Released from prison by Obama, now on the dean’s list

Obama Sends Letter to Prisoner He Freed Who Turned Her Life Around

President Obama let Danielle Metz out of prison. Then she enrolled in college and made the dean's list. Obama heard about Metz's success and sent a letter telling her how proud he is of her for turning her life around and graduating college.

“I am so proud of you, and am confident that your example will have a positive impact for others who are looking for a second chance, Tell your children I say hello, and know that I’m rooting for all of you.”

Barack Obama's letter to Danielle Metz. (Photo: Danielle Metz)

Think-and-grow-rich-book-cover

Danielle Metz's full story about her journey from jail to college is below.

From prison to dean’s list: How Danielle Metz got an education after incarceration

by CASEY PARKS

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.”

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 another 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 percent 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.

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.

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 three 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. She’d practiced since she was a little girl on her mom, whose locks grew in so straight that people speculated she must have white ancestors. 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, one in eight 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.

Growing up, Metz believed that college was for white kids and for “Huxtables” — black families she named after the upper-middle-class family in “The Cosby Show.” Cheryl Gerber/The Hechinger Report

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. Glenn Metz sat atop an organization manned by more than half a dozen enforcers, two of whom, prosecutors said, drove through town in an armor-plated pickup with the word “homicide” spelled out on the hood in gold letters.

Metz spent most of those years at home. “The Cosby Show” debuted the year she should have graduated high school, and she watched it and its college-based spin-off “A Different World” every week, dreaming of the life she wished she had. She took a few 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. Nearly every edition of The Times-Picayune that year carried news of cocaine busts. Police arrested scores of black men, including Metz’s older brother, Perry Bernard, for possession. 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, who’d been temporarily living in Las Vegas with her husband before the indictment, 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.” Her older brother had drifted in and out before a 1989 arrest netted him 13 years in a state prison.

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.