Danielle Metz revels in her ability to drive around town and sleep on a brand-new, pillow top mattress each night.
Metz, 51, is one of the 1,715 inmates President Barack Obama granted clemency before leaving the White House in 2017. On that particular day, a Tuesday in August, Obama commuted the sentences of a then-record 111 inmates. The early releases were the former president’s attempt to clap back at drug laws he deemed unusually harsh to nonviolent offenders like Metz.
In 1994, this wife and mother of two was sentenced to three life sentences - plus 20 years - on four counts of drug dealing and conspiracy. Category 3 federal sentencing guidelines demanded the stiff punishment, although Metz had never been in trouble with the law before. Her husband, the alleged ringleader, is still in prison. They rarely talk.
“I was kind of ashamed to tell anybody I had life. At that time, I was 26 years old. I couldn’t even digest it. Every time I [got] ready to say it, it made me sick to the stomach. I can’t believe this happened to me,” Metz said. “Don’t get me wrong: I did some things, but nothing merit[ed] the kind of sentence that I got.
“When the judge sentenced me, he told me I had forfeited my right to live in a humane society again.”
A life sentence means the length of one’s natural lifespan. There is no abbreviated sentencing or parole for good behavior.
So, for 23 years and eight months, Metz filled her days in a box, torn away from her children, earning 29 cents an hour at the Dublin Federal Correctional Institution in California. She made a triumphant return home to New Orleans in September 2016.
Since then, her days are busy with work, college, speaking engagements, youth mentoring and getting reacquainted with her family. A memoir, “Victory,” is expected in mid-March.
“This is answered prayer, what we’re going through. This is prayer without cease; without giving up until you get to where you need to get to,” Metz said recently from her childhood home. “This [ordeal] has changed my life in many ways.”
Primarily, Metz is committed to bettering herself and the world. The psychology-substance abuse student works in a local community health clinic, helping the formerly incarcerated make a healthy transition back into society. She’s also on-call as a Violence Interrupter, providing counsel to gunshot victims, 16 to 28 years old, fresh from a violent incident, while still in the hospital.
On weekends, Metz mentors girls through a nonprofit organization, sometimes accompanying them to court. Then, there’s her Pep Rallies to Prison motivational speaking business, of which she is chief executive officer.
“President Obama wrote to me that I must lead by example. That I had demonstrated the potential to do great things. Only a fraction of [the country’s prisoners] are chosen [for clemency], and I was one of ’em,” Metz said. “So I don’t take that for granted.”
Instead, Metz keeps productive. Clemency means that although she was released from the 973-bed women’s prison, this is supervised release for five years. At some point, her supervisor may recommend getting her record expunged.
“I’m playing catch on, not catch up, with my friends. Life has passed me by,” Metz admits, though philosophically upbeat. “They did it the right way. They went about it the right way.”
Metz, born Danielle Bernard, is the youngest of nine children. Her parents were hard-working individuals who provided a loving and stable household for their brood. Dad worked days and mom worked nights. She was under the protective gaze of six older brothers. They owned their shotgun double. Yet, Metz describes herself then as materialistic and full of fantasy. She wanted to live the glamorous life.
At 17 she was pregnant and too ashamed to go back and finish high school. Two weeks after her son was born, she met her husband, a man 12 years her senior. She describes him as “a nice guy, laid back.” Her girlfriend was dating his brother.
“I was looking for love. I wanted someone to treat me like dad [did,]” Metz says. “When he asked me ‘Where you been at all my life?’, I said ‘Inside.’ I [didn’t] even know what to say. I was young. Immature.”
The two married and had a daughter three years later. When Metz asked ‘Is there anything I can do to assist you?’ her 33-year-old husband had her transport his product.
“I was in denial. I did what I did. I didn’t have to see [the cocaine]. It was just me bringing a car and picking up a car,” Metz says matter-of-factly. Unwittingly, she moved Schedule II narcotics across state lines three times.
“It happened, and I allowed it to happen. Now, I’m much more responsible,” Metz says. “The federal system wants you to take accountability. This is about my healing. I’m here to get a healing for Danielle because [the easy route] cost me too much. All I really wanted to do in that situation was to provide for my kids.”
Old enough to know better
Writing “Victory” is an achievement for Metz because she says her education suffered in federal prison. She put off completing a GED certificate for some time because “I was the girl who was never going to leave.” Nevertheless, two years after her sentence began, Metz earned her diploma on Dec. 1, 1996.
Over the course of 23 years, Metz would also become Department of Labor-certified in bakery training, an Occupational Safety & Health Administration-certified powered industrial truck operator and also complete courses in “Surviving Life,” “Domestic Violence Education” and Ace Legal Research, among others.
“I’m not too much worried about hurrying up and earning a degree to help somebody, but to help me. I want to be able to see what went wrong in my life,” Metz stresses. “I want to help Danielle. Unless you know a person’s background and what they’ve been through, you can never know why they behave the way they do. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
To make it easier for young women and girls to navigate the city’s mean streets, Metz has sprung into action. Not only does she warn girls about “holding” packages for a love interest or friend, she also warns teen girls and boys about signing legal documents while in custody without a parent or guardian present.
“Kids don’t know. I didn’t know you can get this kind of time. But if somebody come and tell them that, then they can’t say they didn’t know,” Metz says.
“I knew nothing about the law. Nothing about a habeas corpus. Those Latin words that they tell us. And that’s what happens to those young kids today,” Metz says. “They go to court, they don’t have anybody present. They don’t have nobody interpreting the law. They sign things that they don’t know.”
And, quite clearly, she makes girls aware of predator older men.
“We’re looking for love, but a lot of times we’ll do almost anything to get validated by a man. That’s our desire. Every young girl desires a man. We just don’t know the right one for us.”
Doing Our Best, Better
Metz is on a roll. And her mind is clearly centered on the prize.
In her first job out of Dublin at Catholic Charities, she earned the Joseph Massenburg Memorial Award for Excellence in National Service. The 2017 award’s $2,200 prize money allowed Metz to enroll in a local university. Last summer, she sat on an Essence Festival Empowerment Seminar panel with Mayor LaToya Cantrell. A couple of months earlier, she’d traveled to the Stockton Country Club in California to address 400 women on Mother’s Day.
“She’s a very dynamic speaker. She spoke directly to the graduates and really drove home the point that even someone with a life sentence can get out of prison. And how she worked at it every day,” Philip Stelly, public information officer for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, said.
At a White House Council on Women and Girls convention a couple of years ago, Metz met Piper Kerman, author of the book “Orange Is The New Black,” in a writing class.
This year, Metz has already addressed the First Amendment Lawyers Association and the 31st graduating class of the New Orleans Day Reporting Center. In between, she takes public speaking courses to sharpen and further develop her skills.
“My dream is to become a renowned author...and just tell people...give them a voice. Like Michelle Obama says, ‘Everybody has a story.’ I’m becoming Danielle Metz,” Metz says.
“Victory,” her book, is a way to connect with President Obama. And to thank him.
“I always tell myself, ‘I wanna be better than I did the prior year.’ That is the goal,” Metz says.
Carl Bernard, her son, says having his mother home again is like winning the lottery. But better. “We talk almost every day. More days than not. She loves to text message and send pictures,” Bernard says.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that – I thought some days I would go home. Some days I thought, ‘I never will.’ And for him to give me the opportunity – sometimes I get discouraged,” Metz admits. “I’m trying to do too much. I’ll go back to that letter, and I’ll say ‘This man believed in me.’
“If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone. It makes me feel like everything I went through was worth it. Now, God is showing me that,” Metz says, contentedly.
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