Sandra Lawson was only months away from graduating high school when she found out her grandfather had died.
He had raised her since she was only a few weeks old. Her grandfather was strict, but had provided a comfortable middle-class life for Lawson, including a private school education through ninth grade. She was supposed to be bound for college.
Now 63, Lawson has been incarcerated for the last two years on a felony drug conviction. She now fears for her life because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Faced with a bevy of medical issues that make her vulnerable to COVID-19, including type II diabetes and hypertension, Lawson is pleading for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to grant her clemency and release her from prison.
A high school friend of Lawson’s, Dottie Graham, recalled a radical shift in Lawson’s behavior almost immediately after he died.
“I think it had a profound impact on her,” Graham said. “She started to rebel a little bit and she started sneaking out of the house. Her grandma thought she was asleep, but she was out in the street with guys.”
Graham admits that at the time she did not know the full truth.
Heroin addiction began after high school
Shortly after her grandfather’s death, Lawson would begin using heroin, and develop an addiction that would last nearly a half-century.
She has spent the last two years incarcerated at Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y., for a felony drug charge after she was arrested with five bags of heroin.
Lawson believes her time in prison has changed her.
“Ms. Lawson was regularly attending drug rehab classes up until the prison closed them down, citing coronavirus,” said Ying-Ying Ma, the Legal Aid Society attorney handling Lawson’s clemency application.
Born in Georgetown, S.C., in 1956, Lawson was raised by her paternal grandparents after her teenage mother decided she would be unable to care for the newborn.
“[Sandra’s mother] begged my mom and dad to take the baby when she realized she would not be able to care for her,” her father James Holmes Jr. recalled. “So my parents adopted her.”
Holmes said his father had high expectations for all his children. The owner of a successful shoe shop in Georgetown, Lawson’s grandfather controlled his home with a firm grip, which Holmes said provided structure for Lawson.
Once that structure was gone, Lawson lost her sense of direction.
After graduating from high school, she moved to New York City to live with an aunt in Harlem and started experimenting with drugs.
Though Graham says she recalls her friend recreationally using marijuana in high school, there was no indicator early on of a developing heroin addiction. She believes that Lawson’s experiences in New York with a new crowd led her to become addicted.
“Being that her granddad was sort of strict,” Graham said, “she was very sort of gullible.”
Her crowd, and her addiction, would land her in prison multiple times: 1986 for grand larceny and 2006 for forgery, The charges are consistent with someone suffering addiction, Ma said.
Thousands of such petitions
Holmes, who realizes in hindsight that he didn’t recognize the signs of heroin addiction because of his own sheltered life, considers Lawson a victim of the modern opioid epidemic.
Only becoming widespread within the last 20 years, opioid addiction has gained traction in the United States with a dramatic increase in the number of opioid overdoses and deaths.
Holmes feels the relatively recent focus on opioid addicition overlooked people like Lawson, who are urban and nonwhite. Had more been done early on to stem the availability of opioids, his daughter could have been spared, he said.
“I do think the opioid crisis had something to do with it,” he said. “If it hadn’t been readily available, she probably would have not been in it.”
Her petition is now in the hands of state officials, along with applications from thousands of other inmates who are also in poor health and worried about what would happen if they contracted COVID-19.
Though her attorney is confident that Lawson meets the requirements for release set up by Cuomo, only time will tell whether they will approve the application. If Lawson’s plea for clemency is ever answered, and she makes it out of Taconic, she plans to move back to South Carolina, leaving New York — and her past — behind.
“All she wants to do is relocate and restart her life,” Ma said. “Given the life and death nature of her continued incarceration, there’s no reason to not let her out.”