‘Mothers, sisters and daughters’: After years of rehabilitation, four Kansas women seek clemency

By: - November 28, 2021 9:00 am

Four women seeking clemency through efforts by the ACLU of Kansas are hopeful their rehabilitation work will allow them to reunite with family and receive better medical care. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

TOPEKA — While serving time at the Topeka Correctional Facility for a nonviolent property crime, Sarah Jaillite has endeavored to turn her life around and prepare for a transition back into her community.

Jaillite is among 108 applicants for clemency working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. Beginning May 2020, amid COVID-19, the organization began filing clemency applications on behalf of individuals incarcerated in the Kansas Department of Corrections that they felt met the criteria for early release.

In prison, Jaillite has focused on how to better herself, completing a 12-step recovery program and a faith-based treatment program. She has organized multiple charity 5k races, found a vocation in coding and completed a course through the Washburn University School of Law.

Jaillite said she will need the support of her family and substance abuse programs to thrive after her release, but she also plans to give back to those in similar situations as herself. 

“I want to engage as an advocate for criminal justice reform,” Jaillite said in her clemency application. “I really connected with my course at Washburn and would like to advocate for reform in how the judicial system approaches addiction and sentencing guidelines.”

In June, Gov. Laura Kelly granted clemency to eight individuals, including three who worked with the ACLU. Although the governor has not commuted additional sentences since then, her use of clemency is unprecedented in recent state history, with the past four governors using the power a total of just nine times.

As the state approaches the two-year mark of the pandemic, the civil liberties group is renewing calls to examine applications for release, this time highlighting women in KDOC custody.

According to The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based research and advocacy center, the female incarcerated population has increased sevenfold from 1980. Among incarcerated women, 24% have been convicted of a property crime compared to 16% among incarcerated men. 

Twenty-six percent of women in prison have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 13% of men. The proportion of imprisoned women convicted of a drug offense increased from 12% to 26% from 1986 to 2018.

The ACLU of Kansas highlighted four women, including Jaillite in a recent blog post titled “The Women Left Behind.”

“A lot of the tough on crime narratives and the punitive nature of politicians focus on stereotypes about men who commit a crime,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. “It’s really important to know who these women are, what their stories are, and that they are people worthy of a second chance.”

Among those women convicted of a drug offense is clemency candidate Lacey Hutto. She has spent considerable time working for a City of Topeka outdoor crew, despite the fact her possession and distribution conviction mean the work can not count as credit toward early release.

Hutto, 39, suffers from HIV, a diagnosis she received while in KDOC custody. Candidates with extenuating medical circumstances and weakened immune systems were a focus for the ACLU.

Another candidate, Debbie Meyer, 55, also suffers from several medical ailments, including Lupus, cystic fibrosis and COPD. In 1999, while in the Shawnee County Jail, she fell down a flight of stairs and suffered hearing loss in one ear, as well as seizures. 

Meyer has been incarcerated for 20 years for a manslaughter conviction. Since then, she has completed programs on literacy, interpersonal violence, dialectical behavior therapy, money management and worked as a gardener and in the kitchen.

Brett said she respects the governor’s office taking the steps necessary to ensure the right decisions are made and remains optimistic the process will yield further action.

“Our clients are waiting and every single day that they spend incarcerated and away from their families and loved ones is one day too many,” Brett said. “They are mothers, sisters and daughters, and they are people who have given their lives while they’re incarcerated to the service of others.”

For example, Donise Johnson has been a hospice worker at the Topeka Correctional Facility, helping care for dying women.

Johnson has had a medical scare of her own. She was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2015. She is post-op, but has not had access to the medical care required to determine if the cancer has returned.

Whether these women are granted clemency remains in the hands of the governor, who continues to review applications.

“Gov. Kelly will continue to consider all clemency requests in light of the circumstances of each case and will make decisions on each request following a complete and thorough review,” said Reeves Oyster, spokesperson for the governor.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.