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Federal Inmate, 81, Shows How Prison Reforms Missed The Mark

Federal inmate number 14289-077, Bonnie Erwin, 81, has been incarcerated for 39 years in different facilities. For the past three years, his home has been the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, in a minimum-security unit with other disabled inmates. Partially paralyzed on his right side from a stroke a decade ago, Erwin relies on other inmates to push his wheelchair and to type his emails. Erwin is a reflection of an earlier era’s draconian prison sentences and an example of how recent reforms can miss their mark, reports the New York Times. He was convicted by an all-white jury two years before the Supreme Court forbade the racial pruning of jury pools. He was sentenced three years too early to qualify for “compassionate release” under the terms of the 2018 First Step Act. When a murder charge against him was overturned in 1987, his court-appointed attorney on the appeal was Louie Gohmert, then a young trial lawyer.

Later a far-right Republican congressman from Texas, Gohmert, now retired, voted against the First Step Act and later contended that the real victims in the criminal justice system were Trump supporters. Erwin’s nearly four decades of incarceration began in 1984, when he and 10 other Black defendants were found guilty in Dallas federal court of participating in a drug ring that distributed mostly painkiller and weight-loss pills. As the leader of the drug conspiracy, Erwin was an early test case of a newly codified “kingpin” provision in federal law that enabled the presiding judge to sentence him to life without parole, plus 120 years. His sentence was emblematic of a decade of tough-on-crime politicking that has come to be seen by members of both parties as a misguided era of mass incarceration. It took a particular toll on Black men like Erwin.


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