“I had never been in trouble before”
I was dating a young man, the father of my children, and he was involved with drugs. When he was arrested, they wanted him to take a plea agreement, which he refused. They told him if he didn’t take the plea agreement, that I would be indicted. He felt they didn’t have anything against him and that he was going to take his case to trial, hence, I was indicted. I was told that I was not going to do any prison time, just sign a plea agreement and everything was going to be fine. I arrived to court for the plea agreement and my lawyer was like, “Oh, by the way, you’re going to have to do jail time.” There was no understanding of how much time, they were just rushing me to sign a plea agreement, and they said, we’ll work it out later.
I had never been in trouble before so I didn’t understand the law and how it works. When we completed in court, I was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
My judge had stated I was not going to be held responsible for all the drugs that were spoken about. It doesn’t make any sense that I was sentenced to life in prison for a first time, nonviolent offense.
There are a lot of women who are in prison because of their association with a man. We may not necessarily be involved with the crime, but knowing about it is what makes us guilty. Just knowing that they’re dealing drugs will bring about a guilty conviction.
“Having the faith that one day the doors would open”
One of my favorite opportunities in prison was being able to speak at Admission and Orientation. I think that was the most rewarding time, outside of the prayer groups and the plays, because we had an opportunity to structure how new women were going to come in the system and do their time. When you have someone stand up in front of you and say, “I was sentenced to 99 years,” you sit up straight and pay attention, because now you’re listening to someone who is walking in your shoes.
A lot of time they would come and seek us out for advice. There were times later on when they were like, “Miss Ramona, when you spoke that day you changed my life, because I knew that if you could do it, I could do it.”
I come from a home of preachers and teachers and evangelists. I grew up relying on my mother’s faith and my godparent’s faith and my cousin’s faith. When I went to prison I had to develop my own relationship with God. That’s what I spent 21 years doing — growing in my faith, growing in my relationship with God. He was the one that gave me the peace to be able to do this. He gave me the faith that, one day, He would open the doors and allow me to be free.
On February 2nd, 1995, I knew I was going to be sentenced. I knew I was facing life in prison. I got up that morning and I did what most people do that just have a bench appearance meeting: They just go before the judge, they have a warrant, and he dismisses it and they go home. So before they would leave for court in the morning, they would pack their room. So I got up for court in the meeting and I packed my room and I prayed.
I said, “God I know I’m going to be sentenced today. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I want you to know that I trust you.”
That was February 2nd, 1995.
February 2nd, 2016, I walked out of the prison system. I believe that God honored my prayer and my actions that day. I never wavered from that. I never felt that it wasn’t going to happen. I just always believed that it was going to happen for me.
“Well, who’d you kill?”
On the day I learned of my clemency, one of the officers came up to me and told me that the President had called and I had received my commutation and I was going home. So I started crying.
Some of the officers were like, “How much time have you done?” I said, “21 years.” They said, “What was your sentence? I said, “Life.” So they started crying because they couldn’t believe that someone was sentenced to that amount of time. So the next question was, “Well, who’d you kill?” And said, “No one.” There was no violence in my case.
That’s what makes it so crazy. People should know that with conspiracy law, you don’t have to know anything to be brought in with those charges. You could be in a car with someone, you could stop by someone’s house, you could even make a phone call to someone.
So don’t pass judgment on those who have been sentenced to serve prison time because of this law. Research it. Understand it fully. We’re not all guilty to the degree that we should be sentenced so seriously in the courts.
“I can do whatever I put my mind to”
Now, I’ll go to the library when I get back and finish working on my resume so I can start looking for employment and looking for a place to stay. My intention was to live with my son, but because I’m an ex-felon, they will not allow me to live in that apartment complex.
My sons were three and four when I was arrested. When I came home they were 24 and 25 with children of their own.
So I’m starting from scratch and looking for a place to stay. I’m hoping within the next two weeks I’ll have a job.
I’ve re-read the President’s commutation letter I don’t know how many times. I think about how I fought year after year, day after day, believing that one day I’d be free, not knowing how it was going to happen, but knowing one day it would. To have the President step in and commute my sentence and believe in me … it’s amazing.
The President’s letter is with me at the halfway house. It’s like an assurance that it’s real that I’m free and that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I was faced with some obstacles, yes, but I believe that I can overcome them just as I did when I went into prison.
I didn’t know how to do time, but I had to learn how to do time.
I had to do time in a way that would benefit my future and myself. So I know that others can come out and do the same thing.
In 1995, Ramona was charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine. She was sentenced to life in prison. When she was arrested, her two sons were three and four years old. They grew up with both parents serving life sentences. While incarcerated, Ramona was a model inmate. She completed a 500-hour drug treatment program that offers some inmates early release, even though given her life sentence she was not eligible for any benefits. She earned a certificate in business with legal application from Maris College. She took cooking classes. Brant organized a talent show and led a small choir. She also spent time as a companion for those on suicide watch. She was granted clemency on Dec. 18, 2015, at the age of 52 was released from prison on Feb. 2, 2016.
“Because it just doesn’t make sense to require a nonviolent drug offender to serve 20 years, or in some cases, life, in prison. An excessive punishment like that doesn’t fit the crime. It’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not making us safer.” — President Obama on criminal justice reform
Read the stories of more clemency recipients who are making the most of their second chances:
Life After Prison: Phillip Emmert
“I thought that those kinds of sentences were reserved for predators”