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.