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NEW ORLEANS – The sun glowed gold, and a second line parade was tuning its horns just a few streets away. But Danielle Metz had missed half her life already, and she couldn’t spare the afternoon, even one as unseasonably warm as this mid-February Sunday.
She climbed the stairs to the shotgun house her mom had bought in uptown New Orleans more than half a century ago. Metz slipped through the screen door, then shut it tight enough to keep out the sun. Inside, she dug through a box next to her bed and pulled out the clothbound journal that a woman had given her in 1996, when they were both incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California. Metz hadn’t kept much from the 23 years she spent in prison, but the journal had been too special to leave behind. She opened it and read the dedication as a reminder of what she hoped to accomplish now that she was out.
“To Danielle – There’s so many things we can’t get in here, but knowledge and education can’t be kept out by walls.”
Metz set the journal down on her glass coffee table and opened the Dell laptop she’d received as a perk from the community health job she worked during the week. Just two years earlier, Metz had barely known how to use a computer, but now, her pink-polished fingernails moved easy across the keys. She searched for Southern University’s New Orleans campus, and the school’s baby-blue website loaded. Metz looked for a moment at the home-page photograph, a row of black professionals smiling back at her. The man in the middle had been the one who suggested she apply.
Growing up, Metz had believed that college was for white kids and for “Huxtables” – black people she named after the upper-middle-class family in “The Cosby Show.” She knew, as she looked at the laptop screen, how improbable people might think earning a degree would be for her now. She’d dropped out of high school her junior year. At 26, a judge had sentenced Metz to three life sentences plus an additional 20 years for her role in her husband’s cocaine distribution. She’d thought she’d never see New Orleans again, let alone visit a university.
Even after President Barack Obama granted her clemency in 2016, Metz believed she couldn’t go to college. Nationwide, less than 4% of formerly incarcerated people have a bachelor’s degree, according to a report released last year. The chances seemed especially low in Metz’s home state. Louisiana had long held twin records, the world’s highest incarceration rate, and the country’s lowest rate of black college graduates. Put together, this meant tens of thousands of residents lacked a viable pathway to middle-class security.
But lawmakers had come to believe that a change was imperative for the state’s future. In 2017, Louisiana became the first state in the nation to “ban the box” on public college and university applications, prohibiting school officials from asking whether an applicant has a criminal record. Metz knew that people across the country were working to help people like her go to college after prison. Though Illinois and New York failed to pass “ban the box” measures for university applications, several other states are trying to follow Louisiana’s lead. And federal lawmakers from both parties are pushing to allow incarcerated people to access Pell Grants, financial aid that they’ve been barred from using since Metz first went to prison.
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Metz was grateful for the legal shifts, but political momentum alone would not carry her through school. As the parade began its march through uptown, she scrolled through the university’s website and hovered over the tab marked “current students.” She had no idea how long it would take or how much it might cost, but Metz didn’t care. She was going to college.
From single mom to 3 life prison sentences
Metz grew up the youngest of nine children in a city barreling toward chaos. As a kid, she considered herself lucky. Both of her parents worked – her father as a cement finisher, her mother in a bakery – and together they earned enough to buy a home 3 miles away from the St. Thomas Projects, a public housing development where many other black families lived. St. Thomas was so poor and violent when Metz was young that Sister Helen Prejean described the neighborhood in the opening of her book “Dead Man Walking” as “not death row exactly, but close.”
Even as a little girl, Metz knew people who’d gone to jail, but her neighborhood was quiet, and her parents were dreamers. For years, her father urged her to become a nurse. Metz knew the job required a college degree, but she didn’t know anyone who’d earned one. In 1980, the year Metz enrolled at Walter L. Cohen High School, more than half the city’s black adults didn’t have even a high school diploma, let alone a university credential.
Instead, Metz longed to become a hairstylist. But even that goal felt unreachable after Metz became pregnant in 1985, her junior year of high school. She dropped out and assumed she wouldn’t have a career. She’d be a mother instead.
Six months after Metz gave birth to her son, Carl, his father was murdered.
Metz became a single mother just as the state’s economy was collapsing. Louisiana had long been dependent on oil – profits from the natural resource accounted for nearly half of the state’s budget then. But the price per barrel began falling in 1981, and by the mid-1980s, 1 in 8 Louisiana workers was unemployed, the highest rate in the nation. New Orleans lost nearly 10,000 jobs, leaving few openings for a teenage mother with no credentials or documentable skills.
Metz didn’t take time to grieve. Most black people in New Orleans knew someone who’d been killed, she said. Instead, she started looking for someone to help raise her child.
Glenn Metz had money. He’d grown up poor in the Calliope housing projects, one of the most violent neighborhoods in New Orleans, but he owned two tow-truck companies by the time Metz met him. At age 30, he possessed the kind of quiet maturity that Metz, then 18, thought would make him a good substitute father for Carl. Glenn Metz wore such nice clothes and jewelry the night Metz met him that she suspected he at least dabbled in drug-dealing, but she told herself his business had nothing to do with her.
According to federal prosecutors, Glenn Metz formed a drug ring just before he met the girl who would become his wife. Between 1985 and 1992, Glenn Metz and his crew came to dominate St. Thomas and Calliope, prosecutors said, distributing more than 1,000 kilos of cocaine and killing 23 rivals.
Metz spent most of those years at home. She took beauty school classes and occasionally cut hair in someone’s home, but Glenn Metz didn’t like when she left the house, she said. They married in 1989, and Metz soon gave birth to their daughter, Gleneisha. Metz didn’t have a Social Security number or any way to make money on her own. When Glenn Metz told her to ride with her aunt to deliver a few packages to Houston, Metz said, she did it.
Crack cocaine was spreading through black neighborhoods across the country then, and lawmakers blamed the drug for an increase in inner-city violence. New Orleans was especially hard hit. In 1990, the city topped 300 murders for the first time. As the city’s murder rate rose to the nation’s highest, investigators worked to take down Glenn Metz. His was the biggest and most violent drug ring in the city, prosecutors said. They indicted him and eight others, including Metz, in the summer of 1992.
Metz fled to Jackson, Mississippi. She rented an apartment near Jackson State University and planned to enroll after the investigation concluded. When police arrested her there in January 1993, Metz figured she’d just get probation. Most people she knew went to jail “seasonally.”
After crack cocaine became popular, Congress adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, establishing for the first time mandatory minimum sentences triggered by specific quantities of cocaine. The penalties were worse for defendants charged with possession or distribution of crack cocaine, favored by African Americans, than for those accused of possessing or distributing the powder cocaine primarily used by white people.
But Metz, 25 then, had never had so much as a traffic ticket. She believed her involvement in her husband’s narcotics sales was minimal enough that prosecutors would let her go with a warning. Police did not find any drugs with her, and she was never implicated in any violence.
Instead, federal authorities charged Metz and her co-defendants under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Lawmakers created RICO in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon as a tool to combat the Mafia, but prosecutors increasingly used it in the 1980s to fight drug rings. The charges under RICO carried automatic sentences of life in prison without parole.
The U.S. attorneys who prosecuted her case presented witnesses who were major narcotics suppliers or small-time drug dealers. They testified that Metz had driven packages to Houston for her husband and, on occasion, accepted cash payments and wired money to suppliers. The jury decided she was guilty.
Four months later, in mid-December, U.S. District Judge A.J. McNamara sentenced Metz to three life sentences plus another 20 years in federal prison.
“I hope that by the sentence you receive, others who might be tempted to follow your path of crime will have second thoughts,” McNamara told her.
Louisiana didn’t have a federal prison for women, so authorities sentenced Metz to FCI Dublin, a converted military barrack 35 miles east of San Francisco. As authorities led Metz away in shackles, she realized she would never become a nurse or a hair stylist. She wouldn’t become anything.
“It was as if I died right then and there,” she said.
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If Metz had gone to prison a decade earlier, she might have earned a college degree inside. Since at least 1965, when Lyndon Johnson’s Higher Education Act explicitly granted incarcerated people the right to apply for financial aid, prisons have used what became known as Pell Grants to pay for post-secondary educational programs. By 1994, nine out of every 10 prison systems offered classes for incarcerated people. At FCI Dublin, women were studying English literature, psychology and sociology when Metz first arrived.
Just a few months after a judge sentenced her, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, written by then-Sen. Joe Biden, which banned incarcerated people from using Pell Grants to pay for college. Prisons across the country discontinued their education programs, and within a year, the number of incarcerated people enrolled in classes declined by 44%. By 1998, fewer than 4% of incarcerated people were taking post-secondary courses.
After the Pell Grants went away, Dublin offered only a few computer classes and sessions to help women earn their general education diplomas. Officials there told Metz that space in the classes was so limited they had to reserve spots for people who’d eventually get out and could use the education.
Though the federal prison system requires women without a high school degree to earn their GED, Metz said no one pushed her to take the exam her first two years. She might have gone longer without the credential if she hadn’t performed in a slam poetry reading one night in the prison. Marilyn Buck, a radical leftist who went to prison for crimes she committed with the Black Liberation Army, approached Metz after the reading and asked if Metz had her GED. Metz told Buck she read and wrote well, but she feared numbers.
Buck had earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Dublin the year before the ban. She told Metz to meet her early the next morning in the meditation room, and for months after, Buck spent two hours each day guiding Metz through the algebra she should have learned in high school.
Metz earned her GED in December 1996, nearly three years after she went to prison. The other incarcerated women hosted a makeshift graduation, and one gave Metz the clothbound journal, which she’d ordered special from a bookstore in town. That night, just before bed, Metz recorded her thoughts in a loopy cursive.
“No one knows the joy that I feel in my heart,” she wrote. “This is only the beginning of a new start for me.”
Metz wanted to do more, but she found herself still limited by the lack of classes offered at FCI Dublin. She tried for years to get into a computer graphics course, she said, but an official overseeing the sign-up sheet scoffed.
“What do you want it for?” Metz remembers him saying. “You’re never leaving here anyway.”
Eventually, Metz secured a spot in the class. She learned to make charts and use Microsoft Word. When she wasn’t in class, she watched the news and wrote poems about the headlines. She studied sports broadcasters and practiced as if she’d one day be reporting from the field.
In her journal, Metz acknowledged that she might never get out to use the knowledge she’d tried hard to gain. But so much of her life had turned out differently than she’d expected, she wrote.
“I never thought I'd be in prison serving a life sentence, but I am, and I never thought I would get my GED, but I did,” she wrote. “Now I'm in prison fighting, trying to win my freedom back. I don't know how I will do it. All I know is it will be done.”
Metz appealed her sentence and wrote letters to politicians who might help commute it. One decade passed, then another, and Metz stopped writing in her journal. Much of her life was marked by absence; she had few successes to record. Her older sister had agreed to raise Metz’s children in California so they could visit her more frequently, but Metz missed her son’s basketball games and her daughter’s dance recitals. She couldn’t attend either of their high school graduations or Gleneisha’s wedding.
When Obama took office, Metz believed her time had come. This president looked like her, she thought. He would understand what white leaders hadn’t. A few years into his first term, Obama began granting clemency to people who, like Metz, had been sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses. By the end of Obama’s second term, he’d granted more people clemency than any of the last 10 presidents. But every time Obama released a list of clemency recipients, and Metz’s name wasn’t on it, she retreated to her room, sure she couldn’t go on.
“He's going to be leaving,” she thought. “If my name don't show up, I'm going to be stuck here.”
Parents, friends and activists tried to help. They held vigils and made videos detailing her plight. Federal Bureau of Prison staff members submitted recommendation letters on her behalf, and in 2015, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana wrote to the Department of Justice to say his office no longer believed Metz should remain in prison.
Finally, in the summer of 2016, Dublin’s warden called Metz to his office. The president had agreed to release Metz.
1,715 granted clemency: For recipients of Obama's presidential pardons, vindication is sweet
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At 50, a college freshman
Metz gave away most of the possessions she’d acquired in prison. She let other women have the white jeans and colorful sweat suits she’d brought before the prison changed its rules, outlawing civilian clothing. She left behind her eyeglasses and all of her hair accessories, but she kept the journal. Its opening pages were proof, she thought, of what she’d accomplished inside. The back half remained empty, space left to document the life Metz had thought she’d never get to live.
Metz lived in a halfway house when she first returned to New Orleans. Catholic Charities hired her for an AmeriCorps job packing food boxes for low-income senior citizens, and she was grateful for the work. She’d earned only 29 cents an hour cooking meals in the prison cafeteria. The AmeriCorps job gave her a stipend and a $2,200 scholarship to put toward her education. But Metz spent months unsure if she’d be able to use the scholarship.
Then, in March 2017, a man named Hakim Kashif visited the halfway house. He told Metz and the other women living there that he’d been released from prison half a decade earlier and was now close to earning his bachelor’s from Southern University in New Orleans. Kashif showed Metz his school ID and a schedule of his classes. He carried his report card everywhere he went. He’d finished six semesters with nearly all A’s and B’s.
“You think you can get me into SUNO?” Metz asked him.
“Yeah, girl,” Kashif said. “Come on. I’m going to bring you down there.”
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Kashif was self-motivated – he’d never doubted that he could and should earn his degree after he got out – but he knew most people needed more than encouragement once they left prison. He drove Metz the 10 minutes to SUNO that day and walked her to the admissions office. Metz stepped inside, staring at the building’s beige brick walls in wonder. She’d never been inside a university before.
Inside, Kashif introduced her to Brent Hodges, an admissions counselor who’d worked at the school since the late-1980s. Metz recounted her story timidly at first. She worried Hodges might turn her away, but she knew she needed to explain why she lacked most of the traits of a typical college freshman. She’d never taken the ACT, and she hadn’t studied math since Marilyn Buck tutored her inside the prison more than two decades earlier.
“That’s not a problem,” Hodges said. Louisiana hadn’t yet banned the box on college applications, but SUNO had enrolled plenty of students with criminal records, Hodges said. His was a historically black university in a city where, in 2017, African Americans were 50% more likely to be arrested than white people. He’d be limiting his pool of applicants if he never considered giving students a second shot.
Hodges also believed that education was one of the surest ways to reduce recidivism. In Louisiana, researchers have found that 48% of ex-offenders end up re-incarcerated within five years. But a 2013 Rand Corp. nationwide study found that incarcerated people who got some form of education were 43% less likely to re-offend.
“Just put that all behind you,” Hodges told Metz. “If you’re serious about school, fill this out.”
He handed her an application packet. The form was simple, just two pages. Metz filled in the boxes that asked for her address and date of birth, then paused for a moment before writing down her intended major. She imagined herself working with young girls just beginning to veer down the paths she wished she had avoided.
“I think I want to do social work,” she said.
Hodges waived the application fee, then gave her a study booklet to prep for the math and English placement exams Metz would take instead of the ACT. Kashif sat with Metz as she filled out the 108 questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Five months later, in August, Metz returned to the university by herself. She wore a hoodie and Nike huarache sneakers – fashion she hoped made her look younger – and climbed the steps to Intro to Social Work. She was 50 years old, a college freshman, and happier than she’d ever been.
'You don't know what you did for me'
Metz scored high enough on the placement exams in math and English to test out of the remedial courses that Southern offers for students with gaps in their education, but she felt insecure during her first weeks on campus. Though nearly half of the university’s students are 25 or older, Metz worried her classmates would think she was ancient and out-of-touch. She barely knew how to use a computer – it had been more than a decade since her prison class – and her fingers faltered on the touchpad of her iPhone.
Metz sat in the back of classrooms and rarely raised her hand, but professors soon noticed that she often knew the right answers. Karen Martin, a professor of social work who taught Metz in a public speaking class, pushed Metz to “shake off them little fears.”
Metz was “a sponge,” Martin said, eager to learn and open to criticism. After Martin showed Metz how to outline and infuse voice into her writing, Metz delivered a speech about her life before and after prison that Martin recalls as one of the semester’s most powerful.
Though Martin and a few other professors helped, Metz largely relied on her 32-year-old niece, Santana Harper, to guide her through her first year of college. Harper knew how daunting higher education could be. She’d gone to Grambling State University on a track scholarship right after high school, but she’d dropped out after a year, then wandered in and out of college before enrolling in SUNO in 2012. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology a few months after Metz came home.
Harper had been only 7 when Metz went to prison, so they were strangers when Metz came home, but they grew closer in the university computer lab, commiserating over Microsoft Excel. One misplaced comma could mess up an entire spreadsheet. Some nights they spent hours backtracking to figure out where Metz had gone wrong on her Intro to Computer Information Systems homework.
Metz struggled so much with the computer class her second semester that she didn’t want to check her report card after finals. Harper offered to look with her, so they huddled over a computer together to search for her grades online. The page loaded, and Harper squealed.
“Auntie,” she said. “You made the dean’s list.”
Harper explained that it meant Metz had earned all A’s and B’s that semester, good enough for a 3.75 grade point average. Metz called her brother and both of her children, along with every friend she imagined might care. The only way the day could have been better, Metz thought, was if she’d somehow been able to tell Obama the news.
“You don't know what you did for me,” she imagined herself telling him. “I’m finally coming into my own. I made the honor roll.”
Metz spent the $2,200 AmeriCorps scholarship her first semester, so she took out loans to help pay for her second year. She found a new job working as a “violence interrupter,” an on-call position that required her to run to the hospital anytime a young person got shot, but she needed more money to pay for school and the taxes on her mother’s house. In January, she started a second job working in a community health clinic at Tulane University. The new gig would eventually allow her to take free classes at the prestigious private school, but working double shifts meant Metz could no longer fit in regular courses at Southern. Computers still scared her, but she decided to take her spring semester online.
In February, Metz pulled two textbooks out of her gold book bag and began to read. She had signed up for general psychology and a social sciences elective called Introduction to Alcohol and Drug Abuse.
The more she read, the more Metz understood what had gone wrong in her life. She had never talked to a counselor before, but as she read a chapter in the psychology book, Metz wondered if her life might have turned out differently if she had talked to someone after she got pregnant or after her boyfriend was murdered.
Metz switched to the textbook called “Drugs, Society and Human Behavior.” The homework that week required Metz to chat with the other students online about the reading, and she considered telling them about her own experiences.
“All I was thinking was, ‘I need money for my kid,’ ” she said. She never used drugs herself, so hadn’t thought about how drugs affected the families around her. “That's the way I thought, but now I feel like that was wrong. Them drugs had to be distributed to somebody. Somebody's family had to use those drugs.”
Her fingers hovered over the keys. She knew it might be useful for her classmates to know what she’d learned, but some days, she didn’t want to be Danielle Metz, the woman who spent two decades in prison. She began typing.
“Reading this has broadened my knowledge of drug use and how often drugs are abused,” she wrote. “I never knew it was so extensive.”
'Living my best life'
Obama made another important decision for incarcerated people the year he granted Metz clemency. He authorized a pilot program that allowed a small number of incarcerated students to use Pell Grants to pay for classes. Sixty-seven colleges signed up and have offered more than 1,000 courses in state and federal prisons since. Nearly 600 incarcerated people have earned a degree because of the pilot.
In April, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would make the program permanent. Clinton’s ban is still in place, but Congress this year will vote on a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, a vote that will allow them to strike the ban Clinton signed the year Metz went to prison.
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Annie Freitas, who is the co-executive director of the nonprofit Operation Restoration, said repealing the ban would be “the most significant thing to happen in prison education in the last 30 years.” But she and other activists believe the Pell Grant ban is just one of dozens of barriers incarcerated people face as they seek an education.
Freitas is working to help other states pass ban-the-box measures. Since Louisiana lawmakers unanimously approved their bill in 2017, only Maryland and Washington have followed, leaving formerly incarcerated students in dozens of states still vulnerable to rejection for their past mistakes.
In New Orleans, at least, Metz believes that for some people, the biggest barrier isn’t money or a prying admissions counselor: Most people she knows don’t believe they can attend college, so she uses her weekends and occasional lunch breaks to do what Kashif did for her.
In February, she took an hour off work to speak at a graduation ceremony for people finishing a reentry program offered by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. Metz, wearing a blue plaid suit and silver wingtips she’d found on deep discount at the mall, stood as a program official played “Pomp and Circumstance” from an iPhone. As the graduates shuffled across the room, Metz thought back to the ceremony the women had thrown for her in prison.
“I know how y'all feel with them cap and gowns on, because when I got my GED, that was the best achievement for me,” Metz told the graduates. “I used to tell myself when I was in prison, if I ever get the chance to go home, I'm going to go back to school.”
She’d practiced the speech all weekend, employing the techniques Martin had taught her in the public speaking class. The group laughed as Metz recounted the way she’d claimed a chair in front of the prison TV, intent on learning everything she could from the news. One woman teared up as Metz described the day Obama granted her clemency.
“Now here I am outside in society living my best life,” Metz said. “I love the fact that I can just ride down the streets of New Orleans and get me a hot sausage sandwich or yaki mein. But what I value most is my education.”
The crowd clapped, and Metz smiled as the sheriff handed each graduate a diploma-like certificate. A young man in blue Air Jordans accepted his diploma and announced he’d enrolled at Delgado Community College.
Most of the other graduates had yet to start college, and when the ceremony ended, they formed a line to ask Metz for advice. Metz told them it was easy. She knew they might also struggle with Excel and APA citations. Or maybe they’d hide in the back of classrooms, feeling old and decades behind. But as the graduates celebrated their first small victories, Metz imagined that they, like her, had survived far worse.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Inmate freed by Obama on dean's list because of Ban the Box