Michelle Miles

Michelle Miles was a first time nonviolent drug offender when she received a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison for conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute heroin and cocaine base. She served 19 years before receiving clemency from President Obama on May 5, 2016.

I grew up in the Marcy Housing Projects in Brooklyn, New York.

My mom worked hard as a single parent to raise 6 children and barely made ends meet. I was the middle child and watching her struggle was hard on me. I hated to see her trying to figure out how she would keep food on the table and clothes on our back. She did what she could and I love her for that.

I was doing well in school and promised that I would graduate and get a good job so I could help pay the bills. At the time I was the only child getting an education, my other siblings dropped out of school early. So I felt like I was the backbone of the family and needed to step up to help my mom.

Then, when I was 18 years old I met an older man — old enough that I really didn’t take interest in him. He was a well known drug dealer in the Marcy Projects. The money and flashy things he showed me just left me slack jaw. I had never seen anything like it.

I probably should have ran for my life, but instead I listened to his promises of helping me. He knew the situation my family was in and used that to get me involved in his business. When I look back, it was clear he was baiting me but I didn’t see it that way then. He promised to pay me $1100.00 a week to cook and package drugs for him.

Thinking that fast money would help me and my family, I agreed. Soon, I decided to drop out and dedicate all my time to him. I never thought about the consequences of my actions.

I was arrested by the FBI at age 25.

They immediately started saying things like “We don’t want you, we want him. Just give us the information we want and we’ll let you go.” I wouldn’t do that so they arrested me. I was booked at 25th Federal Plaza and the next day I saw a judge who told me I was being charged with conspiracy. It happened so quick.

I never did any of the cooking or packaging alone — it was either with him or his partner. I was just the girlfriend doing whatever he asked. I never distributed or sold any drugs. But when his partner got arrested he started bringing my name into this and saying I was a distributor so he could get less time. They gave me a leadership role.

I was offered a cooperation agreement which meant that I had to give up names. They told me that if I didn’t cooperate with them, I’d get more time. I wanted to take my case to trial because the things they were accusing me of, I knew I hadn’t done and I wasn’t going to plead guilty to things I didn’t do.

I had a public defender at first but he was a jerk. When he first met me he immediately told me I was stupid for wanting to fight the charges and that I should just plead guilty and give up as many names as I could. Really he wanted me to just be a rat and I had to fight to get him off of my case.

The trial lasted a little over two weeks.

I was completely unprepared for the amount of time I received. At first I was told that my charges would likely get dropped altogether and my lawyer told me the worst I would get is 10 years.

Then the judge started reading out the sentence and it felt like he was talking about somebody else, like a murderer. He told me he was departing from my sentence, lowering it two levels, to avoid having to give me a life sentence because he felt I was beholden to my boyfriend. That was the first time I’d ever heard life was possible for my charges. He told me he was bound by the guidelines to sentence me to 360 months.

For a second it didn’t hit me and then I started calculating… 30 years.

The first prison I went to was in Tallahassee, FL. It was a nightmare. I was so many miles away from home and my family. It felt like I was losing myself. The hardest thing was being away from my family. I grew up with my sisters and brothers and they shipped me so far from them that the only way we could keep in touch was with expensive phone calls. I spent a lot of money on phone calls.

There were some friendships formed in prison but I mostly tried to keep to myself. I wanted to stay out of trouble as much as possible. The whole experience had left me feeling like a loose cannon and I was afraid that someone might tick me off and I’d get myself in more trouble. I stayed employed my entire 19 years in prison. I never stopped working. One of the longest jobs I held was at the start of the Iraq war building harnesses, devices, and clothing for the military.

In 2009 I met a judge who was from my district and came into the prison with students to learn from prisoners. My case manager asked me to sit down with them and tell my story. It was about 20 students with the judge and afterward he told me that he was moved by my story. So I wrote him a letter to see if he’d help with my case at all.

By October, I received a letter from the New York University School of Law, letting me know they were reviewing my case. By March, I got a letter from Ballard Spahr, Stillman & Friedman saying they were teaming up with New York University School of Law and would be taking my case pro-bono.

That was just a wow moment for me — to have that kind of support. Then in 2013, the Clemency Project 2014 was announced. Initially, my team didn’t think they would be going for clemency, but a few months later told me it was best that we at least applied to have my name in the database. They put together the whole clemency packet for me but I had to look over and approve everything. We submitted in April of 2015 and wouldn’t hear anything back for over a year.

During that time, my younger sister had a massive heart attack on Thanksgiving. She never fully recovered and passed away on March 10, 2016 at the age of 39. Only a couple of months later, I’d hear the news that would change my life once again.

President Obama commuted my sentence on May 5, 2016.

I was called to speak to the camp administrator and assumed it was because I had done something wrong. They handed me the phone and when the voice on the other line said “this is Charles Stillman,” my heart just dropped. I knew if one of the law firm partners was calling, it had to mean clemency. All he said was, “Ms. Miles, it is my pleasure…” and I just started screaming. Nobody starts a sentence like that if isn’t good news. I knew then that President Obama had commuted my sentence. It was a moment I will never forget.

You’d never thing that accepting freedom would be difficult but after so long in prison, I actually got sick to my stomach the day I left. But when I started walking out those doors and realized that nobody was escorting me, that I was really about to be free, I just felt amazing. I can’t even put it into words.

One of the first things I did was go to Times Square and it was so overwhelming I just cried.

After so many years without all the lights, and noises, and business, it was just too much for me. There’s still times I feel like that. I’m very focused on my mom because I was gone for so long, I feel like in a lot of ways I think she leans on my even more. She was always there for me so I need to always be there for here.

I have a good job, a good salary, it’s up to me if I want to be successful and do the best that I can and grow within this organization. I’m working for the Fortune Society, who help formerly incarcerated people with re-entry and finding employment. I initially found out about them because I needed their help and I was asked if I would like to intern as a receptionist. They said my warm smile would help greet people and because I had done so much time, people could relate to me.

I interned two months and they hired me as a Career Advisor, which I’ve been doing for six months. It’s helped me so much professionally and financially, and I absolutely love it. Sometimes there’s difficult clients because it’s people going through tough times, but I just try to kill them with kindness because I remember that’s where I came from.

I hope President Obama knows how much this opportunity means to me and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

Photos by Wes Bruer 
Story edited by Jon Perri Twitter

Michelle Miles
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