A Letter From a Florida Inmate Asked for Help. It Arrived Too Late.
It was early January when Theresa Mathis’ November 22 letter arrived in my mailbox. It had come the long way: from a women’s prison in Central Florida to Reason‘s Los Angeles office, and then back to my home address in South Florida.
Mathis was asking for help. She had sold some hydrocodone pills to an undercover cop, and now she was 12 years into a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. It was her first offense. She’d entered prison at 50 years old. Mathis had recently read about how some state attorney’s offices in Florida were, in an acknowledgment that sentences like hers were insane, revisiting opioid cases and striking deals to release inmates on time served.
“It is a blessing that I found you and at the right timing,” she wrote.
I forwarded a picture of Mathis’ letter to my former Reason Foundation coworker, Lauren Krisai. We had worked together on a 2017 investigation into how Florida’s opioid trafficking laws resulted in draconian sentences for low-level and first-time offenders. Krisai had pored over hundreds of these cases. She didn’t recognize Mathis’ name, so she looked her up on the Florida Department of Corrections website.
The timing was not right.
Mathis, 62, died on December 29 in prison. As I looked at her letter—written in neat cursive except for “God bless u” squeezed into the lower right corner—I felt sick.
I wondered how Mathis ended up in Lowell Correctional Institution, a place so wretched that the Trump Justice Department recently put Florida on notice that the conditions there violated women’s constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. A 2015 Miami Herald investigation found, in addition to rampant sexual abuse, inadequate medical care, rancid food, and vermin infestations.
A transcript from Mathis’ 2009 sentencing hearing started to fill in the blanks. Mathis had pleaded guilty to three counts of trafficking hydrocodone after selling pills to an undercover officer and a confidential informant.
“I had a dependency on prescription pills which clouded my judgement,” Mathis begged the judge. “I have a loving family waiting for me in Michigan. I also have a brand new grandson that I would like to help raise, also three sons in their twenties. I worked at General Motors for 20 years and can be a productive human being. There is a good possibility that I could get my job back and retire in 10 years. Please don’t take my life away from me.”
The Florida legislature passed harsh mandatory minimum sentences in 1999 in response to the state’s booming black market for opioid pills. The laws were supposed to target drug kingpins, but the weight thresholds to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence were so low that they mostly ensnared people selling to support their habit.
Like many other cases Krisai and I had come across, the judge at Mathis’ sentencing was disgusted at the
Article from Latest – Reason.com