Drug War

A Letter From a Florida Inmate Asked for Help. It Arrived Too Late.

Theresa Mathis was in the middle of a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence when she sent Reason a letter asking for help.


It was early January when Theresa Mathis' November 22 letter arrived in my mailbox. It had come the long way: from a women's prison in Central Florida to Reason's Los Angeles office, and then back to my home address in South Florida.

Mathis was asking for help. She had sold some hydrocodone pills to an undercover cop, and now she was 12 years into a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. It was her first offense. She'd entered prison at 50 years old. Mathis had recently read about how some state attorney's offices in Florida were, in an acknowledgment that sentences like hers were insane, revisiting opioid cases and striking deals to release inmates on time served.

"It is a blessing that I found you and at the right timing," she wrote.

I forwarded a picture of Mathis' letter to my former Reason Foundation coworker, Lauren Krisai. We had worked together on a 2017 investigation into how Florida's opioid trafficking laws resulted in draconian sentences for low-level and first-time offenders. Krisai had pored over hundreds of these cases. She didn't recognize Mathis' name, so she looked her up on the Florida Department of Corrections website. 

The timing was not right. 

Mathis, 62, died on December 29 in prison. As I looked at her letter—written in neat cursive except for "God bless u" squeezed into the lower right corner—I felt sick.

I wondered how Mathis ended up in Lowell Correctional Institution, a place so wretched that the Trump Justice Department recently put Florida on notice that the conditions there violated women's constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. A 2015 Miami Herald investigation found, in addition to rampant sexual abuse, inadequate medical care, rancid food, and vermin infestations.

A transcript from Mathis' 2009 sentencing hearing started to fill in the blanks. Mathis had pleaded guilty to three counts of trafficking hydrocodone after selling pills to an undercover officer and a confidential informant.

"I had a dependency on prescription pills which clouded my judgement," Mathis begged the judge. "I have a loving family waiting for me in Michigan. I also have a brand new grandson that I would like to help raise, also three sons in their twenties. I worked at General Motors for 20 years and can be a productive human being. There is a good possibility that I could get my job back and retire in 10 years. Please don't take my life away from me."

The Florida legislature passed harsh mandatory minimum sentences in 1999 in response to the state's booming black market for opioid pills. The laws were supposed to target drug kingpins, but the weight thresholds to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence were so low that they mostly ensnared people selling to support their habit. 

Like many other cases Krisai and I had come across, the judge at Mathis' sentencing was disgusted at the sentence he was required to impose, but he had no choice.

"I do not for the life of me understand why the Florida legislature has come up with the mandatory minimum sentences they have for prescription painkillers, in which a relatively—in the court's view—small amount of prescription painkillers results in just an incredibly harsh sentence," circuit judge Jon Morgan said. "But it is not my job or option as a judge to decide what the law should be. I'm required to follow the law as it is. And I'm sorry that it is what it is in your particular case."

From the transcript, I got the name of Mathis' lawyer at the time, Brock Shields. More than a decade later, Shields remembered the case well and told me it was one of the sadder ones he'd worked. "She was a very nice woman caught up in a real difficult situation," he wrote to me.

The reason Mathis got the full 25 years, Shields said, was that she turned down a nine-year plea deal and instead entered into an agreement to provide "substantial assistance" to law enforcement. This means becoming a confidential informant and setting up other sellers. The more deals you set up, the more time you get knocked off your sentence. The catch is you have to plead guilty in advance, and if you can't deliver, you'll take the full sentence on the chin.

Shields said he advised Mathis against turning down the plea deal, but he can understand why she rolled the dice. Imagine looking at nine hard years in Florida state prison—no air conditioning, by the way—or the chance to avoid most, maybe all of it, if you could just give the police enough other names. Shields didn't see any way that Mathis could get enough cases to get her sentence below nine years, though. "It wasn't going to happen," he said.

The result of this is that well-connected dealers walk while small fish like Mathis end up on the hook. For example, Reason's 2017 investigation described the case of Cynthia Powell, a 40-year-old grandmother who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for selling pills to an undercover police officer. Powell had also entered into a substantial assistance agreement with prosecutors but was unable to deliver.

Shields gave me the phone number for Benjamin Mathis, one of Theresa Mathis' three sons. We talked several days after her funeral. That was the first time in 12 years that Benjamin had seen his mother. It was the first time Theresa Mathis' grandchildren had ever seen her.

"We always worried about my mother and father," he told me. "We just didn't get to see them, because it wasn't like they were incarcerated here where I can go visit them. It really ripped our family apart."

Mathis described his mother as a good-hearted person, hard worker, born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan. She wasn't into the drug scene, he said, but went down a bad path.

In prison, she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung ailments that led to difficulty breathing, but Mathis says she couldn't get any treatment. She had just recently been approved for a transfer to another prison and, from what Mathis could gather from other inmates, was carrying her possessions out when she collapsed from an apparent heart attack.

"I feel like the prison itself killed her," Mathis says. "If she was at home, staying with me, she would have been fine. She would have had a lot of the treatment."

Mathis wonders if his mother had COVID-19, but he says the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC)  didn't perform an autopsy. He doesn't have the money to pay for one, or for a lawyer to sue the FDOC, so the exact causes and circumstances of her death will likely remain unknown.

Mathis shared texts and pictures he had been sent from other women who had been incarcerated with his mother. "I slept next to your mom for over a year," one read. "I would hold her hand. The best soul in the world, feisty as can be, great spirit."

Another message included a letter Theresa Mathis had sent on December 12. "I'm now 62 and COPD has gotten worse," she wrote. "I'm struggling. To top it off they put me in the kitchen. Baby, I'm pressing forward."

The shame of it all is that there is widespread acknowledgment that sentences like Mathis' were a mistake.

In 2014, the Florida legislature increased the minimum weight thresholds that triggered the mandatory minimum sentences for opioid trafficking. However, those changes were not retroactive. They meant nothing for Mathis or the hundreds of other inmates who are still serving sentences that are no longer on the books. Bills were introduced to fix the situation for these inmates, but the legislation went nowhere, despite ceaseless lobbying from prisoner advocates and groups like FAMM, a nonprofit that opposes mandatory minimum sentences.

"I am heartbroken and nauseated by the thought of Theresa Mathis dying in a prison cell, and I hope her memory haunts every member of the Florida Legislature until they fix the stupid laws that kept her there unnecessarily," says Greg Newburn, the Florida director of state policy for FAMM.

Some prosecutors' offices around Florida have started to review old opioid sentences, including the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office, which handled Mathis' case. Mathis had in fact recently received an application from the office to have her sentence reviewed. She would have been a prime candidate. 

But everything happened too late. The Florida legislature increased the trafficking thresholds too late. Lawmakers dithered on making those changes retroactive. Prosecutors didn't start second-guessing the wisdom of warehousing first-time drug offenders until it was too late. The mail was too late.

There are hundreds of other opioid offenders still serving outdated opioid trafficking sentences in Florida prisons, though. One of them is Benjamin Mathis' father, who was sentenced along with Theresa Mathis.

"He's still in prison, and I just want to iterate how important it is to try to get him home," Mathis says.

If lawmakers need convincing, I have a letter I can forward. I believe it belongs to them.

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  1. Never fear, Savior Biden will deliver us out of this hell-on-earth.

    1. Exactly.
      It was the post office of that dastardly Trump that killed her by delaying the mail, probably based on race, maybe on sex, or most likely, both.

      1. Literally the only reference to Trump in this entire article is to the fact that the DoJ under his administration criticized the prison conditions. Nothing in the article can be read as attacking Trump or the Republican party. It condemns the Florida legislature and prosecutor’s offices without reference to the political party affiliation of any person involved. So maybe you should go reflect on how completely fucking addled you have to be that your first reaction to this tragic story was to start defending Trump?

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        2. I think Longtobefree was being sarcastic – mocking people who blame Trump for everything.

      2. Delaying mail, for any reason, is inexcusable. It’s disgusting.

    2. Right, just ignore the fact that Savior Biden was instrumental in shaping mandatory minimum laws at the federal level. He and Kamala “lock ’em up even if they’re innocent and I know it” Harris are on the job now.

  2. If lawmakers need convincing, I have a letter I can forward.

    Probably a better outcome would result by forwarding it to Amanda Gorman.

  3. How does a mandatory minimum become something else when you agree to rat out a suitable number of other meatbags? It sounds almost, I don’t know, “arbitrary and capricious” on the part of the prosecution. Our justice system is beyond redemption, beyond fixing.

  4. What? Obama/Biden didn’t pardon her?

    1. “What? Obama/Biden didn’t pardon her?”

      Yes why didn’t Obama / Biden pardon someone serving time in a state prison for violating state laws????

      Maybe direct your bad faith ire at the Republican Governors (Ron DeSantis, Rick Scott and Charlie Crist) who actually had the power to grant a pardon or a clemecy but instead let her rot in jail.

      1. The pardon power is not limited to federal offenses, as the term “United States,” at the time of the founding was plural.

        If the framers had intended to limit the ambit of the pardon power, they could have so written. The chose otherwise.

        Yes, Messrs. DeSantis, Scott, and Crist should be excoriated.

        1. “The pardon power is not limited to federal offenses, as the term “United States,” at the time of the founding was plural.”

          Uhhhh, wut?

          The power of presidential pardon is applicable only to crimes against laws that fall directly under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Federal government.

          1. “The pardon power is not limited to federal offenses, as the term ‘United States,’ at the time of the founding was plural.”

            In the US Constitution, “the United States” is clearly treated as a single entity, separate from the states. See, for example, the 10th Amendment:

            “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.”

            1. How does this quotation indicate that United States was singular?

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  5. ” She had sold some hydrocodone pills to an undercover cop, and now she was 12 years into a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. It was her first offense.”

    Joe “Crime Bill” Biden would have approved.

  6. 1) This nation’s obsession with telling people what the fuck to do with their body has created this mess. Yes, the mandatory minimums suck, but they wouldn’t even matter if this country just let doctors and patients consume opioids in a healthy way. Will some OD? Yeah, but far more will treat their addiction.

    2) We need to be a nation that respects personal responsibility. To that extent, this article really glosses over the fact that this person made a terrible decision. Not only was she addicted; Not only was she selling to so many people that she ended up selling to an informant AND a police officer; but she also gave up a 9 year plea deal by promising to turn in more people just like her. This is a shitty government system that prey’s on peoples’ willingness to turn on one another, but she should have looked closely at her mistakes leading up to this point and listened to her Lawyer.

    Many may think I am trying to say “She got what’s coming to her” but I am not. The prison system in our country is a god-forsaken crying shame, but it is filled with flawed people. You are never going to find that pure case of injustice, but rather you will find people that have difficulty making decisions, and a government that well knows and exploits this human nature. The depravity that this government creates when it targets such people is one of the few things that makes me ashamed as an American.

    1. True. And that ain’t gonna change with the new executive administration.

      1. Wouldn’t have changed woth four more years of Trump either. Look at all the pardons he didn’t send.

    2. This ^^^

    3. I would like to note she was faced only with bad options, so her decision had to be bad or worse. The author rightly points out that NINE YEARS was still too harsh to fit the crime. Prosecutions are designed to force the defendant to plea out regardless of guilt by threatening ridiculous amounts of jail time if you fight and lose, as opposed to a much lighter sentence if you just plea out. This system guarantees a bad decision on the part of a defendant.

  7. A confluence of stupid, obscene, and irresponsible on all parts.

    “The result of this is that well-connected dealers walk while small fish like Mathis end up on the hook. ”

    I have no doubt that, if one looked, you would find many more like Mathis and Powell. They are almost avatars for a behavior that, in my experience dealing with those with a drug problem, is exceptionally common of not entirely ubiquitous. That being the inability to make good decisions based upon some form of delayed gratification. In layman’s terms they simply do not internally understand a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush so chase after a reward that they have no realistic possibility of achieving.

    That the legislature sets this up, and the courts play along with the cruel farce is wholly unsurprising if only because it is evidently self serving.

    1. The government is like a predator that preys upon the weak. Everyone has a right to do what they want with their own body and to sell drugs to other people as long as they do not misrepresent what the product is.

      Don’t tread on me. There’s a reason they chose a venomous snake. Tyrants have ended up with their head on a pike before, and it could happen again. I’d rather vote their asses out.

  8. Fuckin’ snitch should have listened to her lawyer.

    1. Yeah, I gotta say: she didn’t think that the laws were so draconian that no person should be subjected to them.
      If she had not tried to turn snitch, she would still be alive.

      1. Just like if the archetypical rape victim hadn’t worn such a short skirt…

        I’d prefer not to blame victims of totalitarian governments.

  9. Imagine how countless many other lives have been destroyed like this one, though the careless and cold legislation that state and national lawmakers have enacted. I am supposed to revere a man like Joe Biden? I’m supposed to fall for and empathize with the performative terror of legislators who were never in real danger from LARPers? Fuck that.

  10. “I am heartbroken and nauseated by the thought of Theresa Mathis dying in a prison cell, and I hope her memory haunts every member of the Florida Legislature until they fix the stupid laws that kept her there unnecessarily,” says Greg Newburn, the Florida director of state policy for FAMM.

    They won’t lose a single second of sleep over her or anyone else. Until those “tough on crime” laws stop helping them get reelected they won’t give a shit.

    1. It’s not just the ‘tough on crime’ crowd that gets us these laws. It is also the ‘we need to save people who are dying from overdose’ crowd as well.

      1. There’s a “tough love” school of thought among both conservatives and progs that the best way to treat addicts is by making them hit rock bottom. This is the opposite of allowing them access to their drug of choice: basically prohibit the drug and make the penalties increasingly more harsh so that the addict has no choice but to either rot in prison for life or get clean. It has worked for some, but at the cost of many many more who are either killed by the police, die in jail before they even get clean, or aren’t even involved with drugs. It is a very stupid and inhuman idea rooted in Puritanism, but has a lot of powerful and influential fans, so I don’t expect it to go away anytime soon.

        1. There is also an rather large swathe of people who think they are smarter than the rest and government exists to save those other benighted people from themselves.

          That those progressives also think themselves best suited to run that very same government is no coincidence.

  11. The judge can say his hands were tied, but he still had wiggle room with the ‘substantial assistance’ plea deal. Someone needs to look hard at the people accepting these deals, and anyone who obviously has little chance of providing much information about any others (ie. People caught selling from their own supply) should not be allowed to enter into them. If for no other reason than it fills the prisons needlessly with people who would otherwise get shorter terms.

    Even a hardened drug warrior has to see that for the waste of time and money it is.

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  13. It would be easier to believe that the government could be an organization for food, clothing, shelter, and love for every human being, if I could see them stop creating human tragedies.

    I don’t believe a system that throws a 62 year old woman in prison to die for selling a few pills should be put in charge of my healthcare.

  14. Anyone guaranteed to stay out of prison has no need of prison reform.

    IMO, a certain “do something” polity should be reserved for orisoners, any of whom may had been the product of a corrupt political process such as her. If they want better food, they should be able to work for it. If they want cleaner surroundings, then likewise. Let prisoners police themselves in this way and try to be a functionally social literate community instead of escapist cult leaders and groupies.

    Then they may find that, if they see release, that solving their own problems gets far better results than creating unsolvable problems for others.

  15. “Like many other cases Krisai and I had come across, the judge at Mathis’ sentencing was disgusted at the sentence he was required to impose, but he had no choice.”

    I’ll make a point I’ve raised before – the judge could have quit and gotten another job (presumably judges are the cream of the crop of lawyers and hence would be able to make more money in private practice, right?).

    Judges aren’t conscripted. They volunteer for the job.

    If there’s suddenly a shortage of judges because nobody will do the dirty work of excessive sentences, maybe the legislature/governor would address the situation.

  16. What shithole country did this happen in?

  17. “Like many other cases Krisai and I had come across, the judge at Mathis’ sentencing was disgusted at the sentence he was required to impose, but he had no choice.”

    If the Supreme Court judges (I won’t call them justices) could find some technicalities to evade looking at the massive evidence of election fraud, then surely this judge could have found some way to avoid imposing this grossly unjust sentence.

    Instead of “defund the police”, maybe the battle-cry should be “defund the lawmakers”.

    But this does seem to be a case where intervention by social workers is more appropriate than intervention by the police.

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