ALDERSON, West Virginia—A Mniconjou Lakota great-grandmother from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe was released Jan. 20 from Federal Prison Camp Alderson after more than 23 years in custody on a first offense.
LaVonne Roach was one of 143 individuals who received pardons and commuted sentences on former U.S. President Donald Trump’s final day in office. She had petitioned his predecessor President Barack Obama, but her case wasn’t reviewed.
“I am blessed to be free,” LaVonne Roach, 56, told the Native Sun News Today. “It has been a long, difficult road to get here.”
Gov. Kristi Noem did not mention Roach among the fellow South Dakotans she thanked Trump for granting clemency. Noem limited her remarks in a Jan. 20 media release to pardons for Jessica “Jessi” Frease; John Nystrom; Gregory, Deborah, and the late Martin Jorgensen.
“The Trump administration has done an excellent job balancing justice with forgiveness, and tonight’s pardons will provide these individuals with a second chance to continue as productive members of our South Dakota community,” she said.
Noem did not mention the charges on which these cases were based, but background information she supplied shows that one of the pardoned died in August 2019 and another had already completed her sentence by that year.
Roach was convicted along with several others on March 2, 1998 for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in Rapid City. She has spent the majority of her time in prison at Federal Correction Institution Dublin in Dublin, California.
Of those who were convicted for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, Roach received the longest sentence — 30 years. It was her first offense.
Her court proceedings were ripe with complications in being the first federal case prosecuted by then U.S. Attorney Mark Vargo, who went on to become Pennington County State’s Attorney until his term ended on Dec. 31.
After she was convicted, her defense attorney Mort Wilkins submitted a letter to the court sharing that he had difficulties with diabetes, indicating inadequate defense. However, the court didn’t accept an inadequate defense claim and she remained in custody.
According to LaVonne’s sister Jean Roach, Vargo threw the book at her sister with no physical evidence or direct witnesses to testify against LaVonne.
“She was never caught with any drugs, and because her boyfriend, who was Mexican, who was supplying the drugs to Rapid City, killed himself after he was caught with delivering methamphetamine to the Black Hills, the book was thrown at her,” Jean Roach told the Native Sun News Today.
“What these drug dealers do is they come up from Mexico and target Lakota women in Rapid City, and my sister was targeted and became involved in a bad mix of people,” she said.
While serving time, Roach completed college courses, became certified as a paralegal and administrative assistant, and offered support to other inmates.
In commuting her sentence, the White House stated, “She has had an exemplary prison record and has tutored and mentored other prisoners. Ms. Roach has a strong family support system to help her transition back into the community.”
Noem sent letters to Trump, advocating the pardons for Frease, Nystrom and the Jorgensen family. Meanwhile Roach’s release resulted from the unflagging advocacy of her family members.
Several months ago, they helped her address the court pro se, requesting a compassionate release. A pro se request is one made without representation of an attorney.
Compassionate release is a process by which inmates in the criminal justice system can advocate for an immediate early release on grounds of “particularly extraordinary or compelling circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen by the court at the time of sentencing”.
The extraordinary or compelling circumstances in Lavonne’s case stemmed from her declining health as she was experiencing high blood pressure, hyponatremia, and the coronavirus.
Medical care while in custody has been well documented as inadequate, but in LaVonne’s case her health has been getting worse. As recently as the second week of January this year, LaVonne was hospitalized for a couple days due to the coronavirus, according to her daughter Clarissa Brown.
LaVonne’s initial request for a compassionate release was denied by the court on Sept. 10. The denial didn’t deter the family from continuing to advocate for her release and they proceeded with a rebuttal for a compassionate release. She also wrote the judge every week sharing the conditions of the prison.
On Jan. 15, the family received an order signed by U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier that LaVonne received a compassionate release and would be out of prison in a matter of weeks, but with conditions: She would be on federal probation for five years, remaining under the scrutiny of the criminal justice system.
From the date of the order, the court stayed her release to allow her to quarantine while in custody for a minimum of 14 days, which would have made her initial release date Jan. 29.
“I was beyond happy to hear that my mother is finally getting out,” Brown told the Native Sun News Today. “It has been a long 23 years.”
LaVonne previously petitioned Trump, citing the First Step Act, which he signed into law in 2018. The law’s name is an acronym derived from the words Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act. The bi-partisan legislation aims to reform the federal prison system by reducing both the prison population and recidivism.
However, on Jan. 18, the family received a phone call from her Clemency Project 14 Attorney, Jean Brandl with information that Trump was likely to grant LaVonne reduced time.
They confirmed the decision when they read a New York Times report the next day that said, “Lavonne Roach, a nonviolent drug offender, has been serving a 30-year sentence after she was charged with conspiracy to distribute meth. Ms. Roach, a Lakota Sioux woman, has been in prison since 1994.”
Instead of supervised release, LaVonne Roach will walk free for the first time in 23 years.
LaVonne’s sister Jean speaks very frankly about her family’s experience with the federal penal system.
“My sister has suffered inside the federal penal system,” said Jean Roach. “For years she was defenseless, from her prosecution through her remaining days in prison and we are happy this nightmare is over.”
Her plans moving forward are not only to spend time with her children and family, but also to bring awareness about inhumane treatment in the federal prison system.
“I almost died three times because of the lack of medical care,” Roach said. “How they treat people is unbearable and it must be changed.”
(Contact Darren Thompson at email@example.com)