By Christie Thompson
Former inmate Veronica Barnes had three years left to serve in federal prison when she found out in January 2011 that her husband John was dying of pancreatic cancer. Doctors said it was inoperable. They gave him less than a year to live.
Barnes worried who would look after her children, who were four and five years old at the time. A social worker suggested she apply for compassionate release, a program that lets federal inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who face “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” get out of prison early.
Barnes, 32, seemed to fit most of the criteria. She was in prison on a nonviolent drug charge, and there was no one to care for her children when her husband died.
Barnes had been living with her family in Yarnell, Ariz. and working at the local market when she was arrested in 2008. She plead guilty to intent to distribute methamphetamine, and was sentenced to six years in prison. At the federal prison camp in Phoenix, Arizona, she saw her children every week, completed a parenting class, took college courses, and graduated from a drug rehab program.
The assistant U.S. attorney who tried Barnes’ case said she believed it was “a sympathetic case,” and that Barnes was unlikely to reoffend. The warden at the prison camp in Phoenix supported freeing Barnes.
“Based on the ages of the children and the death of their father, the children are dealing with a doubly traumatic situation since their mother is not able to render support or care,” the warden wrote. “I am in favor of recommending Ms. Barnes for compassionate release so she may reunite with her young children during this difficult time.”
A year and three months after submitting her first application — and nearly eight months after her husband died — Barnes received a letter from the Bureau of Prisons’ central office. Her request had been denied.