Danielle Metz, 50, was only 26-years old when she became one of thousands of people serving life sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
In 1993, she was a part-time beauty school student and part-time drug courier in New Orleans, Louisiana, transporting cocaine to Houston, Texas, for her husband when she was arrested and sentenced to 3 consecutive life sentences—plus 20 years—for her role in his cocaine distribution ring.
Last weekend, though, Danielle Metz joined New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell; Syrita Steib-Martin, Executive Director of Operation Restoration; Sarah Omojola, Director of the Welcoming Project; Denise Coleman; and Malaiah Marcelin for a re-entry panel at the 2019 Essence Fest.
How did she get there? Through hard work, determination, and a little help from the 44th President of the United States of America.
In 2016, then President Barack Obama granted Metz clemency and a chance to live life as a free woman after serving 23 years behind bars.
Danielle was barely 18 when she met 30-year-old Glen Metz. Already a mother of one child whose father had been murdered, she became pregnant during her junior year in high school with Metz’s future child, so she dropped out of school.
The power dynamic in the relationship was clear and toxic. Glen Metz did not allow Danielle to leave the house often and, according to her, she didn’t even have a social security number. Running drugs and raising babies were basically her only husband-approved activities.
U.S. District Judge A.J. McNamara, however, did not care about context and circumstances in 1994 when he decided to lock Danielle Metz in a cage for the rest of her life, telling the young mother, “I hope that by the sentence you receive, others who might be tempted to follow your path of crime will have second thoughts.”
Then President Bill Clinton had recently signed the 1994 Crime Bill into law. Authored by then senator, former U.S. vice-president, and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, the 1994 Crime Bill decimated entire swaths of Black and Latinx communities, further paving the way for the United States to become the largest jailer in the world.
If Clinton and Biden had had their way, Danielle Metz would have died locked in that cage, but that wasn’t to be her fate.
In 2015, Bill Clinton (defensively) acknowledged his role in expanding mass incarceration, while Joe Biden—the architect of it, continues to defend it passionately.
— Kirsten West Savali (@KWestSavali) May 19, 2019
While she was incarcerated, she never stopped dreaming of freedom. The Hill reports:
Metz spent her time in prison taking computer classes and general education classes, earning her GED in 1996 at the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, Calif.
“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 in her journal at the time. “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.”
Enter, then President Barack Obama, who not only granted Metz clemency in 2016, he also “authorized a pilot program to allow a number of incarcerated students to use Pell Grants to pay for college,” according to the Hill. This was something that the 1994 Crime Bill banned.
Upon gaining her freedom, Metz got to work and back to school, enrolling in Southern University of New Orleans at the age of 50, where she is studying to become a social worker.
The scholar made the dean’s list with a 3.75 grade point average, and she has a message for President Obama.
“You don’t know what you did for me. I’m finally coming into my own. I made the honor roll.”
According to the Hechinger Report: “Nationwide, less than 4% of formerly incarcerated people have a bachelor’s degree…Louisiana had long held twin records, the world’s highest incarceration rate, and the country’s lowest rate of Black college graduates.”
Speaking to a group of students earlier this year, Metz talked about freedom, telling them, “Now here I am outside in society living my best life. 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.”
Read more about Danielle Metz’s journey at The Hechinger Report.