Sharanda Jones

Sharanda Jones was a first-time nonviolent drug offender when she received a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. She served 16 years and 9 months before President Obama granted her clemency on December 18, 2015.

I had never been arrested before. Not even a speeding ticket.

At the end of my trial, the judge said not guilty for five of the six counts I was facing — so I was relieved. Then I just remember him saying ‘I’m sentencing you to life.’ I was numb. So numb I couldn’t even cry.

I grew up in poverty in a small town called Terrell, Texas. My mother was paraplegic from a car accident that happened when I was only 3 years old. Her condition forced me at a young age to take on a motherly role and take care of my younger siblings. Life was difficult but I worked hard. I had my first job at 14 and later opened my own hair salon and co-owned a restaurant in Dallas.

Someone told me I could make “fast money” by getting involved with drug dealing. I saw it as a way to support myself and my family. It was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. A few members of my family got involved too. My role was relatively small in all of it. Someone would give me money and I’d go from Dallas to Houston to pick up cocaine from a supplier. My brother would turn it into crack-cocaine.

Over 100 black residents of Terrell, Texas were rounded up in a drug sweep that my family was caught up in. My mom was arrested with me, she would end up with a 17 year sentence.

There were no drugs found in my case. But conspiracy laws allow prosecutors to determine how much was involved and then hold everyone accountable no matter how small their role. People start testifying against one another to get reduced sentences, exaggerating whatever information they had. That supplier I would drive to Houston to meet with only got 19 years but I got life. How was that fair?

Dying in prison is a very slow death.

I started my sentence in 1999 at a federal prison in Florida. With a life sentence in federal prison there is no parole, no good behavior, no reductions. Nothing would ever reduce my sentence and allow me to return to society and dying in prison is a very slow death.

Walking through the prison doors was very difficult. The hardest thing to come to terms with was the loss of control. You don’t get to decide what you eat or when you eat, when your days start or end, or what you wear. I no longer had control over anything in my life.

My only child, my daughter Clenesha, was just 8 years old. I had to create a bond with my daughter through the system. We talked on the phone for ten minutes every day, from the day that I went in to the day that I got out.

There were days I just had to sit on the phone and listen to her cry. That would tear me down.

Clenesha and I have a very close relationship but I missed the key events of her life. I was devastated when she graduated high school and I couldn’t be there. Her visits, letters and and support are about the only things that get me through each day. I love my daughter dearly and I suffered so much being away from her.

I understand that what I did was wrong. But I don’t think what I did equals what I went through for nearly 17 years. I was in a max unit where people had done horrible crimes like rape and murder and they still had a release date. Not me.

In 2011, my mom died in prison.

She was only one year away from being released. She told me one day, “I gotta go out to the hospital. I’ll see you tomorrow.” The next day they called and told me my mom had 24 hours to live. That was the last time I talked to her. When she died, I knew I’d be going home. I had scheduled my routine around her so, that’s all I knew, and I wasn’t going to die in prison without her.

I feel like God sent me an angel.

A young law student, Brittany K. Byrd got in touch with me and vowed to help me. Because I had a life sentence, my only hope for freedom was clemency from President Obama. Brittany worked for years pro bono on my case and filed my clemency petition in 2013.

I didn’t know what would happen. And I knew it was a long shot. But I kept hearing about people having their sentences commuted. Each time that the news would come out that President Obama had granted commutations, I’d get a call from Brittany telling me that I wasn’t on the list. It was difficult to hear that so many times but I had faith that my time would come.

Even though I lost everyone and everything when I was sentenced, I found and held onto my faith.

President Obama commuted my sentence on December 18, 2015.

One day I got a call and when I picked up it was Brittany. She told me that President Obama had granted my petition for clemency and that I would be released April 16, 2016. I immediately started crying and thanking God.

The one thing I wanted more than anything was to be free when Clenesha had her first child. And thanks to President Obama giving me a second chance, I had that moment.

Just a couple months after my release, I became a grandmother — a little baby girl named Payln.

Adjusting to life outside of prison and coming back to my family hasn’t always been easy. It hasn’t been bad but nobody really knows me. And I don’t really know them. There’s so many more people in my family now, nieces and nephews that I never met — but they’re trying to get to know me.

My daughter grew up with me behind bars. So she was used to me for ten minutes a day. When I finally got out I just wanted to be with her all day but I had to understand that’s not something she’s used to. We needed to rebuild something different than our bond when I was in prison.

I’m a walking miracle.

With the stroke of his pen, President Obama literally saved my life. I hope to one day be able to thank him in person for his mercy and for believing in me. I will not let him down or take this blessing of life for granted.

Photos by Brenton Gieser 
Story edited by Jon Perri Twitter

Sharanda Jones
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