Turnaround profiles: Stephanie Nodd

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Serving 21 years on a mandatory minimum for a first time nonviolent drug offense, Stephanie mothered her children by phone.

“I cried a lot in the shower,” she said. “I would walk the track and cry. Christmas time was hard, and so was their birthdays.”

Excerpted from “Parenting from prison” | by Eric Schulzke | Deseret News | April 1, 2014

STEPHANIE NODD ALWAYS WANTED to be a mother. Growing up around Mobile, Ala., she had a lot of nieces around her mom’s house. “They were always messing with their hair,” she said. “I told myself, ‘when I have kids, I want a boy.’ No hair to mess with.”

She became “overprotective,” she said, and did not want to depend on anyone, not even a man. And so by 20 she was raising four boys on her own. Looking back, she says, she knows that was a mistake.

SHE HAD A FEW other ideas about parenting. She’d work if she had to, like the women who raised her, but she wanted to stay home. Then she developed a few ideas she regrets. She became “overprotective,” she said, and did not want to depend on anyone, not even a man. And so by 20 she was raising four boys on her own. Looking back, she says, she knows that was a mistake. It wasn’t her only one. By the time she was 22 she was in prison.

EACH NIGHT, STARING the blank walls of her cell, she fell asleep thinking of home, worrying about her kids. She would exercise hard and go to sleep late, so there was less time to lay awake in pain.

“I CRIED A LOT IN THE SHOWER,” she said. “I would walk the track and cry. Christmas time was hard, and so was their birthdays.” She took comfort in the fact that they were well cared for. The three oldest boys were sent to live with her mother. The fourth went to live with his dad and paternal grandmother. Stephanie’s sister took in the newborn, a little girl named Jasmineh, born after Stephanie entered prison.

PEOPLE OFTEN ASKED her how she ended up in prison. She didn’t fit the mold. Unlike most of her cellmates, she never used drugs. She didn’t drink, had never even smoked tobacco. None of that interested her. But she was naïve, and had no real idea what drugs did to people, or how addiction controlled and destroyed lives.

WHEN SHE WAS A TEENAGER, she said, honest work had been hard to come by in Mobile, and a boyfriend’s influence amidst a street culture awash in crack cocaine had sucked her in to a life of crime. She sold crack off and on for a couple of years. That she admits. When she was 20, she briefly helped coach a new dealer from Tampa learning the ropes of the Mobile market. She never handled, sold or transported drugs while helping him, she says. Once she did pick up some cash. Six weeks later, she ended the association and moved to Boston.

THAT BRIEF ASSOCIATION would haunt her. That associate was later swept up in a federal drug sting, and to lower his own sentence he accused others, including Stephanie, inflating her role in the drug ring significantly. By the time the prosecutors were done, what Stephanie insists was a brief advisory role had ballooned into kingpin status. She was charged with 18 kilos of cocaine, moving her into major player status under federal law. Those heightened charges, she insists to this day, were false.

BUT EVEN IF SHE WERE guilty as charged, her sentence would by any measure be extreme. In 1988, she was handed a 30-year sentence for a first-time nonviolent offense, a sentence designed for violent drug kingpins leading gangs and cocaine smuggling rings. Federal law has no parole, just a 15 percent “good time” reduction. The minimum she would serve would be 25 ½ years.

THE AVERAGE CONVICTED RAPIST in the era in which Stephanie was convicted served 5.4 years of a 12-year sentence, said a 1992 U.S. Justice Department study. Today, in her native Alabama, the mandatory minimum for Class A felonies, including rape and kidnapping, is 10 years. Manslaughter, a Class B felony, carries a minimum of two years and a maximum of 20. The typical street-level dealer, the classification that would come closest to describing Stephanie, was sometimes in and out of county lock up the same day. It’s thus no surprise that over the years, whenever prison officials heard how long her sentence was, they would ask, “Who did you kill?”

“I knew if they talked a lot, things were OK,” she says. “But if they were quiet, something was wrong.”

STEPHANIE SOON WOKE UP to the drug issue. A 40-hour drug awareness class left an imprint. So did her fellow inmates. She saw the gaunt faces of meth addicts, the sleepiness and scratching of heroin addicts. She played cards with women who were still addicted to crack after eight or 10 years in prison. They could taste it in their mouths, they said. They went to sleep early because the cravings grew more intense late at night. It wasn’t long before she became a strong anti-drug advocate. The more she saw, the more she worried about her own kids. But beyond her 15-minute calls and intermittent visits, there was little she could do.

SHE KNEW IT WOULD BE YEARS until she could be with her children again, but she was still their mother. So she used the phone. Usually she called her mom’s house because her kids would all congregate there in the afternoons. She would talk to each child.

SHE PAID FOR HER OWN CALLS with the $1.65 an hour she earned working in prison. Calls were 23 cents a minute with a 15-minute limit per call and 300 minutes maximum per month. She always used up every minute. She talked to her kids about life, about school, about sex, about drugs. She urged a 17-year-old boy to buck up and get out the house: “Life doesn’t stop because I’m in prison,” she said.

LATER SHE WOULD URGE ANOTHER 17-year old, her daughter, to wait to have a child. “You don’t want to mess with kids now. Get your education first,” she said, the voice of experience. “I knew if they talked a lot, things were OK,” she says. “But if they were quiet, something was wrong.”

SHE DIDN’T TELL HER KIDS how long her sentence was, fearing it would break their hearts. They found out on the street. At first, they resented her for not telling them. Later, they understood. “They were so young,” she said. “How can you tell a child that you got 30 years?”

SHE COULD HAVE WON a much shorter sentence. Stephanie herself had been snagged when her former associate and two women she hardly knew testified against her in exchange for leniency. Prosecutors offered Stephanie a bargain if she would testify against others. They repeatedly suggested names, including two in Florida whom she had never met. The pressure to get out by putting someone else in was intense. But she refused: “I wanted to take care of my own problems,” she said.

SHE ALSO REFUSED TO PLEA guilty to excessive charges. She says she confessed to everything she had done, but she would not confess to more than that. So she went to trial, took to the witness stand, and set her word against theirs. She lost, as the prosecutors knew she would.

AFTER 21 YEARS in prison, Stephanie was released in 2011 under the retroactive crack cocaine sentencing revisions. In November of 2011 she walked out of a federal prison near Orlando, Fla., into arms of her sister, her best friend, and Jasmineh, the adult daughter who had been born after Stephanie arrived in prison. The four women stopped in Tampa to shop for clothes. Then they drove the seven hours to Mobile, back to the same home where she had been raised. It is now owned by her brother. Family and friends swarmed her as she stepped out of the car.

“WHEN I GOT INTO BED that night,” she said, “I lay there thinking about my mama and how everything had changed. I thought about the girls in prison, wishing they were home, and that made me sad. Then I said a little prayer asking God to please continue watching over those in prison and to keep them strong, and I fell asleep.”

TODAY, STEPHANIE DOES BILLING and sales for a local furniture store, a job she has held for two years. Mostly, she loves being with her children and grandchildren. The grandchildren all belong to her boys. Jasmineh, now 22, has been dating her boyfriend for five years, but is not having kids any time soon. “I’m waiting for marriage,” she said, “You never know what’s going to happen. I want to have a family, but I want them to be secure. I want to be able to take care of them.”

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