Former nurse Dorothy Gaines lived a simple life in Mobile, Alabama. She was a devoted mother who never separated from her children. She was a self-proclaimed PTA mom and always brought snacks to the football field where her son played on the team, and her daughter was a cheerleader.
In August 1993, her life changed as Alabama state police raided her home for drugs. Police found no evidence of Gaines having possessed or sold drugs, and Gaines states she was not aware that her then boyfriend was a low-level drug dealer. Though the state dropped all charges, federal prosecutors charged Gaines with drug conspiracy eight months later – charges that to this day, she disputes. She refused to plead guilty or provide testimony against defendants and was sentenced to serve 19 years and 7 months.
“My son jumped in the judge’s lap at sentencing and asked not to take away his mother,” Gaines recalled.
“I was always a mother that never, ever went anywhere without my children. I missed taking my children to the park, going to their school,” said Gaines. “While I was in prison, they wrote me and told me those were the days that they missed, too. Phillip and Chara’s father died when they were two and three. That’s why my children were so distraught: because all that was taken away.”
While Gaines served year after year in prison away from her children, attempts made by her family, friends and advocates to fight on her behalf resulted in national attention to the crack cocaine disparity and sentencing inequalities. Finally, in December 2000, Gaines received a commutation from President Bill Clinton.
Even though she was released, she hasn’t forgotten about the many other women who she spent six years with while incarcerated, she said. “Since I’ve been out, I’ve been fighting everyday of my life. There are other people, other Dorothy Gaineses that are on the inside.”
In 2000, 2001 and most recently in February, with the Crack the Disparity Coalition in Washington, D.C., she’s participated in lobby day events where she’s shared her and others’ stories on the unfair sentencing guidelines imposed by Congress.
“[Representative] Chris Shays has really been my sidekick,” Gaines said. “We have gotten to have a good bond. And Sen. Jeff Sessions wrote a letter on how proud he was of the work I’ve done around the country.”
Both Republican members of Congress support a change in the crack cocaine sentencing disparity. Sen. Sessions last year introduced a bill that would reduce the sentencing disparity but also expands mandatory sentencing for powder cocaine offenses.
Gaines’ work has included speaking engagements at schools and churches and counseling the families of those who are waiting for their loved ones’ return. She uses her own resources to help youth see their incarcerated parents. She’s also created a curriculum for public schools called “Holding the Bag,” which teaches youth to be cautious about taking on others’ belongings. All her efforts are volunteered and as she continues to struggle for work and support her family, she said.
“I would like to live comfortably because it’s hard. But I can’t stop doing this work because it’s my passion,” she said. “My going to prison has not been in vain. I will fight until everything has been changed.”
Her children are now 23-34 and her oldest daughter is in law school. Gaines is pleased with the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recent change in its guidelines amendment which decreased sentences for individuals charged with nonviolent crack offenses, but she says there’s still more work to be done.
“The Crack the Disparity Coalition got the door open and that shows progression. Organizations are fighting. People are coming home but we got the wrong people locked up in prison.”
For more information or to contact Dorothy Gaines, log onto www.dorothygaines.org or call 251.447.4824.