For almost a decade, Gary Fannon was a prisoner of the war on drugs, a victim of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. This is his story.
September 19, 1996

I AM FREE and I want to thank ROLLING STONE and its readers for returning my life to me. You may not know exactly what I'm talking about or how you've played a role, but the support I've received from the magazine's three articles and all your letters helped keep me strong during my nine and a half years in prison. Let me explain.

On January 10, 1987, I was arrested for my involvement in a cocaine deal in Michigan. Although at the time the deal took place I was four states away, driving to Florida with my girlfriend, I was arrested, handcuffed, put in the back of a cop car and sent to Michigan to stand trial. I was 18 years old, a little lost and a perfect target for an undercover cop who introduced me to cocaine and then pressured me to find it for him. At my trial, I was basically convicted with misleading statements and the defense of a bad lawyer, and I was sentenced to spend the rest of my natural life in prison. Although this would eventually all come out, it took nine and a half years of my life.

Gary Fannon in 1992 at Michigan's medium‑security Ryan Correctional Facility.

I was convicted under the so‑called 650 Lifer law, the Michigan mandatory‑minimum law that states that anyone convicted in a case involving possession with intent to sell more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin must receive a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The law has failed miserably at its overriding goal, which is to put away drug kingpins. In fact, it has snared only low‑level offenders and people like me: 45 percent of those convicted under the 650 Lifer law are first‑time offenders. Politicians anxious to appear tough on drugs and to strengthen their own platforms speak to the fears they've created and pass these laws, then they build more prisons every year.

My knees buckled when I heard the judge sentence me to a life term in prison, saying that under Michigan state law she had no choice. At the time, I figured that killing myself would be a better way to go. The only thing that stopped me was that I knew it would cause my family even more pain than I had already put them through.

My mind doesn't want to deal with the last nine and a half years. But the experience is impossible to forget. First, everything life is made up of is taken from you and replaced with two state‑issued prison jumpsuits, a pair of hard‑soled black shoes and a number: 189196. For nine and a half years that was my name.

In prison people tell you when to eat, shower, walk outside, even go to the bathroom. One of the more demeaning things in prison is having to ask someone younger than you if it's OK to take a leak. I slept on a steel bed with a mattress worn thin by the countless others who'd been there before me. The dreams I had on that mattress were of being home, free again, sitting in the living room with my mother and brother, laughing at my mom wanting to watch It's a Wonderful Life for the thousandth time. My dreams were so real, yet I woke to disappointment, forced to fight back the tears and the urges to end all the pain quickly.

Gary and his mother, Linda, 10 days after Gary's release from prison. Now free, Gary plans on fighting Michigan's 650 Lifer law.

In prison there's no such thing as privacy. You sleep with one eye open at all times so you don't get raped or stabbed. In the end, though, it isn't these physical dangers that destroy you but instead the feelings of loneliness and helplessness. There aren't many choices when it comes to doing things to retain your sanity, but you have to find one if you are to survive and remain human. I was blessed with having an incredible family and others who truly cared and stuck by me. The key to making it is just to deal with that day, to make it through that day without thinking of the next one or the one after that. I got through my day by writing letters, reading books, working out, meditating, drawing. There were times I felt weak, but my family kept me strong. Later, it was you, the readers, who kept me strong as well. When I was in the hole, locked up by myself, your letters gave me hope that I hadn't been forgotten. Others aren't so lucky and end up either losing themselves to drugs or gambling.

One thing never failed, though: Night always came. Once the lights went out, there was nothing left to do but lie there in my steel bunk and pray for sleep. But sleep came slowly. Thoughts screamed in my head -fears that I'd never again go home, that I wouldn't ever have kids or a family, that I would die in prison. When I was 18, I would tell myself that no matter what it took, I wasn't going to spend my 21st birthday locked behind bars. The 21st came, and I promised that I wouldn't turn 23 locked up. The 23rd came, and again I found myself promising something I knew wouldn't happen. And then finally, I stopped celebrating my birthdays altogether.

During this time my mom tried to appeal my case twice. Both attempts were denied. Finally, in 1991, Patrick McQueeney, an attorney who'd only just passed the bar, came to see me. Three years later, he filed a petition with the Michigan State Supreme Court to have new evidence heard. Though the court didn't accept the case, it did something just as important for me: It denied the case "without prejudice." This meant that I was able to start again. It took nearly two years of work, tracking down witnesses and evidence, to get a motion in front of judge Marianne Battani, the judge who'd presided over my case in 1987. But when at last we did, Judge Battani granted the case evidentiary hearings, which enabled me to raise pertinent information that previously had been kept off the record.

From the end of May to the beginning of June, I attended my hearings. After the last day of testifying, I was sent back to Lakeland prison for the six‑week wait until the judge delivered her decision. During my days of waiting, I felt really good. I thought about everything that we'd done: With McQueeney’s help we demonstrated the incompetence of my prior attorneys. Also I remembered, with some satisfaction, Kurt Johnston, the undercover cop who set me up in 1987, turning beet red as he got tangled up in his own inconsistent testimony. Best of all, though, I was finally able to get up on the stand and tell my side of the story.

I had decided not to be in the courtroom on July 25, the day my future would be decided, because if the judge denied us, I knew it would devastate my family, and I couldn't handle seeing that. Even if my conviction wasn't overturned, I told myself that I wouldn't be spending the rest of my life in prison, that the insanity of the 650 Lifer law could only last so long. Judge Battani had said she'd give her decision at about 1:30 p.m., so I’d arranged to call my mom at about 3:30. I waited on my bunk at Lakeland until 3:30 came. I called, but there was no answer. I called again at 4 p.m. Nothing. Four-thirty p.m. was count time, and I was stuck sweating it out on my steel bunk until they'd made sure every prisoner was accounted for. Finally, at 5, they cleared count. I ran to the phone and called.

"Hello?" I said. My mother was quiet for a minute. “Well?"
"Son," she answered, "how do you like your steak cooked?"
I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"She overturned your conviction! You're coming home!"
I broke down for the first time. I had remained strong for nine and a half years, and now I just couldn’t hold back the tears. I couldn't talk; I just sat there and sobbed, my mom crying, too.

The next day, I was free. I drove home with my family, my uncle and I in the front seat, and my mom and brother and Pat McQueeney in the back. The belly chains and ankle bracelets were off, the window was down, and that free air hit me in the face. But that excitement is also coupled with fear of the future. Will people hate me for my past and fail to give me the chances I so much need to make a life?

As well as thinking about becoming a physical therapist, I plan to fight against mandatory minimum sentencing. Having taken my first trip to Lansing to meet with several legislators, I can see that it's not going to be an easy process, but after what I just came through, I feel I can handle anything.

In prison I met many kinds of people. There are definitely those who need to be locked away from society. But there are many who don't. There is a limited amount of space in prisons, yet, using mandatory‑minimum laws, politicians continue to fill beds with people like me: low‑level, nonviolent drug offenders. The only way we’ll get more sensible laws is if voters get involved. I will continue my battle to do so; I ask you, the readers, never to stop caring. In silence they can do what they wish. If we are loud, they have to do what's right.

Again I thank you all for helping me make it home to my family and regain my life. I will never forget where I came from and where I'm going, and just exactly who it was that helped me get there.

GARY FANNON JR. August 1996


Gary FANNON'S CASE IS JUST ONE EXAMPLE of the miscarriage of justice occurring daily in the nation's courts and prisons. Two decades ago, states began enacting mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses. Designed to keep high‑level drug dealers behind bars, these laws require judges to impose arduously long prison sentences ‑ in some cases, life terms for first-time offenders. But these initiatives, passed by 41 states and written into the federal criminal‑justice code, have failed in their mission. Today the country's prisons are crowded with low‑level, nonviolent offenders like Fannon. In fact, according to a government study, in 1992 only 5 percent of those sentenced under these statutes were leaders of a drug operation.

The judges who are forced to impose harsh sentences often complain bitterly that their hands are tied. Legislators who originally supported such laws as Michigan's 650 Lifer law have begun to speak out against them. “We thought it would be used only against the biggest drug dealers," says Michigan Rep. William Bryant who voted for the law. "But it's been used against everyone. You can't give a first‑time, low‑level offender the same time as a murderer. It just doesn't work." What follows is a list provided by Families Against Mandatory Minimums of eight victims among the tens of thousands of prisoners serving time under these laws. They are single mothers, college students, Deadheads, a former local PTA president ‑ different in most ways, perhaps, except one.

ARKANSAS : Annette Williams, now 36, was arrested in 1991 for selling 3.5 grams of powder cocaine to a police informant. Although this was Williams' first offense, she was sentenced under Arkansas' Felony Y statute, which puts the sale of 1 or more grams of cocaine into the same criminal category as murder. She is now serving a minimum of eight years.

MICHIGAN: Ron Harmelin now 40, was convicted for transporting slightly more than a pound of powder cocaine. Although he was a first‑time offender, he was sentenced under Michigan's 650 Lifer law to spend the rest of his life in prison.

NEW YORK: Jan Warren, now 45, was a single mother and PTA president when she was convicted for selling 8 ounces of cocaine to a cousin in Rochester, N.Y. Although this was her first offense, New York's Rockefeller drug law required she serve a minimum 15‑year sentence.

OHIO: Marcus Woods, now 25, was a junior at Indi­ana University when he was convicted for possession of 5.98 grams of blotter LSD. Despite the fact that he had no prior offenses, he was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison. Without intervention, he will stay in prison until at least Aug. 4, 2010.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Richard Ewell, now 51, was arrested in 1991 for possession of more than 100 marijuana plants. Although Ewell had never been arrested before, under South Carolina penal law he was sen­tenced to no less than 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole.

FEDERAL: Kellie Mann was 21 when she was arrested for mailing LSD to her boyfriend in 1992. Under federal mandatory minimums, Mann, then embarking on her senior year at Sonoma State University, was given a minimum 10‑year prison sentence. Her earliest release date is 2004.

FEDERAL: Amy Pofahl, now 33, was convicted of con­spiracy to import and distribute ecstasy. Though she had no prior offenses, federal statutes place the drug in the same category as cocaine and heroin, dictating a sentence of 24 years.

FEDERAL: Patricia Young, now 48, was arrested in 1992, when one of her eight children was charged with growing marijuana on a neighbor's property in Mississippi. Although Young's record was clean, her husband had one prior arrest for making bootleg liquor. As a result the couple was charged with running a "continuing criminal enterprise," and Young was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 24 and a half years in prison.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: To learn more about mandatory minimum sentencing and how you can protest these laws, call FAMM at 202‑822‑6700 or e‑mail the organization at