Ten-year-old Miquelle West knew something was wrong when her mother didn’t pick her up from school.
On a breezy May day in 1993, she stood outside her prep school in a Detroit suburb, watching as her classmates caught rides home. The afternoon bled into evening as her friends waved goodbye. Before long, she was the only kid left waiting.
Finally, a family friend drove up. “She looked like somebody had passed away,” Miquelle told me. “I could tell something wasn’t right.”
That was the last day Miquelle saw her mother, Michelle West, outside of prison. After dropping her off at school that morning, West was arrested on drug conspiracy and murder charges. She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, and she’s lived behind bars for the past 23 years.
Now, West is applying for a commutation from President Obama. She’s facing tough odds with just five months left in his presidency, praying that she gets chosen from the 11,000 inmates whose petitions are still pending. “My daughter deserves a chance to have her mother come out of here—and not in a body bag,” West told me in an interview at her prison in Brooklyn.
West says she’s innocent, implicated by her relationship with her boyfriend, a co-defendant in the case. She points out that the triggerman who confessed to the murder didn’t spend a single day behind bars. Even the daughter of the murder victim told me she thinks West deserves clemency.
But the president’s commutations have so far been almost exclusively focused on nonviolent offenders. The murder charge is something of a scarlet letter for West.
In many ways, if it wasn’t for that charge, West would be a perfect candidate for clemency. If she was sentenced today, after two decades of major changes in sentencing law, she likely wouldn’t get life for the drug charge. And former prison officials who worked with her say she's a model inmate and are impressed with how she's managed to stay an integral part of her daughter's life.
Miquelle’s story is tragically common: According to researchers, almost 2.7 million children have at least one parent in prison or jail, a number that’s grown more than 80% in the last 25 years. Almost one in nine African-American children have an incarcerated parent.
On the other side of the bars, Miquelle—the little girl who waited to be picked up from school—is now a celebrity stylist, and she’s trying to marshall a little star power to bring attention for her mom’s fight. Because if your mom goes to prison when you’re 10 years old, you do the time just as much as she does.
West told me her story a few weeks ago in the near-empty visiting room of her Brooklyn prison. Outside, it was a sweltering June afternoon, but inside the Metropolitan Detention Center, a warehouse-like prison in an industrial waterfront area, the air had a chill. “Prison only does two things to you—it makes you a bitter person or it makes you a better person,” said West, who has strong eyes and a lined face. She wore a prison uniform the color of dirt and a white scarf tied tightly around her forehead. “I’ve tried to become a better person.”
West, who's now 55, grew up in Detroit as the daughter of a GM autoworker and watched as the city was hit by the early throes of deindustrialization and drugs. She married and had her only daughter, Miquelle, in her early 20s. West picked her name to be “as close as I could get to mine,” she said with a laugh. “We’re a team.”
Her path to prison began in the summer of 1987, when she and her husband went to lease a car. They came home with a black Ford Taurus, but West found herself more interested in the man who leased it to them. Olee Robinson, who owned the car leasing company, was handsome, successful, elegant. West still remembers the crisp, monogrammed suits he liked to wear.
She was looking for work, and Robinson found her a job as a saleswoman at his dealership. Before long, that job blossomed into a relationship, and she divorced her husband, who she said had cheated on her in the past. “I think that was the biggest mistake I ever made, buying that car,” she said.
According to prosecutors, Robinson and West soon directed a sprawling drug ring in the Detroit area. They were accused of spiriting thousands of kilos of cocaine across state lines, using a network of sources and even a small Cessna airplane.
But West says she was targeted because of her relationship with Robinson. During the three years they were together, she said, Robinson didn’t tell her anything about selling drugs. She did know he was on the edges of drug conspiracies: dealers would come lease a car from him in part to launder money. Anyone who had bad credit could go to him to get a lease. But he wasn’t “a big roller,” she said.
The most serious charge was “drug-related murder.” On the morning of June 23, 1989, a drug dealer named Sherman Christian was driving down a highway in a southern Detroit suburb when three men drove up and shot him through his car window. Prosecutors said that Robinson and West had ordered the hit to get revenge for Christian robbing them a few months earlier.
None of the three gunmen were arrested in that murder. But one of them, Edward Osborne, was arrested three years later on another charge. In exchange for total immunity, he told investigators that he had shot and killed Christian on Robinson’s order—a “breathtaking” admission, the prosecutor later told the judge in the case.
But West told me that she had no idea the hit was going to happen. In fact, she was friends with Christian and was the godmother of his child.
When she was arrested in May 1993—four years after the murder and two and a half years after breaking up with Robinson—West had no criminal record of any kind. She was offered a plea deal of a 20-year sentence in exchange for testifying against Robinson. At the time, the idea of being away from her daughter for two decades was unthinkable, so she turned it down.
The trial took place over six weeks in November and December of that year in a small courtroom in Flint, Michigan. Prosecutors didn’t introduce any seized drugs or other physical evidence against West. Most of the case against her was based on the testimony of Osborne, the admitted hitman, and another associate of Robinson’s who said she had once showed him cocaine in the trunk of her car. A couple of taped phone conversations between West and Robinson also caught them discussing "kilos," according to court documents.
Osborne said that Robinson had organized the hit on Christian after being robbed. The only fact that tied West to the murder was Osborne’s testimony that West had given him $250 to rent a car to look for Christian. “She knew what it was for,” he told the jury.
West told me she didn’t remember whether she had given the Osborne the money, but if she had, Robinson never told her what it was for. In his original debriefing with federal agents, Osborne said the $250 came from Robinson, not West, her attorney said during the trial.
While in jail during the trial, West said, Robinson repeatedly promised her he would take the stand and tell the jury she had no role in the drug ring or murder. But he reneged, leaving her feeling betrayed and manipulated. (Christopher Andreoff, Robinson’s trial attorney, told me he couldn’t comment on whether his client had considered testifying because it would break attorney-client privilege. Attempts to reach Robinson in prison, where he is also serving a life sentence, were unsuccessful.)
At first, West was optimistic that she would be acquitted. She kept a Post-It note with a Bible verse in her shirt pocket. “I’mma tell you something, I never felt stuff like this could happen,” she said. “I was one of the people who trusted the system, that it worked. The whole time I was going to trial… I’m thinking, this is not going to happen, I’m going to go home to my daughter soon.”
But as the trial progressed, she got more and more frustrated. At one point, according to the court transcript, she started shouting in the middle of Osborne’s testimony. “He doesn’t remember because he’s lying!” she yelled as Osborne struggled to answer a question. The courtroom erupted into chaos as the mouths of the jury hung open. The judge, pounding away with his gavel, told her he would have her “bound and gagged” if she spoke out again.
On Dec. 22, 1993, the Wednesday before Christmas weekend, the jury convicted West and Robinson after less than a day of deliberation. The judge sentenced her to two life sentences the following June, one for the drug conspiracy and the other for the murder, as well as 50 more years for lower charges like money laundering. Meanwhile, Osborne—the triggerman who admitted to the murder—went free.
A s West’s trial went on, little Miquelle was kept in the dark. From that first evening, when she was picked up from school by a family friend, her family was evasive about what had happened. West thought she’d be acquitted and back home in a couple months, so she tried to shelter Miquelle from the news. Her mother’s disappearance became the 800-pound gorilla in the room—impossible to forget but never discussed. According to a 1991 study, a quarter of female prisoners’ children do not know their mother is in prison.
But Miquelle quickly realized her mother had been arrested, a word she came to understand through MTV music videos. She saw how her grandmother’s home had been trashed by a police search. She would get brief, tinny phone calls from her mom, who would tell her that she was in trouble but couldn’t talk about it. She’d catch her relatives breaking into tears.
“I had to be strong for the whole family because they couldn’t deal with it,” Miquelle told me over coffee in Washington, D.C. a few months ago, wiping away a tear with her index finger. She’s now 33 but looks younger, with two long braids and big earrings. “No one said anything. We were all just acting like my mom was in college or something.”
After bouncing around between family members—her father was also in and out of prison—Miquelle lived with her grandmother and aunt. Finally, after the sentencing, a family friend sat her down and told her the whole story about what had happened. At age 13, three years after her mom was arrested, she piled in a car with another family friend and her two daughters to drive to Danbury prison in Connecticut (the inspiration for Orange is the New Black) and see her mother for the first time.
Miquelle and her mother were both jittery with nerves about that first meeting. But when they walked into the prison’s busy visiting room through separate doors, Miquelle ran to her mother and embraced her. They talked for hours, more about Miquelle’s life than about what it was like in prison. West remembered how different she looked from her memory: “When I left her she was a little girl,” she said. “When I saw her she was a teenager with braces.”
At one point, West started to cry. “I stopped her,” Miquelle told me. “I said, 'We haven’t seen each other in so long, let’s not do this type of visit. Let’s sit down and catch up and get to it.”
For many kids, having a parent in prison derails their lives. That’s especially true for those with moms behind bars. Only about 2% of kids with incarcerated mothers graduate from college, a 2013 study by the American Bar Association found. Other reports have found elevated rates of attention deficit disorder, behavioral problems, speech and language delays, asthma, obesity, depression, and anxiety among kids with parents in prison.
But West was determined not to let that happen to Miquelle. In the early years, she recorded cassette tapes of herself reading books and then sent the book and tape to Miquelle, so she could read to her daughter from 500 miles away. She always taped a dog-eared photo of herself on the inside cover of the book.
When Miquelle started looking for a job in high school, West wrote her resumé for her, typing away on the prison typewriter to make it as polished and professional as possible and sending the final version to her. Since then, she’s written every one of Miquelle’s resumés. Sometimes, Miquelle told me with a laugh, employers will comment on how well they’re made.
West even helped Miquelle get a job. When Miquelle moved from Detroit to New York to study fashion at Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology, her boss at Saks Fifth Avenue wouldn’t let her transfer her position to the New York branch. So West gave him a call from prison and told him he had to transfer her. He was so shocked that he did it.
From that job in New York, Miquelle went on to intern as a stylist for Patricia Field, the Emmy-award winning costume designer for Sex and the City. Now she’s living in Los Angeles and hopes to start her own clothing line. She has worked on shoots with Madonna and Beyoncé and she's styled Stevie Wonder.
Miquelle credits her grandmother Charlie and the other members of her family for her upbringing. (When Charlie died of cancer in 2010, West wasn’t allowed to leave prison to attend the funeral or see her in the days before she died.) But she also says she doesn’t think she would be as successful if her mother hadn’t worked so hard to stay connected with her.
Maud MacArthur, a psychologist who worked at Danbury prison as a family counselor, said West was a model inmate. In her 15 years at the prison, MacArthur said, she never saw a parent-child bond as strong as West and Miquelle’s. “I have done a lot of family reunification between inmates and their children, and I have to say that Michelle’s bond with her daughter is one for the books,” MacArthur told me. “She took that job as a mother very, very seriously, even though she was behind bars.”
Now, West works as a counselor to her fellow inmates, teaching a class about how to be a good mom. “I tell them to write even if their child doesn't write back,” she said. “Prisoners need to have a constant presence in their children's lives.”
Inmates will show her cards they drew for their sons, or ask her questions about how to deal with a teenager acting out. “I’ve been doing this since Miquelle was 10 years old, so I know how to do it by now,” she added.
The two still talk on the phone every day, connected over a crackling line, timing their conversations in 15-minute intervals before the prison system cuts them off. West sends Miquelle torn-out pages of magazines with outfits she likes, and Miquelle tells her about the latest shoots she’s working on.
West is also studying social media, even though she’s never touched a smartphone or even made a Google search. She’s read books like Twitter for Dummies in order to help her daughter make the best use of social media in her career. Sometimes, she writes up tweets for Miquelle, sending them over the federal prison’s strictly regimented Corrlinks email system. Then Miquelle will tweet them out from her account. “I say, ‘Tweet this, Instagram this, this would be a good post,’” West said. “She’ll say, ‘I got a lot of likes on this one, mom.’”
Studying social media is also a way for West to prepare for what she hopes will someday be a release. “I can tell you more about Instagram than the average person out there can,” she said. “I can’t go out there after 23 years in prison and not know what Snapchat, Twitter, and all these are.”
Over the course of a three-hour interview, West slipped a few times into dark, depressed silences. But when she talked about Miquelle, her face lit up. It was a little easier for her to smile, to laugh her slow, powerful laugh.
“Some people get sucked into the abyss in here,” she said, her eyes focusing on something beyond the prison walls. “But I don’t feel trapped. This is not my reality. I care more about what’s happening outside, with my daughter—I live vicariously through her.”
I n her cubicle in her old prison in Connecticut, West had an inspiration board with postcards from where Miquelle traveled. In the middle, she pinned a photo of President Obama, looking down with a smile. The day Obama was elected, “I said, this is the man who is gonna get me out of here,” West told me. “I believed in him.”
Over the last seven and a half years, Obama has spoken forcefully about how our mass incarceration system is breaking up families like West’s. He's commuted the sentences of 562 inmates, more than any president since Gerald Ford. Most were people without substantial criminal records who were convicted of long sentences for drug crimes, and 198 were serving life sentences.
But in his clemency grants and advocacy for reduced prison sentences, Obama has focused on nonviolent offenders. “We are going to be a little more hesitant about how we’re thinking about sentencing reform for violent crime,” he said at a White House event last year. Under a program sponsored by legal aid groups and encouraged by Obama, federal inmates who have served at least 10 years on nonviolent charges can get a pro bono attorney to help them prepare a clemency petition.
West applied for an attorney through the program last year and was denied because of her murder conviction. So she wrote her clemency petition herself, with some help from Amy Povah, an activist who advocates for female inmates and a clemency recipient herself. West submitted her petition in May, and peppered it with quotes from Obama, like "in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."
I asked her what she would want to tell the President if she got a chance to meet him. “I wouldn’t be one of the ones who disappoints him,” she said. “And if he doesn’t feel like I deserve a second chance, at least give my daughter a second chance.”
Now, as the clock is ticking on the Obama administration, West’s clemency petition is one of more than 11,000 currently pending. She hopes that her 23 years in prison, her clean disciplinary record, the lack of hard evidence in the case, and the fact that the shooter went free without serving time will outweigh the violent conviction.
Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor in Detroit who wasn’t involved in West’s case, said that the prosecution not including drugs as evidence in a drug case was “unusual.”
“We usually had some drugs that had been seized—they were tested and analyzed and presented to the jury,” he said. Osler, who’s now a criminal justice professor at the University of St. Thomas, said that building prosecutions solely on the testimony of cooperators and co-defendants can lead to concerns about the validity of a conviction. “We’re talking about people who have an incentive for the case to go forward, so someone else can take a fall,” he said. “We see again and again that that dynamic, even though it works sometimes, leads to some travesties.”
Kemba Smith, a friend of West who served alongside her in Danbury prison for nine years before she received clemency from Bill Clinton in 2000, said Obama shouldn’t only grant clemency to prisoners with nonviolent charges. “When it comes to prison and incarceration, to focus just on nonviolent offenders isn’t enough,” she said. She remembered how West helped counsel her on keeping in touch with her own infant son. “I feel guilty because I’m home and she doesn’t have a release date,” Smith said.
If she gets a clemency, West plans to move to Los Angeles to live with Miquelle, at least at first, helping her grow her personal brand on social media: “I’m gonna take her career to the next level,” she said with a laugh. She’d complete her associate degree in business—she got within three credits of finishing while in prison before the program she was completing was discontinued. Eventually, she’d want to get a job working to help fix issues in the prison system, “for the people I’d be leaving behind.”
Even the daughter of the murder victim in West’s case, Candace Christian, believes Obama should show West mercy. “I definitely think that she deserves clemency,” she told me in a phone interview. Christian, now 30, was three years old when her dad died, and doesn’t remember much from that time. But she’s close friends with Miquelle, and has seen the impact of her mom’s absence.
“She’s been in there a long time and I really do think that she deserves to come home and spend as much time as she can with her daughter,” Christian said. “I just know that Miquelle has really suffered the most, just being out there by herself.”
On a sunny morning late this past March, as vibrant cherry trees bloomed on the National Mall, Miquelle stood in line to enter the White House. Dressed in a navy blue suit designed by a friend specifically for her, she was nervous, but she tried not to let it show.
Miquelle was attending a White House event where formerly incarcerated people met with Obama administration officials to talk about criminal justice policy and clemency. She was invited by an advocacy group that wanted to help her raise awareness for her mom’s case.
Over the course of a whirlwind day, she met activists like former Obama advisor and CNN commentator Van Jones, listened to clemency recipients’ stories, and handed out cards with the hashtag #FREEMICHELLEWEST. More than a few former inmates who had served time alongside West gave her big bear hugs. While Miquelle wasn’t allowed to plead her mom’s case directly to Obama or senior officials, she gave an emotional speech to a group of criminal justice reformers. “She’s the strongest woman I know,” she said of her mom.
After her speech, three lawyers came up to Miquelle and promised to help her mother with her clemency petition. But in the next few months, one bowed out because of a “personal emergency,” and the other two stopped responding to emails. West thinks they got cold feet after seeing the murder conviction.
Miquelle isn’t letting herself be deterred. Talking about her mom’s case—she also spoke at events at Columbia and American Universities this year—is “a form of therapy” for her, she told me. Even though she finds herself starting to cry, she likes the chance to tell her mom’s story and explain how the criminal justice system affects families. “I want to become a ‘fashion activist’—spreading a message and dressing to the nines all at the same time,” she said. She’s vowed not to get married until her mother is out of prison.
West is torn. She loves her daughter and her support. But she also wants to protect her, and she wants her to live her life. “Even today, I still see my little girl that I left back in 1993,” she said.
“If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have no fight in me,” West said. “I call her—just hearing her voice, it brings me to a better place. Sometimes it’s hard… But Miquelle is what motivates me, she’s what keeps me going.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.