Wendy Kraus-Heitmann has had a hard life, but one that someone could write a good book about. Raised in Nebraska, she moved to Montreal at 21, where she became a journalist and raised four kids. Back in Omaha after a bad breakup, she got into drugs. With her new husband, she ended up participating in a conspiracy to manufacture carfentanil. She was charged in Nebraska. In 2017, she was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.
“We decided to not even tell my youngest, telling them instead that mom would be only gone for a couple of years.”
Then came the pandemic. Due to provisions in the CARES Act, a COVID-19 economic response plan signed by President Trump in March 2020, Kraus-Heitmann was able to argue that she should be released early from the women’s federal prison where she was held in Danbury, Connecticut. Thanks to a team effort involving other incarcerated activists and their lawyers, a US District Court judge agreed. In 2020, after three years in prison, Kraus-Heitmann was released to home confinement for the remainder of her sentence.
That is already remarkable, given the rigidity of the federal system. Such early releases were virtually unprecedented prior to the pandemic. Luckily, Kraus-Heitmann’s story is only beginning.
Inspired by her fight for release from awful conditions of confinement, and wanting to help others in similar predicaments, she took the advice of her legal team and applied to law schools. She sees going to law school as a step toward working in criminal justice reform at the national nonprofit level.
I sat down with Kraus-Heitmann, whom I previously came to know online, to ask her what it was like going head-to-head with the harsh bureaucracy of the federal criminal justice system, and about her advocacy and her future.
Rory Fleming: The charge against you was pretty heavy. What brought you to the point of getting involved with manufacturing carfentanil?
Wendy Kraus-Heitmann: There was a time that I thought heroin was terrifying, mainly because the idea of being addicted to something like that just freaked me out. But you can get to a point in your life when you are so depressed that your inhibitions go away.
After my divorce from my first husband, someone offered me a line of heroin, and I said sure, because I felt so numb. If someone asked if I wanted to cut my arm off, I would have considered it. I was mentally smashed.
I originally moved back to Nebraska, theoretically to have better access to a methadone program. Instead, I did a bunch of opioids, which I eventually started manufacturing and selling with the guy I was married to at the time. When I got arrested, I felt so discombobulated. I was fine with visiting, but I never wanted to live in the States again.
“I want to help other people to get out of prison and stay out.”
RF: How did it feel to be told you were going to spend 15 years of your life in a cage? And then receiving word that you were going to unexpectedly leave prison three years later because of a pandemic?
Well, first of all, my ultimate sentence floored many of my Canadian friends and family, as they live in a country where the justice system is focused much more on rehabilitation and less on delivering the harshest punishments. They were expecting me to get three to five years. Out of my four kids, two were adults at the time, while the other two were under 10. We decided to not even tell my youngest, telling them instead that mom would be only gone for a couple of years.
As for the early release to home confinement, I was given this amazing gift, and I am so incredibly blessed and fortunate for that. It is almost like a religious calling to show my respect for that. I want to help other people to get out of prison and stay out.
Today, I help people find jobs. I look up jobs for people. Job opportunities often suck out of prison. In Danbury, there were a lot of white-collar professional women—at one point, up to 10 percent of our prisoners were former lawyers—and they have a particularly hard time finding post-release employment that feels meaningful and fulfilling to them.
RF: How exactly were you able to obtain early release to home confinement?
At Danbury, we sued the federal government for not moving fast enough on COVID. Our lawsuit was almost identical to one filed in Minnesota. There, the judge threw the case out, claiming a lack of jurisdiction. Our judge kept it.
It should be understood that no prison, by definition, can mitigate COVID. It’s a congregate living situation, just like care homes or hospitals. Infections are rampant because we’re so close, we share everything, and there is no social distancing. Protective measures are not even allowed by regulation. Prison is not designed to deal with any sort of contagious infection, and COVID just exacerbates that.
Danbury is not unique in being a decrepit hovel of a building. It’s rare if a prison has air conditioning or even proper ventilation. I know people who have never been there say “Well, then don’t go to prison,” and that’s one way to think of it. But people who have been through the system know it’s not always cut-and-dried like that. There are actual innocent people there—and no one deserves, and they certainly weren’t sentenced to, death, serious illness or long-term effects of COVID infection that are still unknown.
“If I was in a federal prison elsewhere in the country, I would probably still be behind bars right now. It feels very arbitrary.”
The parties ultimately reached a settlement agreement, where early release based on the CARES Act could not be based on the time someone was sentenced to. That was crucial for me, since I was one of only 17 or 18 people in my situation with technical release dates in 2030 or later. So that, and being a “model prisoner,” ultimately got me out.
I think it is important to point out that my case was originally from Omaha, and, upon release, you are supposed to be sent home. I am still living in Connecticut, where Danbury is located. I asked my judge to recommend I be placed in that federal prison so I could be closer to my kids in Montreal. As it turns out, if I was in a federal prison elsewhere in the country, I would probably still be behind bars right now. It feels very arbitrary.
One of my biggest privileges helping me was my education. There is no way I would have gotten out as I did if I didn’t have the skills I learned as a paralegal, which allowed me to make myself extremely useful to the legal team we had representing the class in the settlement. It wasn’t my intention, but someone had to do that work, and through that they came to know me and wanted to fight for me. I was able to read the documents that came in and explain them to people, I was able to sift through the information. I was able to assist people writing their experiences down, writing their requests to the prison medical team and the BOP bureaucracy.
There are so many people incarcerated who do not have any writing skills, let alone advanced writing skills. This puts them at a serious disadvantage when trying to work through the legal system to get justice. How can you prove your innocence, or even how you were simply wronged in your case, if you cannot understand and follow the directions for court proceedings?
RF: And it was that experience that inspired you to apply to law school?
It was one of many inspirations. I was actually a paralegal for many years in Canada, before I went full stupid and ended up in prison due to my bad choices. I talked to my lawyers every day, doing my best to help them.
Otherwise, when trying to help incarcerated white-collar professionals find future job opportunities, I would often forward them jobs where you need the law degree, but not necessarily the bar license. Jobs at nonprofits like the ACLU, Vera Institute, et cetera. But I realized one day, I want these jobs. I thought about it, and it was something I honestly wanted to do since I was an elementary schooler. But, suffering from untreated ADHD, my grades were crap in high school, and I didn’t do great in undergrad either.
Once I was out, I thought I could do it myself: go to grad school, get grades up, take the LSAT. Originally, my plan was to take a couple of years, get a graduate certificate in social work, get good grades and show a solid work ethic, then apply.
RF: What was the application process like for you?
First, I brought up the prospect of law school to my legal team: not as a “Do you want to help me,” but a “Do you think I’m crazy, do you think this is worth pursuing?” They loved the idea and asked me to apply immediately. They offered me an LSAT prep course. They were so gung-ho about it, to the point where I was almost scared, because I would have felt like I let them down if I didn’t get in anywhere. I was just going to apply in Connecticut, because I was afraid the US Probation Office was not going to let me move. My lawyers said, “Don’t limit yourself, we’ll fight for you.” I applied to a bunch of places and didn’t expect to get in anywhere. I thought that at most, I might get into one school.
“If you go beyond the bounds of the ankle monitor, it sends an alarm.”
RF: Ultimately, you got accepted by a few, and you plan to register as a student at one of them. But criminal records are often used to deny people educational opportunities. Admission to the bar requires a rigorous “character and fitness” examination, and a felony conviction is a major mark against a candidate, even if not a cause for categorical rejection in most states. Do you feel like the fact you were admitted to law school, while still technically in home confinement, shows a positive change?
Absolutely, though I would say only some law school admissions councils. Some schools said they would not admit students who are still on supervised release, which is crazy, because everyone gets supervised release in the federal system. It is not like the states.
Importantly, if it was not for other formerly incarcerated law students who paved the way, like Shon Hopwood, Tarra Simmons and Dwayne Betts, I would not be where I am today. One of my lawyer friends told me that, as recently as 10 years ago, law schools would not admit you if they did not think you could pass the bar. They changed that to a degree, though even Hopwood, who litigated cases to the Supreme Court from federal prison twice and is now a Georgetown Law professor, was rejected from 48 of 50 schools he applied to.
RF: On home confinement, you are still subject to a huge list of restrictions. I read that you can’t even freely walk into your own front yard without US Probation’s approval.
Right. I still have to follow the same rules as someone in a halfway house, more or less. If you go beyond the bounds of the ankle monitor, it sends an alarm. I have a general schedule, and my supervisor approves it. For example, four or five days a week, I have a scheduled block for a walk for recreation: I use that to walk my dog. Every Tuesday afternoon, I have a therapy appointment. Every Thursday morning I do a medication check. Saturday from 4 to 7pm, I do grocery shopping. Sunday from 4 to 7pm, I go to the pharmacy as needed.
“When I first arrived in prison, and people heard I got 15 years on a first offense, they literally said ‘Oh, your husband’s Black, right?'”
RF: You’ve described the things you were convicted of as “bad choices.” How would you describe laws that incarcerate people for years for nonviolent actions? And the racist implementation of such laws?
Oh, it’s absolutely ridiculous. Especially since so many people in prison are there on drug charges. When I first arrived in prison, and people heard I got 15 years on a first offense, they literally said “Oh, your husband’s Black, right?” Because it’s typically only Black and Brown people who get hit that hard on a first offense. He wasn’t, but we were also the first opioid manufacturing case out of Omaha, so they were very enthusiastic about prosecuting us.
The fact there are so many left behind is maddening. Ninety-nine percent of the Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities took the [Attorney General Bill] Barr memos, directing them to enact the CARES legislation, as a suggestion—a suggestion they chose to not follow, most of them having the attitude of: We don’t need to do that, we can handle it fine here. Add in a culture where, to be a successful, upwardly mobile corrections officer, they have to see us as something more akin to objects. Who is going to of their own volition decide to use the power of home confinement? Hardly any without court order. We can see that by their abysmal use of compassionate release. The BOP recommended a whole 36 people for compassionate release, many of whom were already on a ventilator and near death.
I’ve said a million times I am lucky to be white. That doesn’t mean my life is easy. It just means I don’t have to deal with the BS that Black and Brown people get for being Black and Brown. And the denial is real. People like to think they aren’t racist. And I truly don’t believe anyone says “You’re Black, you better get an extra 10 years.” But it’s insidious in how we see people, what we’re used to. Most modern racism is like body odor. No one notices their own because it’s a part of their everyday experience.
If Congress is serious about using community custody for people who are not threats to their communities, they need to get extremely pointed in their legislation. Not “may,” not “can,” not “shall be eligible for.” They need to say, “People who meet XYZ qualification shall/will be placed in community custody unless there are extraordinary and compelling reasons why they should not.”
Photograph courtesy of Wendy Kraus-Heitmann