Remember this day? Freshman year - you just finished your last exam and now it's Christmas break. Tonight you get to go home, maybe for the first time since you got to Penn. Tonight you get to eat well. Tonight you get to sleep in your bed. Tonight you get to see mom and dad.
But on that day three years ago, Janet Lee didn't get to go home. She didn't get to eat well. She didn't get to sleep in her bed. She didn't get to see her parents.
"Remove your shoelaces," the officer ordered.
"So you can't hang yourself."
In December 2003, Janet Lee - now a senior at Bryn Mawr College - had packed in her Los Angeles-bound luggage three 'stress relievers' - condoms filled with flour that she had made at one of those freshman "relax before your first college exam" events. She thought they were cool souvenirs from her first semester, and she was taking them back to show her friends.
Field tests conducted by Philadelphia Police at the airport reported that the flour was not flour but - you guessed it - cocaine. Janet was arrested for possession of a kilo of cocaine, and that night she slept on a cot at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center.
Janet spent her entire Christmas break in prison. During the holiday season at PICC, "two guys got stabbed, there were three 'weddings' and one woman tried to kill herself by jumping off the second-floor balcony." She sat in there, more scared and in more danger than any of us can possibly imagine, waiting for the lab tests to come back.
After three weeks the tests confirmed what she had been telling anyone who would listen.
It was only flour.
Janet filled a notorious drug-mule apparatus with an illegal drug look-alike and packed not one, but three into her bag, which she checked onto a post-9/11 coast-to-coast flight.
That was a Darwin Award bad idea. You know it was, I know it was and she knows it was. But what happened to Janet as a result of her naivet‚ goes beyond "she was dumb and had it coming."
What happened to Janet is saddening, is angering and is frightening, because though few of us would make her mistake, we all live under this justice system.
We're all as vulnerable as she was.
Here's a sample of what went wrong:
1) The notoriously accurate field tests either failed or weren't done at all (and thus someone forged the results).
2) No one checked her story. No one called Bryn Mawr, no one investigated whether she had the means or the motive to be a big-dollar drug runner (a kilo of cocaine wholesales for $50,000).
3) Her bail was set at $500,000. Her parents, being of modest means, were unable to afford the $50,000 non-refundable premium on the bond. And Janet, unlike an actual drug kingpin, didn't have an offshore account.
4) Halfway through her jail stay, a judge finally looked at the situation, realized something wasn't right and "released" her with an anklet until the lab tests came back. But though the order went out that day, the paperwork to actually let her leave the prison would have taken up to three months to process.
5) The lab tests, which were supposed to take 10 days (and can be done in a couple of hours), took three weeks.
6) No one, save the judge, stopped to say "you know, that looks like flour, and that feels like flour, and she said it was flour. maybe something was wrong with the test. Maybe we should look at this a little more carefully."
You hear "exonerated after wrongful imprisonment" reports all the time, and there's nothing more upsetting. "I heard so many heartbreaking stories [while I was there]," Janet told me. "My anger is tempered because my story is not that extraordinary. this happens really often."
Two weeks ago, Janet settled her lawsuit against Philadelphia for $180,000. It's not an unjust award, but it is unfortunate that taxpayers have to pay. It's not their fault.
There's no one specific to blame, just an unpunishable phantom - the system. The justice system showed itself to be inflexible and impersonal, an institution devoid of common sense. "All they wanted were my statistics, they didn't want to hear my story. no one cared, no one would let me explain." she said.
People didn't want to think and people didn't want to be bothered. They just filled out the paperwork and opened another file in the stack - "It's five, I want to go home." Well, Janet did too.
This is a story of injustice, and it won't be the last. Unless there are dramatic changes, this will happen again, and again and again.
Just hope it doesn't happen to you.
Alex Weinstein is a College senior from Bridgeport, W.Va. His e-mail address is email@example.com. Straight to Hell appears on Thursdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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