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After Hope For Early Release, Prisoners' Applications Stuck In Limbo

Dana Bowerman's lifelong best friend Michelle Elliott holds a photograph of the two together. Bowerman is serving a nearly 20-year sentence for federal drug conspiracy charges. She was holding out hope for clemency for nonviolent drug offenders but it is unlikely that she will receive an early release date.
Matthew Ozug
Dana Bowerman's lifelong best friend Michelle Elliott holds a photograph of the two together. Bowerman is serving a nearly 20-year sentence for federal drug conspiracy charges. She was holding out hope for clemency for nonviolent drug offenders but it is unlikely that she will receive an early release date.

It took a while for Dana Bowerman's long prison sentence to sink in.

Bowerman is a onetime honor student and cheerleader whose brassy personality cleared most obstacles from her path. But there was one hurdle her quick mind couldn't leap. In early 2001, Bowerman got sent away for nearly 20 years on federal drug conspiracy charges, her first and only offense. It wasn't until two years in, in her bunk behind a fence in a Texas prison, that her fate seemed real.

"It was a hard swallow," Bowerman said.

Last year, the Obama administration held out hope for Bowerman and potentially thousands of other nonviolent drug offenders: a plan to grant early release to inmates serving prison terms that don't match today's sentencing guidelines.

But it turns out, Bowerman will not be getting help from the initiative, known as Clemency Project 2014. Instead, her case is a study in why the effort is well on its way to disappointing the prisoners who have so much riding on its success.

For now, Bowerman resides in a federal prison camp near College Station, Texas, where she has a good job working at Unicorp. She rushed into the parking lot earlier this month, her pale face red in the July heat, to greet her visitors. This camp features long green lawns, trees with huge raspberry-colored blossoms and shiny picnic tables.

Bowerman wasted no time in introducing herself. "I'm on my 14th year and fifth month of incarceration and hopefully will go home in November," she said.

If all goes according to plan, Bowerman will be out before Thanksgiving. But here's the catch: She'll be released on orders from a Texas judge, not through President Obama's national clemency push, even though Bowerman fits the clemency criteria to a T.

For one, Bowerman was a first-time offender when she got busted for taking part in a methamphetamine ring. A bit player, she said she had $11 in the bank, a ramshackle truck and just enough drugs to feed her habit on the day of her arrest. But Bowerman said when law enforcement arrived, she was the one left holding the bag.

"My drug dealer testified on me," she said. "I didn't have anybody to testify on."

Nobody, that is, except her father and a couple of family friends. And betraying them was something Bowerman said she couldn't and wouldn't do. She took her case to trial and ran headlong into a mandatory minimum sentence on drug conspiracy charges. Her prison term would be more than 10 years shorter if Bowerman were convicted of the same crimes today.

"When you stand up there and he gives you the 235-month sentence and your mom wails in the courtroom," she said, her voice catching with emotion, "it was hard."

After the judge read the sentence, which totaled 19 years and 7 months, court officers put Bowerman in handcuffs and took her to jail in Dallas County. It was the first time she'd ever been locked up.

"We got to see her the next day at the county and it was miserable; she was crying, and when you look at your child behind a glass and talking to them on a phone and there's nothing you can do, you're helpless," remembered her mother, Rose West.

Last year, Bowerman began to entertain some hope she might not have to serve her full prison sentence. The White House launched a big push for clemency, early release for drug offenders who would get shorter sentences if they were convicted today. But law professor and former federal prosecutor Mark Osler said the program includes at least seven layers of red tape — bureaucracy meant to weed out undeserving candidates. Instead, around 17,000 applications out of more than 30,000 are stuck in the pipeline, including Dana Bowerman's, even though the organizers of the nonprofit sifting through applications say she's a model for clemency.

"First-time offender, someone exposed to drugs in her teenage formative years but kind of gets caught up in this larger government investigation," said Jonathan Wilkerson, a business lawyer who's volunteered hundreds of hours to work on Bowerman's clemency application. For Bowerman and her lawyer, clemency seemed like a sure bet. But to be safe, last year they decided to try a different program, too, as a backup.

It's a new way for people locked up for federal drug crimes to apply to a federal judge and reduce their prison terms based on changes in the sentencing laws. To make her case, Bowerman described how she turned herself into a model inmate. Prison officials made her the driver, the one who takes newly released inmates to the airport and the bus station. And there was another job, closer to her heart.

"I raised two guide dogs; one of them did not become a guide dog," Bowerman said. "She actually became a drug dog for the state of Maine, which is very ironic, right? I raised a drug dog ... Her name is Angel and she is responsible for one of the highest money confiscations in the state of Maine."

Ironic because Bowerman attributes so much of what put her in this prison camp to her troubles with drugs. It started at 12, with marijuana. Then onto Ecstasy. And then when she was 15, the daughter of her father's girlfriend gave her some meth. That led to years of partying on a lake in the resort town where they lived.

"Now I look back and I have absolutely nothing to show for 45 of my years," she said. "Everything I'm proud of, I've done in prison, and that is so sad to hear coming out of my own mouth, and it's because I was able to get clean."

Friends and relatives agree prison has been good for Bowerman. At her tidy ranch home in Lubbock, Texas, Bowerman's lifelong best friend Michelle Elliott said she and Dana shared so many milestones. But during one of the most important, her friend was hundreds of miles away.

"I went to see her whenever I could, had a baby while she was gone, she didn't get to be there," Elliott said. But Bowerman sent a gift — handmade baby booties made of pink and turquoise and green yarn.

Now, it's Elliott's turn to help Bowerman with the next phase in her life. In her garage, alongside Texas Tech banners, Elliott is curating a modest "hope chest" filled with dishes, pictures and clothes, including a pantsuit with leopard-print buttons. Elliott and Bowerman's relatives could hardly conceal their happiness, excited for Bowerman to come home after all those years away.

Her stepfather, nicknamed "Fat Cat," is arranging a job for her at an agriculture co-op outside Lubbock. He got her some wheels, too. "It's an '05 Dodge diesel, four door. It's actually a clean old pickup. It's an old pickup but it's decent," he said, starting up the engine for good measure.

That truck is running for Bowerman, but her clemency petition is stuck in neutral, piled somewhere along with some 17,000 other applications. Instead, she's getting out early through her backup approach, that program administered through the courts. A judge in Texas approved Bowerman's bid for a sentence reduction, and last month she got the news that she's going home Nov. 2.

"I cried when I got my email," Bowerman said. "I just broke down and cried 'cause it's time to go."

She said she can't wait to eat thin-crust pizza and to go swimming.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission said about 9,500 prisoners like Bowerman have taken advantage of the court program to win early release starting this November. That represents thousands more than are getting out through the highly touted clemency program.

"The practical reality is that we are short on time and we are short on personnel," said Rachel Barkow, a law professor at New York University who launched this month an emergency "justice factory" to help process stacks of clemency applications.

It's one thing, Barkow said, for an inmate to be sentenced to spend decades in federal prison for a first offense. "But to me it's just as much of an injustice if it turns out their case never gets processed because of these administrative difficulties. It really does keep me up at night thinking about people who are holding out hope and expecting justice from this process ... and if it turns out the process can't deliver."

Two sources told NPR, in a previously unreported analysis, that the Federal Bureau of Prisons recently determined between 2,000 and 3,000 inmates are eligible for clemency under the criteria set out by the Justice Department and the White House. But so far, President Obama has shortened the prison sentences of just 89 people.

Theodore Simon of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, one of the nonprofits reviewing clemency petitions, said in a statement this month he's "optimistic that over the next 18 months, these numbers will continue to grow."

But it now seems next to impossible for the cumbersome bureaucracy to find the best petitions in stacks that contain thousands of applications before the clock runs out. Time is of the essence, since President Obama leaves office in January 2017 and it takes at least a year for lawyers inside and outside the federal government to review clemency petitions. By contrast, the process set up through the federal courts for drug offenders to win reduced sentences is considering thousands of cases this year, with many thousands more set for 2016.

Back in Lubbock, Dana Bowerman's sister Paula Bailey pointed out that the White House granted commutations to dozens of prisoners on a single day this month. Bailey has an idea for the nation's chief executive: "He could do about 46 [clemency grants] in a week and I wouldn't mind!"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 30, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
Dana Bowerman's 235-month prison term stretches over 19 years, 7 months — not 19 years, 5 months as we reported.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.