to be done. I have learned so very much the job is getting better and easier. I’m living in my son’s beautiful home in Riverside, California. I’m able to spend time with him, my daughter, and my grandchildren. And I have my own car and absolutely love the freedom of being able to drive. Above all, I’m doing what I can to make up for all the time my children did not get to spend with me by being the best grandmother in the world.

The hardest part is all of the people I left behind. There are so many people who are just as deserving of me and they should have received clemency too. My cousin Jesus Macias is also serving a life sentence and his mom, who is 98 years old, just wants for him to come home before she passes away. So many other people I know are serving life or 30 plus year sentence. Stacey Weischedel, Eva Palma Atencio, Barbara Strain, Roberta Belle, Yvette Wade, Anthony Spencer, Lisa Kuffle.These are people that I know if given a chance instead of being a burden to the country in prison, would be contributing to the well being of our country.

Photos by Brenton Gieser 
Story edited by Jon Perri Twitter

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