Sharanda Jones was convicted on a non-violent drug charge and was sentenced to life in prison in Texas in 1999. During her arrest and conviction, heavy punishments were being handed down, especially during the nation's War On Drugs campaign.
It was her first offense, but she was sentenced to life in prison. When she went to prison, she left behind an 8 year-old daughter.
She served 16 years in total, before being granted clemency by President Obama in 2016, who circled back on certain cases, determining that some punishments were too harsh for the crime committed. Her clemency was granted in 2016 and she has been free (and home) since April 2016.
This is her story.
Q: What was your arrest like? Was your daughter present?
Jones: No I really wasn’t arrested the first day. I turned myself in and at the trial, I was arrested then. Immediately after then.
No, [my daughter] wasn’t present. I had took her to school that morning, and I went to work, and on my lunch break, I went to trial, never to return.
Q: How much time did you serve total?
Jones: 16 years and 9 months.
Q: What got you through each day? What did you look forward to?
Jones: At the time, I programmed at a lot. Because the that helped me get through the days and make my time go faster, if I was doing something. To wake up daily and look forward to -- as if I had a job -- going to these classes, helped me through the time I was serving.
Q: What happened to your child, immediately after you were gone? I know she was 8 when you had to go away.
Jones: Her dad took care of her. So she was okay because she had a father. But a lot of kids don’t have either parent. She still had her dad. That was okay, but it was nothing like a mom.
We created a bond through the system. On the telephone, talking daily 10 minutes a day. Ten minutes every day, from the day that I left.
Q: Did you write letters ever or was it mostly the phone?
Jones: We wrote letters, but it was mostly the phone. Because we shared pictures through the letters. And having that connection with the voice every day was almost the same, but not the same. At least I could hear her and she could hear me.
Q: How did your time away affect your daughter overall? It had to have an impact on her life overall. [Her daughter is now 32]
Jones: It did. Because now that I’m out, she only knows me as in the prison, talking for that 10 minutes a day.
So when I was released from prison, it was a little bit difficult because she only knows me from our conversations and us being together -- we clashed a lot. So we are having to rebuild our relationship as a mother and a daughter on the outside. And not just that 10 minutes a day.
She really didn’t know me other than 10 minutes a day and I didn’t know her as an adult.
Q: How have things been coming back into your family? And being home now?
Jones: It’s been okay. I’m not going to say it’s been the best. Or it’s been bad. It’s just been okay. Because nobody really knows me. And I don’t really know them. And I have a lot more family members now -- like nieces and nephews that I really don’t know. They’re trying to get to know me.
And my daughter just had a baby yesterday. That was exciting. I get to be a grandma. And it’s a girl.
Q: Did you have visitation days -- with your daughter -- while you were away?
Jones: I did. We visited like every other weekend. That helped. The visits were good.
Sometimes she would have problems going in -- and she would be like: Mom, I really can’t do this no more. It’s enough for me to come out here to see you behind these walls. But the staff members kind of give you a hard time sometimes. She said it’s really just too much.
So I could always tell when she had a problem trying to get in the system because there was a certain look on her face. And I would just tell her to calm down, it’s going to be okay. It’ll be over soon.
It’s not the child’s fault. The whole time I would try to make my daughter understand -- it’s nothing that you did. This is just something we’re going through -- it’s going to be okay. So for me to be able to hold her hand and tell her that -- it made a difference. Instead of just telling her over the phone. So when she would get to visit on the weekends, we could get a little closer. After 13 though, they don’t want you to touch. But sometimes I would try to ease her hands into my hands and we’d go outside and underneath the table, we would hold hands. It would help her.
Q: So the staff would make it hard for visitors?
Jones: Some staff members can be really, really rude. Like if they wake up on the wrong side, they just take whatever happened at home and bring it to work. And that wasn’t always fair or right.
Q: Were there thoughts, poems, prayers, or meditations that helped you make it through your time?
Jones: I prayed daily. That’s what helped me make it through the whole 16 years.
Because my faith was strong. I can’t speak for a lot of people, but I kind of like walked with my Bible and the words that the Bible taught me.
And the teachings that I had, I utilized them every single day of my life and so it showed. To me, that’s what paid off in the end. I never gave up that hope. That faith. I knew I would leave. I knew I would leave prison.
I would call God on his word.
Q: When you first went away -- were there things that you feared about being away from your child?
Jones: I feared everything because she was a girl. As she grew -- being around boys, I feared not being there for her everything -- her prom, her graduations, her everything. And her baby -- but I made it for that one!
So I did -- I feared. I lost a lot.
Q: If there’s anything you could tell the public about the life of a child when they are left behind, what would you tell people or want them to know about what the experience was like for her?
Jones: The experience for her -- it was bad that I couldn’t be there to feel her, to give her the hugs that she needed. Because she, as a child, needed that love. And I couldn’t physically be there.
I was there with words. But that just wasn’t enough all the time.
So there were days I just had to sit on the phone for that 15 minutes or 10 minutes and listen to her cry. And that would tear me down. So the bond of the parent just doing whatever you can with the visits, having someone bring her to see me -- everything worked together. Just the closeness.
A child without their mom is really a lost child.
Especially if you were an active parent in the child’s life.
Q: Do you think that there are things that the public thinks they understand about the prison experience, but actually do not get (or understand fully)? Misconceptions?
Jones: I was sentenced to a regular prison, but I was transferred to a medical facility. And that right there alone was the worst for me. Because when the judge sentenced me to a medical facility, he was saying that these places are able to take care of these people. But I’ve seen so many women die. So many of my friends die, including my mom. That was the hardest for me.
When you get to those facilities none of what the judge said is true (that they would take care of you and any medical issues). It’s like a straight death bed.
And I watched my mother suffer many days. When she would get sick, they’d have to fly her out to a regular hospital because the prison couldn’t take care of her.
Q: And the transition back to you getting to know your daughter again -- how has it been? It sounds like you guys are still adjusting.
Jones: She’s used to me 10 minutes a day. Not all day.
She grew up alone. So she likes to be alone. She’s like a loner. By herself most of the time. And I’m fresh out of prison and I want to be with her all day. So I have to sit myself back to say this is what she’s used to and I need to understand that. And we need to rebuild something totally different together. Whether it’s an hour, once a week, or whatever. I’m willing to try whatever. Until that bond is solid.
Q: What is most needed to change the U.S. prison system? What could make it better? What changes are most needed?
Jones: At one time, they were having things like Family Days. To me, if they would have more Family Days -- I’m not talking about every week. But maybe once a month -- that would make the whole system and the whole atmosphere different.
The Family Days were so solid to me. Because on Family Days you were allowed to do activities with your children, walk them around the yard, eat with the whole family in just sort of like a picnic area. That was the most solid thing.
They have them now twice a year.
So more than twice a year.
Not every family would be able to do it once a month, but having them once a month would allow different families to come once a month. Something to look forward to for the kids.
Q: What about the phone calls? Could those be better?
Jones: I was local, so my phone calls were like 50 cents. But other than that they were like $3.50.
But the 300 minutes a month is just not enough time. The least it should be is 500 minutes a month. Especially if you have more than one child. Because 10 minutes a day was just with my one child. And no extra family members. If you have more than one child, and you have to call three different numbers, three different places -- 300 minutes is not going to work. It would make you have to pick and choose.
Q: Anything else? The facility you were at?
Jones: It was extremely crowded. It’s an 8x8 room with 4 people living in it.
It was getting to be too much for me and I just kept praying to God -- please open the doors for me.
Q: It sounds like your faith really got you through.
Jones: It really helped me. It also helped me reflect on knowing what I did was wrong. From the very beginning, I never said I didn’t deserve time. I just didn’t deserve a death sentence.
In a situation like that -- you have to know your higher power. And understand your higher power. And understand that it’s basically not man’s doing -- it’s how you hold onto the faith that you believe in. That’s what moved on my behalf. And I was able to see it clear because I wouldn’t let it go. I kept it and held onto to it [her faith]. And actually it worked for me. And it is still working for me to this day. So that’s the only thing that I know is my higher power. Praying and just holding onto the word of God. I had nothing else.
All of my family members were dying. All of my uncles, my grandmother, losing my mom was abysmal. It was hard. Without [faith] -- there’s no way I would have made it through.
Q: What’s the most important thing you have done, since you have been reunited with your daughter?
Jones: Being here for the baby yesterday. She [Sharanda's daughter] had always prayed for that [that her mom would be there to see her give birth]. She had always said in conversations, she couldn’t imagine herself doing it without me being there. And I was actually there.
Q: Anything else?
Jones: I’m so happy to be out. But I don’t think I would change anything because I felt I did the right things, I went in with a clear mind, knowing that my life had to change.
I had to clean my life up.
I took a program to really help build my faith. And that made me really understand my choices and who I was as a person. And the person I should be and the person that God made me to be. And after that light turned on it was easy for me -- because I held onto my faith in God, knowing that he would release me.
He sent all the right people into my life. Brittany [her lawyer] was my voice for the outside. So it happened.
He sent her at the right time, when I was on a low, and I was saying God was going to take care of it. And He proved He would take care of it because He put her in my life and everything just started blooming.
I can just say -- I don’t think I would change anything. I would let it play out, just the way it did.
The whole experience being on the outside has been great because I still have Brittany [her lawyer] by my side. And I have my daughter and I have a new grandbaby. Right now, I’m just rebuilding. And I have a lot of help along the way. So I’m just thankful.
Photo credit: Washington Post.
More on Sharanda's case:
“From a first offense to a life sentence” (Washington Post)
"President Obama grants early release to 61 more federal drug offenders" (Washington Post)