In March of 2016, President Barack Obama granted Carol Denise Richardson a commutation of the life sentence she received in June 2006 after being convicted on two counts of conspiring to distribute crack cocaine and other drug-related charges. Her long criminal history included two previous felony drug offenses, which brought her a lifetime sentence for her later convictions.
Richardson was one of 1,715 federal inmates, including 567 others serving life sentences, selected by the Obama administration’s far-reaching clemency program. A major focus of the clemency effort was easing punishments meted out to nonviolent drug offenders serving lengthy sentences.
When she was released through the clemency program from a federal prison for women in Aliceville, Alabama on July 28, 2016, Richardson had served almost 10 years of her sentence. A condition of her release was that she remain under court supervision for the next 10 years.
But less than a year later, on April 13 this year, Richardson was arrested in the Houston suburb of Pasadena for allegedly stealing $60 worth of laundry detergent. Her court-appointed lawyer said she planned to sell the detergent to buy drugs, since she had relapsed into addiction to crack. In addition to the theft arrest, federal prosecutors said Richardson had violated five other conditions of her release — among them failing to tell the court of her arrest or her change of address, and having been fired from a job for not showing up for work.
Now 49, Richardson lives in the Galveston area and has four children and two grandchildren. Her former husband, Eskico Garner, 37 years her senior, died in prison after drawing a 30-year sentence (later reduced to 20 years) for heading up a drug operation.
At a June 8 hearing, federal district Judge Keith Ellison voiced disappointment that Richardson had squandered the new opportunity she had received when her former sentence was commuted. He ordered her back to prison for 14 months, to be followed by a five-year supervised release. The judge also noted that he would make successful completion of a drug rehabilitation program a condition of her release.
Richardson’s lawyer requested that she be referred to a drug rehab program and questioned why she had not been allowed to take part in a 500-hour residential program offered in prison. The judge replied that, as an inmate serving a life sentence, she had not been eligible for that drug rehabilitation program while she had been incarcerated, under Federal Bureau of Prisons policy.
According to CAN-DO, a pro-clemency activist group which worked to gain clemency for Richardson and others, while incarcerated, the Texas grandmother completed a 40-hour nonresidential drug abuse program less than a year before receiving her presidential grant of clemency.
Amy Povah, the group’s founder and herself a clemency recipient who spent over nine years in prison due to her husband’s ecstasy-manufacturing operation, notes Richardson suffers from bi-polar disorder, has twice attempted suicide, and may have lost access to her medications after being released. Reportedly, after being released, she also became involved with a man who was a “bad influence” on her, resumed using drugs, and stopped keeping in contact with her family.
Richardson’s case underscores the need for rehabilitative approaches to incarceration, and raises the question as to whether the simple use of illicit drugs should result in a prison sentence. Povah says clemency was not wasted on Richardson, because she “did not hurt anyone but herself,” and asserted that society’s attitudes toward addiction must change, unless we’re willing to lock up tens of millions of addicts for the behavior associated with addiction. The current drug war, she says, is further fuelled by racial bigotry. “If Carol had been born into a white, affluent family, it’s doubtful she would be in this current situation,” Povah wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.