Letters From Prisoners: Victims of the Drug War

By Keri Blakinger 10/19/16

The Drug Policy Alliance’s Anthony Papa presents a series of heartbreaking letters showing "when the time don't fit the crime."

Letters from the Drug War
Written in the margin, “Have no one. Family dead and gone. No children.”

Olive Branch is a small town in Mississippi, with winding shrub-lined streets, quaint antique stores, a country club, Baptist churches, and an interest in draconian drug policy—something Richard Long learned the hard way. 

Now 59, when Long moved east to be closer to family almost a decade ago, he already had a prior felony from Colorado. Unfortunately, the Magnolia State did not prove to be the supportive fresh start it might have seemed. 

“I came to Mississippi in January 2007 to be around my older sister, and the man that worked for me set me up with an undercover officer out of the Olive Branch Police Department to purchase 34 Valiums from me,” he wrote in an early 2016 letter. 

Long wrote that he was ordered to snitch and set up five other people or face a stiff prison sentence. 

“I told them that I wasn’t a rat and that I wouldn’t snitch on anyone, and they told me that since I came from Colorado, they were going to see to it that I spent the rest of my life in their prison system. That’s exactly what they did to me.” 

(Olive Branch police did not respond to a request for comment.)

Long took his case to trial and, in 2009, 12 Mississippi jurors found him guilty as charged, according to sentencing records. Long immediately demanded jury polling in open court, but it didn’t change the outcome. Instead, the court deemed Long a habitual offender and punished him under a harsh sentencing scheme that landed him in prison for life with no chance of parole. 

Today, he sits in a Leakesville prison, a place he described to the Drug Policy Alliance’s Anthony Papa as “the lowest of the barrel in the whole state.” 


Papa learned of Long’s story through a series of letters, starting sometime around three years ago. At first, he did not believe it. 

But since then, the Drug Policy Alliance’s media and artist relations manager has been collecting letters from survivors of the drug war—dozens and dozens of men and women serving time across the country, sometimes for serious offenses and sometimes for shockingly slight crimes. 

“When thinking about ways of helping those prisoners that have been subjected to bad drug laws, I thought the best way to help them is to bring attention to their cases through the media,” he wrote in a 2014 press release.

“As a drug war activist, I’ve seen that to be successful in the avocation of an issue, you have to keep pushing it out to the public so it becomes a repetitive theme, akin to a moving poem or a haunting melody.

“With this in mind I decided to create a program that would give prisoners the ability to tell their stories to the world. The more stories presented that showed the failure of these laws, the better the chance that positive reforms can occur.”

To start, DPA took out ads in Prison Legal News, a monthly legal publication targeted toward prisoners. 

Almost immediately, the letters started pouring in.


One of those letters was from Norman Lamkin, a Texas man slowly chipping away at a 40-year prison sentence. 

“In a nutshell, my co-worker left her valid prescription of methadone pills—three 40 mg pills—in my car by accident,” Lamkin wrote Papa in 2015. 

Lamkin later found the stray pills and called his co-worker. But when she said she didn’t need them, he tucked them away in his car for safekeeping.

He says he planned to give them back, but before he could, he got pulled over. Even though they only contained 40 mg of methadone each, the total weight of those tablets clocked in at over 5 grams—and there was also a digital scale and traces of meth and cocaine found in the car, according to court records. 

That would be bad enough in central Texas, but to make matters worse, it was not his first felony. 

Lamkin scored his first pair of convictions as a juvenile, after he tried holding up a restaurant with a water gun. After he was released in 1982, he stayed out of prison for more than a decade, building something of a name for himself on the Winston Cup car racing circuit. 

But then in 1996 he tried cocaine, and his life unraveled. He was arrested for allegedly stealing checks once and then again in 2002. He was released in 2007, and just over six months later found himself behind bars again when a state trooper pulled him over and busted him with his buddy’s methadone in January 2008. 

“At the time of my arrest I had been on parole. All my weekly urine tests were clean. All my fees were paid. I had a job. I paid taxes. I was not on drugs,” he wrote. 

The co-worker who left the pills in his car testified on his behalf, telling the court they were hers and she’d left them behind by accident. Even so, jurors only took an hour to come back with a guilty verdict, according to the Stephenville Empire-Tribune

“I know I am innocent, but I do not have the resources to prove it,” Lamkin wrote. 

In the end, the 45-year-old was sentenced to 40 years behind bars. 

“Lethal injection would be more humane than the daily torture I suffer in a Texas prison,” he wrote.


Documenting the drug war gone awry is something of a personal calling for Papa, who served more than a decade behind bars before he was granted clemency by former New York governor, George Pataki. 

In the mid-1980s, Papa was living in the Bronx, installing car alarms for a living, struggling to support his wife and daughter. When a buddy gave him a chance to earn a few extra bucks on the side, he jumped at it—but the offer turned out to be too good to be true. 

It wasn’t an opportunity, but a set-up. All Papa had to do was deliver an envelope to a place to a man in Westchester. But that man was an undercover agent and the planned delivery was a pre-arranged drug bust. Although Papa says authorities offered him the chance to cooperate, he turned it down and ended up with a stiff prison sentence under the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. 

Now, more than 30 years after his arrest, Papa is writing books—including the 2016 release This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency—and working at the Drug Policy Alliance, where he has collected thousands of letters from men and women caught up in the dwindling war on drugs.


It was just six pills that landed Jody Bill Powers behind bars for more than 40 years. 

Now 58, the unlucky Virginia man was collared more than a decade ago in Dickenson County, a poor area on the western end of the state that boasts barely 15,000 people. To the rest of the country, Dickenson County may not be known for a lot—but it’s in a corner of the state known for its unusually harsh drug sentences. 

Powers had already been in commonwealth prisons twice before he was arrested for three drug sales in 2005. On April 4, he sold two OxyContin pills; on April 5, he sold two more; and on April 6, he hocked two morphine tabs, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in 2007. All three sales were at Powers’ apartment complex, which was within 1,000 feet of a preschool. 

After a jury trial and an hour-long deliberation, Powers was hit with a ruthless 135-year prison sentence—40 years for each sale, plus another five for each sale’s proximity to the school, according to court documents.

"This is the stiffest sentence I've heard of anywhere around," prosecutor Joe Short said at the time, according to the Richmond paper. "I think the people of Southwest Virginia are sick and tired of drug addiction, and they're looking for solutions."

More than eight years after his sentencing, it doesn’t feel like much of a solution to Powers.

“I was told I was being made an example of, for not cooperating. I’m eight years sober and drug free,” he wrote in a letter to Papa. “My release date is 2045. I’ll be 87. No weapons, just a needle and a spoon and a trip to the moon. 

“I’m through with the drug scene. Just want to be left alone. Maybe someone, somehow, someday the state of Virginia will realize my debt to society has been paid. Enough is enough. The time don’t fit the crime.”

In a margin note, he added: “Have no one. Family dead and gone. No children.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.