As a part of President Donald Trump’s 11th-hour actions on his last day in the White House, several inmates at Waseca’s federal prison have received commutations of their sentences.
Kristina Bohnenkamp, Cassandra Ann Kasowski, Blanca Virgen, Mary Anne Locke, Tena Logan, Lerna Lee Paulson and Mary Roberts all received commutations on Tuesday.
The women were clients of the University of Minnesota Law School’s Clemency Project, directed by Professor JaneAnne Murray. The program had a total of 14 clients included on the list of commutations announced late Tuesday and all were represented pro bono.
“All of these clients were serving excessive sentences that devastated their lives and the lives of their families,” said Murray in a press release. “President Trump’s clemency grants reinforce that the cause of criminal justice reform is a bipartisan issue.”
According to Murray, all the women in the program had some sort of connection to FCI-Waseca. Jodi Lyn Richter had been held in the Waseca prison, but was later transferred to a California facility. The other women were introduced to the program through a Waseca client.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website, all the women were released on Wednesday. Third-year law student Bree Crye, who worked directly with many of the clients, said their experience with the program has been invaluable.
“It has been an incredibly journey working with Professor Murray and getting to know the women in Waseca,” Crye said. “The feeling I have is not something I could have learned from a law textbook. The Clemency Project has offered me the unique opportunity to right an actual wrong.”
The women who had their sentences commuted by Trump were:
Bohnenkam, 47, has served 10.5 years of a 24-year sentence imposed for conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. As a result of changes in the First Step Act as well as the relevant sentencing guidelines, her sentence would be considerably lower if convicted today. According to the Clemency Project, she has been an exemplary inmate with a strong record of programming work and is authorized to work outside the prison perimeter.
Bohnenkamp had been recommended by FCI-Waseca Warden M. Starr for home confinement under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but it was later denied by the board that oversees it. Her release plan includes several viable employment possibilities.
Kasowski, 46, of Moorhead has served more than seven years of a 17-year sentence for conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute and distribution of a controlled substance. As a result of changes in the First Step Act, today Kasowski’s sentence would be less than the time she has already served. Also considered an exemplary inmate by the Clemency Program, Kasowski was involved in the CHOICES program, which allowed her to visit high schools and share her story. Kasowski was also recommended by Starr for home confinement under the CARES Act, but had that request denied.
Kasowski is one of two Minnesotans granted clemency by Trump before leaving office this week. John Harold Wall, 63, of Prior Lake received a full pardon. Hall had already completed his sentence of five years in prison and four years of supervised release after pleading guilty in 1992 to one federal count of aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Prison records show he was released from federal prison in 1996. A full presidential pardon restores any rights a person loses when he or she was convicted, but it does not erase records of the conviction.
Virgen, 51, has served 12 years of a 30-year sentence for drug charges. She exercised her constitutional right and went to trial rather than accepting the government’s plea offer of 10 years. The Clemency Program describes Virgen as a model prisoner who has received countless achievement awards from her programming. In her release plan, Virgen said she plans to return to Mexico to care for her four children, two of whom recently lost their primary caregiver.
Locke, 42, has served almost 11 years of a 19.5-year sentence for a non-violent drug offense. As a result of changes in the relevant sentencing guidelines, her sentence would be considerably lower. According to the Clemency Program, Locke entered prison six weeks after having a Caesarean section. Locke was granted home confinement under the CARES Act in 2020 and works full time at a major retail store.
Logan, 57, has served eight years of a 14-year sentence for a non-violent drug offense. Like Locke, Logan’s sentence would be considerably lower today due to changes in relevant sentencing guidelines and was also granted home confinement under the CARES Act. Logan has returned home to her husband and works full time.
Paulson, 52, has served more than six years of a 16-year sentence for a non-violent drug offense. As a result of changes in the First Step Act, her sentence today would be less than the time she has already served. While at FCI-Waseca, Paulson worked as a mental health counselor, an inmate companion and a suicide watch companion. Starr had recommended Paulson for home confinement, but the request was later denied. According to the Clemency Program, Paulson’s release plan involves strong family support and “excellent employment prospects.”
Roberts, 58, has served 10 years of a 19-year sentence for a non-violent drug offense. As a result of changes in the First Step Act, today her sentenced would be halved. According to the Clemency Program, Roberts had an exemplary prison record with a strong programming and work history. Roberts was authorized to work outside the prison perimeter and Starr had recommended her for a CARES Act transfer. Her release plans include several employment prospects.
FCI-Waseca has recently received attention for a lawsuit filed by several inmates, including some included in Trump’s commutations, for the prison’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the outbreak of the virus. After one inmate tested positive for the virus in August, 439 others contracted COVID-19 within three months, roughly 70% of the inmates. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota in U.S. District Court in December.
Voters in the Waseca school district may be deciding on a bond referendum in the next few years to address maintenance needs at Hartley Elementary School.
A task force’s report compiled the facility needs in the school district, as well as a timeline for repairs, and Hartley Elementary needs the most attention moving forward.
The task force identified three ways to meet Hartley’s maintenance needs moving forward: to remodel Hartley where it is and rebuild it from the inside out for about $17.8 million; to build a new elementary school on the Hartley site for about $25.5 million; to do a standalone elementary building potentially near the WIS building for about $22.6 million; or put an addition onto WIS to create a kindergarten-sixth grade building for about $14.5 million, according to the task force’s estimates.
Some of Hartley’s issues that have already been addressed include flushing out some of the water pipes containing high levels of lead and turning off certain faucets. Along with fixing water pipes, new air purification units were added to Hartley to enhance the HVAC system.
The task force highlighted challenges at Hartley in the report that need to be addressed as: aging systems and infrastructure, limited natural light, negative experience of lower level, shared gym/cafeteria space, lack of small group and flexible learning environments, limited space for specialists and the small kitchen space requires food preparation to occur off-site.
Superintendent Eric Hudspith said the next steps are determining a timeline public input and a decision about what to do with the Hartley building.
“It has been an exceptional building for us that has done a lot of great things and has a lot of great memories for people who have gone through that school,” Hudspith said at the Waseca School Board’s Jan. 21 meeting.
Hudspith said he believes the best affordable option for Hartley’s needs is to ask the public for a bond referendum. Hudspith said he realizes there is a pandemic going on and doesn’t want to ask the public for anything yet, but he thought November 2022 would be a good working timeline of when to get the public’s input on a ballot.
The Waseca School Board will discuss these options further at the next work session meeting on Feb. 4.
Snow flurries blew around the Farm on the Charm event at Farmamerica on Saturday, Jan. 23, but the snow didn’t keep people from attending the event and making the most of the day.
Attendees were able to go on a horse drawn wagon ride, do crosscut sawing, snow painting, snow shoeing, cross country skiing and warm up next to a fire. People could also get s’mores supplies to take home and make due to COVID-19 preventing people from making one on site.
Farmamerica will host the Charm on the Farm event again at 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 20. The next Sleigh and Cutter event is the Waseca Sno-Secas club ride on Jan. 30. For more information check out the Sleigh and Cutter website.