MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It takes a while to settle into a long prison sentence, especially when it's your first offense.
DANA BOWERMAN: I don't think it sunk in until about 2003 when I was lying in bed thinking, I have 15 more years of this (laughter). It was hard to swallow.
BLOCK: In February of 2001, Dana Bowerman was sent away for nearly 20 years on drug charges. Last year, President Obama launched a program that grants early release to criminals such as Bowerman, nonviolent drug offenders with sentences that don't match today's guidelines. But she's among tens of thousands of people who have put their cases forward and are not getting any relief from the White House. NPR's Carrie Johnson bring us her story.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: I first met Dana in the parking lot of a federal prison.
We've just entered the federal prison camp in Bryan, Texas, awaiting a meeting with Dana Bowerman.
She's a tall woman woman, wearing a thick khaki shirt and pants, her pale face red in the July heat.
BOWERMAN: Hi, Ms. Johnson. It's so nice to meet you.
JOHNSON: We walk past trees with huge raspberry-colored blossoms and shiny picnic tables into the business office.
BOWERMAN: It doesn't look much like a prison, does it? It looks more like a college campus.
JOHNSON: Since April when she was transferred from Alabama, Dana Bowerman has been living here, a federal prison camp near College Station, Texas.
BOWERMAN: I'm on my 14th year, fifth month of incarceration and hopefully will go home in November.
JOHNSON: If all goes according to plan, Bowerman will be out before Thanksgiving. But here's the catch. She'll be released on orders from a Texas judge, not through President Obama's national clemency push even though Bowerman fits the clemency criteria to a T. For one, Bowerman was a first-time offender when she got busted for taking part in a meth ring. A bit player, she said she had $11 in the bank, a ramshackle truck and just enough drugs to feed her habit on the day of her arrest. But Bowerman says when law enforcement arrived, she was the one left holding the bag.
BOWERMAN: I mean, my drug dealer testified on me. I didn't have anybody to testify on.
JOHNSON: Bowerman took her case to trial and ran headlong into a mandatory minimum sentence on drug conspiracy charges. Her prison term would be more than 10 years shorter if Bowerman were convicted of the same crimes today.
BOWERMAN: When you stand up there and he gives you the 235-month sentence and your mom wails in the courtroom, it was hard.
JOHNSON: After the judge read the sentence which totaled 19 years and five months, court officials put Bowerman in handcuffs and took her to jail in Dallas County, the first time she'd ever been locked up - her mother, Rose West.
ROSE WEST: We got to see her the next day at the county, and it was miserable. She was crying. And when you look at your child behind a glass and talking to them on a phone and there's nothing you can do, you're helpless.
JOHNSON: Last year, Dana began to entertain some hope she might not have to serve her full prison sentence. The White House launched a big push for clemency, early release for drug offenders who would get shorter sentences if they were convicted today. But the program includes at least seven layers of red tape, bureaucracy meant to weed out undeserving candidates. Instead, more than 15,000 applications are stuck in the pipeline, including Dana Bowerman's, even though the organizers of the nonprofit sifting through applications say she's a model for clemency - her lawyer, Jonathan Wilkerson.
JONATHAN WILKERSON: You know, first-time offender, someone who was exposed to drugs in her teenage, you know, formative years but kind of gets caught up in this larger government investigation...
JOHNSON: For Bowerman and her lawyer, clemency seemed like a sure bet. But to be safe, last year, they decided to try a different program, too, as a backup. It's a new way for people locked up for federal drug crimes to apply to a judge and reduce their prison terms based on changes in the sentencing laws. To make her case, Bowerman described how she turned herself into a model inmate. Prison officials made her a driver, the one who takes newly released inmates to the airport and the bus station. And there's another job closer to her heart.
BOWERMAN: I raised two guide dogs. One of them did not become a guide dog. She actually became a drug dog (laughter) for the state of Maine, which is very ironic, right? I raised a drug dog. Her name is Angel, and she is responsible for one of the highest money confiscations in the state of Maine.
JOHNSON: Ironic because Bowerman attributes so much of what put her in this prison camp to her drug addiction. It started at 12 with marijuana, then onto ecstasy. And then when she was 15, the daughter of her father's girlfriend gave her some meth. That led to years of partying on a lake in the resort town where they lived.
BOWERMAN: Now I look back, and I have absolutely nothing to show for 45 of my years. Everything I'm proud of, I've done in prison (laughter), and that is so sad to hear coming out of my own mouth. And it's because I was able to get clean.
JOHNSON: Friends and relatives agree prison has been good for Dana. We met Dana's lifelong best friend, Michelle Elliott, at her tidy ranch home in Lubbock.
MICHELLE ELLIOTT: Hi, Carrie.
JOHNSON: So nice to meet you, Michelle.
ELLIOTT: So nice to meet you too. Y'all come in.
JOHNSON: Such a pleasure. Thank you.
Elliott says she and Dana shared so many milestones, but during the most important, Dana was hundreds of miles away.
ELLIOTT: I went to see her whenever I could, had a baby while she was gone. (Crying) She didn't get to be there.
JOHNSON: When I visited this month, Elliott and Dana's relatives could hardly conceal their happiness, excited for her to come home after all those years away. Her stepfather, nicknamed Fat Cat, is arranging a job for her at an agriculture co-op outside Lubbock. He got her some wheels too.
FAT CAT: I bought it for $275. (Laughter). Yeah. I put a $4,500 engine in it. And it's just an old pickup, but it's decent.
JOHNSON: That truck is running for Dana, but her clemency petition is stuck in neutral, piled somewhere along with thousands of other applications. Instead, she's getting out early through her backup approach, that program administered through the courts. A judge in Texas approved Dana's bid for a sentence reduction. And last month, she got the news she's going home November 2, the first possible release date for her.
BOWERMAN: I cried. When I got my email, I just broke down and cried 'cause it's time to go.
JOHNSON: What are you going to wear? What do you want to do?
BOWERMAN: Well, I can tell you what I'm going to eat (laughter). My family's going to have pizza in the car when they pick me up, real pizza.
JOHNSON: Nine-thousand-five-hundred prisoners like Bowerman have taken advantage of the court program to win early release, starting this November, thousands more than are getting out through the highly touted clemency program. Carrie Johnson, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: Producer Matt Ozug co-reported this story.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.