Nancy Ferneau. | (Wes Bruer)
The vast majority of these women are serving time for non-violent drug offenses — many under mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders enacted during President Reagan's expansion of the "war on drugs."
In the 1980s, political and public hysteria over illicit drug use set the stage for the zero tolerance policies implemented by the country's police forces and judicial system. This crackdown continued through the new millennium.
But with states increasingly decriminalizing marijuana, public opinion has begun to shift in support of more lenient drug policies. For a few years, it looked like the federal government would follow suit. In 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder, under President Obama, imposed reforms to the Justice Department's charging policies in nonviolent drug cases, moving away from mandatory minimums. But under President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has effectively rejected those reforms, returning the judicial system to the directives of the war on drugs.
Rita Becerra: sentenced to 27 years in 1994 for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Becerra, 66, has one son, one daughter, and four grandchildren. Her clemency petition was denied in 2016. This was her first offense. | (Wes Bruer)
While men were often the main targets of the war on drugs, women, particularly women of color, were often collateral damage. Women who were unable or unwilling to provide information to the police, or those who simply lived with a husband or boyfriend involved in drug sales, were convicted of so-called conspiracy offenses and put behind bars for decades, or even life.
More than three quarters of imprisoned women are mothers or sole caregivers, which sets up a destabilizing effect that can ripple through a family for generations.
In 2016, while working at CNN, photojournalist Wes Bruer did a story on one such female prisoner.
Sharanda Jones was 32 years old when she was indicted on seven counts of conspiracy to traffic cocaine in 1999. Despite the fact that this was her first criminal offense and that prosecutors were unable to produce any physical evidence that she had possessed, bought, or sold cocaine, Jones was found guilty on one count and sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"I couldn't understand it," Jones told Bruer in a 2016 interview for CNN, "I was just blank. My body was numb. I couldn't cry. I couldn't process it at all."
Jones left her 8-year-old daughter, her job, and her family in Texas, and began her life sentence in a federal prison in Florida before being transferred to Carswell federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas.
Jones served 16 years before being granted clemency by President Obama in December 2015. When she walked out of prison, she was 48.
Jones laughs with her sister after cutting off her dreadlocks upon her release. | (Wes Bruer)
"I spent a few weekends with [Jones] leading up to her full release and got to know her lawyer, Brittany Byrd, and many of the advocates working on these cases," Bruer said in an interview. "And needless to say, when Sharanda was released she had plenty of stories about her cellmates and other women at Carswell serving life for similar crimes."
Bruer knew he had to dig deeper.
After talking to his contacts at the Bureau of Prisons as well as advocates against mandatory minimum sentences, Bruer was able to secure a one-day visit to Carswell. He was also granted permission, after some begging, to bring his camera during interviews with five prisoners identified as potential clemency candidates.
Rose Ella Summers: sentenced to 24 years and four months in 1997 for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and money laundering. Summers, 47, has one son. This was her first offense. | (Wes Bruer)
"As was my impression of Sharanda, every one of these women took me by complete surprise with their positive outlook and kindness considering the injustice that has befallen them and their families," he said. "There were plenty of times where each of them were almost, if not completely, brought to tears in recounting their stories."
Bruer was allowed to spend 45 minutes with each woman and to take their portraits — something the women were not quite prepared for, but allowed.
"One of the things I learned is that for women in prison, putting on makeup, doing your hair or nails, and putting on perfume are all extremely important ways that they retain some individuality," Bruer said, "and even more so for maintaining confidence and a positive attitude in such a challenging place."
"These were gracious women," he said, "who were very brave for recounting the stories that tear me up just reading about."
Deneise Quintanilla: sentenced to to life in 2001 for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Quintanilla, 49, has two sons and one daughter. She was granted clemency by President Obama in 2017. | (Wes Bruer)
In May 2017, Bruer returned to Carswell, this time to watch one of the women he photographed, Deneise Quintanilla, leave the prison behind after 16 years. In 2001, Quintanilla was sentenced to life for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine. She was granted clemency by President Obama in January 2017.
Walking out of prison, Quintanilla was welcomed by her daughter and grandson. Reunited, the tearful family hugged without a word.