This story is part of a six-topic series addressing issues of importance to Wyoming sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council as part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes — Ed.
The thundercloud passed over the fenced compound of the Casper Re-Entry Center on Thursday, leaving the front gate bathed in sunshine as Angela LaPlatney, 42, walked free from the Casper jail. It was just past 8 a.m., 11 years and 10 months after she had been arrested, a period she spent locked up. Her unexpected freedom — it was not supposed to come until 2024 — delivered “a big relief,” as she moved into her life’s next phase.
Prison created an 11-year hole in LaPlatney’s life; she’d missed seeing her two sons grow up, lost touch with friends, alienated family. Nevertheless, Thursday she got an 8-year, 2-month head start.
She’s the only Wyoming convict freed as part of the Obama’s initiative, a program that seeks to release certain nonviolent federal convicts sentenced under outdated standards and practices. Aided by lawyers who worked for free, vetted by attorneys in the Department of Justice and plucked from timeless despair by Obama himself, LaPlatney has one more chance at a normal life. She missed seeing her kids grow up, but perhaps she can watch Tyler, 20, and Bradley, 21, mature as adults.
Despite her relief, LaPlatney carried a burden through the gate of the Casper Re-Entry Center. She will be scrutinized under probation for 10 years. She’s got no margin for error, no prospect for sympathy should she relapse into addiction. She’s grateful and determined, she said, not only to rebuild her shattered family but to help others jailed under harsh and uncompromising laws.
“Nothing’s going to change unless people speak up,” LaPlatney said. “I told my lawyer I had done a lot of things in my life. There’s no way I ever did enough to deserve 20 years.”
LaPlatney’s ordeals had their genesis at home. Both parents worked and her father was sometimes away for a week. At 12 or 13 she started smoking pot, drinking and taking pills. “I wasn’t taught drugs were bad, to say ‘no’ to drugs,” she said. When she was 17, her parents divorced, she started doing meth, and subsequently became “quite addicted to it.” She got high several times a day.
“I used and continued to use it up until I found I was pregnant with my first child.”
She gave birth to Bradley three months early. Even with a newborn, drugs gripped her. Two months after he was born, LaPlatney was back to her routine. It continued until she found out she was pregnant with Tyler. She never married the father of her children, a man she said was abusive and alienated from her sons.
That’s when the law caught up with her. In 1997 she was convicted of felony possession of methamphetamine. She did 10 months and completed probation in 2001. By 2003 she was back to her old ways — but with a different and more dangerous crowd. That ended on Sept. 29, 2004 when police arrested LaPlatney in a raid. She’s been jailed ever since, until last Thursday.
LaPlatney still contests the elements surrounding her arrest, trial and conviction — including that she was a dealer. “It was my habit,” she said. “I was not supplying others’ habits.”
Prosecutors told another story. The federal jury believed them and after a 5-day trial, it convicted her of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and hiding a man wanted on a felony charge. She was 31, the mother of boys 8 and 9 years old.
At her sentencing months later, prosecutors brought up her previous felony conviction, seeking an enhanced penalty. She was facing 20 years to life and held little hope. “I really didn’t think I was coming home, ever. The day I got sentenced and the judge told me 20 years, I was relieved.”
The Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California “kinda looks like a college campus,” LaPlatney said, “green grass, flowers, trees….” Until you get behind the razor wire and into a cell. Three to four people are housed in them, she said. “You had enough room for one person to be standing up at a time.”
Inmates could take computer, self-help and empowerment courses or enter a drug treatment program. But addiction counseling was only available for those “2 to 4 years from the gate,” she said. For a prisoner looking at 20 years, “you’re at the bottom of the pile.
“It’s hard to get into classes, to better yourself, to get treatment. It’s not something they worry about. I did 12 years and what I got for drug treatment was a 40-hour class that basically went over what type of drugs there are. I already knew that too well.”
With about 1,000 female inmates, “it’s a lot of drama,” she said.
LaPlatney had to deal with her addiction alone. “You sleep a lot,” she said. “I remember eating a lot, craving [meth] a lot. I craved it for a couple of years. I had to figure out how to deal with triggers that sent me into a tailspin.”
As LaPlatney languished and reformed, things changed outside. A new ethos enveloped the Department of Justice questioning mandatory minimum sentences, enhanced penalties and three-strike laws enacted during the war on drugs.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced an initiative in 2014. The administration would expedite consideration of petitions for clemency for inmates who met certain criteria. Prisoners had to be jailed under federal charges. They couldn’t have been convicted of violent crimes and had to have served at least 10 years. They could not have ties to gangs or organized crime. Finally, they had to have been pretty good prisoners and, if convicted of the same crime today, would likely have received a shorter sentence.
“Older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system,” Cole said at the time, “and I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals – equal justice under law.”
Clemency Project 2014
Cole asked lawyers and others to provide legal help. A consortium of groups pitched in, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, and lawyers’ associations, who created Clemency Project 2014. There are 75,579 federal prisoners serving mandatory minimums, 99,246 prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses, each costing $29,000 a year, the group says.
Word of the initiative made it into LaPlatney’s jail and inmates could participate in an online survey that would determine whether they might be eligible. She filled out a form.
LaPlatney’s application was assigned to the law firm Ballard Spahr, headquartered in Philadelphia, which has a longstanding tradition of pro bono work. Her file landed on the desk of Blake Wade, a bond attorney with the firm in Salt Lake City.
It was an unlikely pairing. Wade has spent most of his career counseling institutional clients on how to pay for large projects. “I’ve financed billions of dollars of stuff, including prisons,” he said.
But Wade has dabbled in arenas outside his specialty, including volunteer work on civil rights projects and reforms for children with disabilities. In 2012 Ballard Spahr, which has more than 500 attorneys in 14 offices, recognized his work with its pro bono award.
So his language of mortgage finance, municipal bonds, civic authorities and loan programs ebbed as criminal jargon flowed to replace it. “The Clemency Project provides the training,” he said. A partner in the firm, Wade was clear about how he got the job done. “Associates do most of the work,” he said.
“It’s not a quick thing,” he said. “You go through a number of levels of review,” before a case is presented to the president.
He’s never met LaPlatney, just talked to her on the phone. As lawyers worked on her case, LaPlatney said, they discovered the Department of Justice now requires that evidence for seeking enhanced penalties be presented at the beginning of a case — placing all potential penalties on the table from the get go. In her case, the arguments for extra time were brought up only after conviction. That apparently met the requirement she would likely receive a lesser sentence today.
The wheels of justice ground until one day Wade got a call from Washington, D.C. President Obama was going to authorize LaPlatney’s early release in 15 minutes.
As instructed, Wade waited the allotted time, then called LaPlatney’s warden in California. “They brought her in,” he said. “She was overwhelmed with it. I had tears in my eyes.”
Back to Wyoming
Soon enough, LaPlatney stepped from behind bars, into civilian clothes and out to the real world, escorted by advocates from Stanford Law School to a flight to Wyoming. She would be held at the Casper Re-Entry Center for several months before being set free. While at the center, she was released during the day to seek a job. She looked to the hotel industry, in which she had worked before her arrest.
LaPlatney filled out an application at the Ramada in Casper to be a housekeeper. “I found out within an hour after the interview that I was hired. They really believe in giving people a second chance.”
She’s been working there for more than a month. The reentry center would release her in the morning, expect her back at the end of the work day to be locked up for the night. Perhaps she will work her way to the front desk she used to occupy. “I still have an issue communicating,” she said. “I need to get more comfortable. I eventually want to get back into it.”
By some measures, serving time could be seen as easier than the challenge LaPlatney faces now. While the president commuted the remainder of her sentence, the program did not address parole; LaPlatney’s sentence includes 10 years of “supervised release.”
Good behavior by those released “makes it possible for people in the future to do this,” pro-bono attorney Wade said. “It’s critical they do the right stuff in the future. All it takes is a couple of bad examples in the press. I stressed that to Angela. That was my challenge to her.”
LaPlatney said she’s ready. “I can do it standing on my head,” she said of her probation. “My home will be open for them to come any time they want.”
She’s looking into several counseling programs, including on drugs and how to deal with somewhat estranged family members. “It’s a touchy thing,” she said of some of those strained relationships. “We’re communicating a little more — we actually talk. Every day it improves.”
Meantime, she’s got her own rules. “I’m staying away from all the people who look like they’re doing drugs,” she said. “I even have some old friends that are clean now that are supportive. When I get upset, I can call and they’re there for me.”
She reminds herself “if I go down that road again, I’m not going to have a life. I’m going to be behind bars because I’m sure that’s what’s going to happen.”
The challenge ahead
An article in The American Lawyer questions the effectiveness of Clemency Project 2014, saying it has had modest success. It has freed 111 prisoners while President Obama has commuted the sentences of a total of 347 prisoners under his umbrella initiative, many of which occurred without the CP2014 consortium’s help.
For Wade, “helping Angela get out was a high point for me.” Her crimes were “not something you would say ‘Yea, that person should get 20 years.’ This is the better part of our system.”
For LaPlatney, drugs are a disease, not a crime. People should get treatment. “I think they need to have that chance before they get punished.”
“I have no desire to do any of it any more,” she said of drugs. “I like being clear-headed, being able to function on a normal level. I developed a whole new appreciation for nature and everything after being locked up so long. I can’t wait to go camping, go fishing, float the river.
“I want to enjoy it and know what I’m doing. I want to enjoy it like I did when I was a little kid.”
She has two other reasons, her sons. When she walked out of the Casper Re-Entry Center on Thursday, son Tyler, 20, came out at the same time. While she was in prison, he was brought up in foster care. He got in trouble and last week was in the same center as his mother. Unlike her, he had to go back last Thursday night.
“I hurt my family — all my family, my nieces, my brother,” LaPlatney said. “They were my victims. I’ll never be able to make it up to them. I’m going to spend a lot of time trying.”