Teresa Malone remembers her plea bargain, although she admits her memory is clouded by the lingering fog of methamphetamine:
She’s sitting at a long table in a crowded holding room in the Pittsburg County Courthouse surrounded by fellow jail residents, all of them wearing striped jumpsuits, all of them handcuffed and ankle-chained, all of them awaiting their few minutes before a judge who might just determine how they spend the rest of their lives.
In walks one of her attorneys. Hold out for a jury trial, the attorney says, and you’ll probably get life in prison without parole. Accept what the D.A. is offering, and you’ll get 35 years instead. If you’re lucky, you might get paroled after 11 years. It’s the best we could do for you.
Audio clip: Addicted to Meth
Audio clip: Family or Drugs
Audio clip: 35 Years to Life
Audio clip: Asking for Help
So she takes it.
“I’m gonna end up dying in prison,” Malone recalls thinking. She was 51 years old at the time, with three grandkids and a sick mother. She had been off meth for only 10 days, and her mind was still muddled.
With that fateful decision in 2004, Malone achieved a special distinction: She received the longest sentence of any of the 261 women currently doing time in state prisons for the controlling offense of possessing illegal drugs with intent to distribute. In fact, no one else in that group received more than 25 years.
By her own admission, Malone is no saint. She had been selling meth on and off for years in McAlester and made good money doing it. She already had served three years in prison for a 1998 drug conviction. After her parole in 2001, she went right back to using and dealing.
Her 2004 plea deal came after she was busted several times in a matter of months. In one case, she was caught with 34 grams of meth, enough to allow prosecutors to charge her with trafficking in illegal drugs. That’s a little more than an ounce, worth about $1,500 on the street at the time. At the height of her addiction, Malone said she would consume that much in two or three weeks.
Under a tough sentencing law passed by the Oklahoma Legislature, a trafficking case following two or more previous drug convictions calls for mandatory life imprisonment with no parole. No exceptions. No discretion.
In the case of meth, all it takes to trigger the law is possession of 20 or more grams. Prosecutors don’t even have to prove that the offender was dealing.
Malone’s plea bargain on the reduced charge of possession with intent to distribute allowed for a shorter sentence, if a third of century can be called short.
“You talk about the perfect storm, that was Teresa Malone,” said Chris Wilson, who was Pittsburg County district attorney at the time. He is now an assistant U.S attorney in Muskogee.
“Looking at Ms. Malone’s history, the fact that she had multiple prior convictions, that she had cases pending in two jurisdictions, we decided that 35 years was an appropriate sentence.”
Like most convicted felons, Malone won’t spend her entire sentence behind bars. She’ll be eligible for parole consideration after serving roughly a third of her 35 years. If she continues to earn the maximum number of “good time” credits, she could come up for parole in late 2015.
Yet even if she manages to get out get out before her 63rd birthday, Malone’s sentence appears unusually long. According to Oklahoma Department of Corrections statistics, the average sentence length for women imprisoned for possession with intent to distribute is 10.86 years. For new arrivals in 2010, it was 7.23 years.
Malone’s story is one of a life gone awry, another casualty of methamphetamine’s devastating sweep through the American heartland. While her personal history does not excuse the choices she made, it may help explain them.
Her case also raises at least two key policy questions.
Does it make sense to mandate life without parole for anyone convicted of trafficking after two previous drug offenses? In 2007, the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission recommended that the provision be repealed. The Oklahoma Legislature did not take its advice.
Was the 35-year sentence received by Malone reasonable? Although a trafficking conviction would have allowed no discretion, it was essentially up to the district attorney to decide how many years Malone would receive under her plea deal. With the trafficking charge hanging over her head, the defense attorneys had little leverage.
The lengthy sentence meted out to Malone is one little piece of a much bigger phenomenon that helps explain why the state’s prisons and jails are overflowing, why Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state in the union, and why even some staunch law-and-order advocates are beginning to rethink the status quo.
Malone, for her part, said she is not angry at authorities for putting her behind bars for so long. Instead, she feels ashamed.
“All I can think about is my grandkids, and how silly I look sitting up here, 58 years old, in prison for drugs,” she said.
PRELUDE TO PENITENTIARY
Malone was born in McAlester, but grew up near the banks of Lake Eufala. Her parents divorced before she was born. She was taken in by her grandparents, who raised her in their lake home until she was 7. Then she moved in with her mother and stepfather.
Malone said the couple fought frequently. Sometimes, her stepfather would focus his anger on her.
“I wasn’t but about 8 years old, and he was using a razor strop on me. That’s what you beat horses with,” she said.
After a few years, she found a solution.
“I just married the first boy I ever went out with and left. I was 14.”
Her young husband joined the Navy, and they moved frequently. They were living in Memphis with two young sons, J.J. and Shannon, when the marriage fell apart.
A second marriage ended in divorce, too, and left Malone with a third son, Ricky. She eventually moved back to Oklahoma with Ricky in tow.
Malone’s dance with the devil began when she was in her mid-30s.
It was sometime in the late 1980s when Malone was introduced to methamphetamine. She said she can’t recall the exact circumstances, but she remembers the rush it gave her.
Meth is a supercharged central nervous system stimulant that gives its users a sudden burst of intense energy and euphoria—until they crash. The only way to keep the rocket ship aloft is to take another hit, and another and another.
“It made me feel good. I could get up and do my housework, mow my yard, mow my neighbor’s yard, wash my car and shop, cook my meals for my son,” she said. “Whatever I needed to do, I could get it done.”
In 1991, Malone lost her food service job at the Jackie Brannon Correctional Facility in McAlester. She was living on unemployment benefits and using meth regularly when she was seduced by the lure of quick profits.
She began buying the drug in larger quantities from her sources, often an ounce or two at a time, then re-selling it to other people she knew.
“I had connections,” she said matter-of-factly. “I could buy an ounce of crank for $700 and sell it for $1,000, easy. If I wanted to go ahead and pick up 2 ounces, I could sell it for $2,000. Within an hour, I could make $1,000.”
She said she refused to sell to users with little children. Most of her customers were middle-aged, single men, she said; some worked at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant; some were drilling rig hands; one was a bartender. She said she didn’t introduce any of her clients to the drug, never got involved with making it, didn’t shoot up with a syringe. She preferred to snort or smoke it. Lots of it.
“I was an addict, yes I was,” she said. “I did it all day long.”
TIME OF SENTENCE
Malone’s 35-year prison sentence was based on several drug busts in late 2003 and early 2004.
On Nov. 6, 2003, McIntosh County authorities in Eufala caught Malone with small quantities of meth and marijuana. She was charged with possession, posted bail and went back to McAlester.
Then, on March 24, 2004, she was arrested again at her white frame house on McAlester’s north side. She was confronted at the front door as she was leaving the house by a small phalanx of sheriff’s deputies, police officers and drug task force detectives led by Pittsburg County Sheriff Jerome “Snookie” Amaranto.
She said one of the officers asked her to grab the front of her blouse and bra and shake them. Out fell a packet containing 16 grams of meth, a little more than a half-ounce.
In the house, they also found a small amount of marijuana, a glass pipe, a digital scale, clear plastic bags and a stash of cash, police records show.
They also found a police scanner, the two-way kind that officers have in their vehicles. Malone said it was broken and sitting on a closet shelf.
Malone posted bail and was back in action once more.
Less than a month later, on April 20, the task force arrived on her doorstep again with another warrant. They discovered 34 grams of meth in Malone’s purse. They also found more cash and another digital scale.
“I heard ‘em coming up the road. I opened the door and said, ‘Come on in; I’ve been waiting for you,’” she recalled.
“I was just tired. I was ready for them to come. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to quit myself because the people I sold to, they wouldn’t let me quit.”
This time Malone didn’t bother to post her $150,000 bail. She figured she was going to prison no matter what.
She was being held in the Pittsburg County jail when they transported her to the courthouse on April 30, the first time she was presented with the 35-year plea deal.
The agreement had been negotiated by Pittsburg County Assistant District Attorney Matt Dillon, who said he offered 35 years during discussions with Malone’s lead attorneys, Deborah Reheard of Eufala and Warren Gotcher of McAlester. Reheard is the current president of the Oklahoma Bar Association.
“Our task force in McAlester basically considered her a huge thorn in their side,” said Dillon, now an assistant district attorney in Oklahoma County. “She actually was continuing to deal…. She was becoming a real problem.”
Reheard and Gotcher declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.
On June 16, Malone was taken back to the courthouse and shuffled into the courtroom of Associate District Judge David Martin. He told her he was giving her 35 years on the April 20 possession charge, 35 and 20 years for possession charges arising from the earlier busts, a whopping 20 years for possession of the police scanner and one year for possession of paraphernalia, with all sentences to run concurrently.
“I remember telling him, ‘Your honor, I am not dangerous, I’m not violent, I just made bad choices with drugs. I’m an addict. Can you get me some help?’” Malone says, describing the scene. “He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll get you some help. I will recommend that you have drug treatment while you’re locked up.’ … He couldn’t have cared less.”
Malone said that up until that point, she had never participated in a true substance abuse rehab program.
Martin did not respond to a request for an interview.
PASSING THAT TIME
Malone bides her time now at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, where she is midway through the seventh year of her sentence. Roughly half of the 782 residents there are serving time for nonviolent drug-related offenses.
She is housed in one of six women’s dorms, a big room filled with metal bunk beds spaced 3 to 4 feet apart. The bunks are the only private space the dorm’s 90 residents have there, and they learn to get along. Malone just moved to a coveted bottom bunk by a window.
Prison officials characterize Malone as a model inmate. She’s participated in more than a dozen special programs and classes designed to help felons become productive citizens. She’s cleaned dorms, showers and staff offices. She pushes a mop. She wipes out the microwave. She makes sure every bunk is properly made and no trash is on the floor.
Malone said she’s not the same woman she was in 2001, when she got out of prison the first time, or 2004, when she went back in.
“My grandchildren have grown up. I have been locked up … in July it will be seven years, and my grandchildren won’t even know who I am. I haven’t seen my children in fixin’ to be eight years,” she said.
Malone said she’s certain she won’t use meth again.
“The reason I know I’ll never mess with drugs again is because my desires have changed,” she said. Instead of lusting for methamphetamine, she craves “the simple little things … like going to the store with my grandkids, going to church, working on an honest job that I can be proud of myself for.”
“I do honestly feel like I’ve done enough time for what I’ve done,” she continued. “I’ve lost my mama, my brother, all three of my best friends. I mean everybody’s dead and gone. In another three years I’ll be 61 years old. I feel like I’ve paid my debt to society.
“I know I’m not a threat to ‘em anymore.”