When Darlene Wells and Jesse Dunaway met, it was “empathy at first sight.” She was working as a nurse at the institution where Jesse is a prisoner, and he was working in the staff dining hall. “You get to see these people, day after day,” says Darlene. “And they’ll talk about their cases, because you can’t talk about personal issues. I heard his story, how he was serving life for a drug charge, and it was just unimaginable.”
Hard to imagine, but true: Jesse Dunaway is the only person in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia serving a life without parole sentence for drug offenses. This terrible distinction means that Jesse has been given no hope by the system. He is supposed to die behind bars. He went to prison when he was 23; now he is 39.
In 2005, Jesse was arrested and charged with three counts of drug felonies. He went to trial and was found guilty. The investigation in his case did not involve controlled buys, there was no audio or video evidence, and several people testified against Jesse who were out on bond and trying to avoid prison, yet he was convicted under Virginia’s continuing criminal enterprise statute – the “kingpin statute.” If the court had sentenced Jesse as a “distributor” rather than a “kingpin,” his sentence would have been at the most eight years and eight months under the state’s guidelines. He appealed, arguing that the punishment was cruel and unusual, but his appeal was denied.
In 2017, in a letter petitioning for a conditional pardon, Jesse’s lawyer wrote that “[t]here was nothing extraordinary about Mr. Dunaway’s offense – such as the record weight of crack-cocaine or a remarkable elaborate distribution scheme, a typical trademark of the federal crime of continuing criminal enterprise offenses. Mr. Dunaway was, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, drug dealer. However, because Dunaway was charged as a ‘kingpin’ rather than an ordinary drug dealer, upon finding him guilty the jury had but one penal option – mandatory life in prison.”
In his first few years of prison, Jesse received minor disciplinary infractions. By the time he met Darlene, he had found his way to purpose and hope, if not acceptance of his fate. He refused to believe that he would spend the rest of his life in prison and began taking whatever programming he could, especially in the Culinary Arts. “Jess is a very determined man. He’s very fair and serious,” says Darlene. “He’s not the jokester – you will never hear Jesse joking out in the pod, playing around. He’s soft-spoken, very focused. That’s what caught my attention.”
Working as a nurse at the prison, Darlene was miserable. “As a nurse, you’re trained to be empathetic, compassionate, caring. That’s forbidden in the prison system. You’re not allowed to be nice to prisoners. Things that you would normally do as a human being. You’re not allowed to speak with them beyond the very minimal. A lot of these people have just simply made mistakes, and we treat them worse than animals.” Eventually, Darlene left her job there, but kept in touch with Jesse.
“When I was sent to prison, I lost everything. I lost my home, my family, my respect, and dignity as a man.”
Compassion came easy for both of them, as they got to know one another and shared their stories. Darlene had suffered through an abusive marriage, and Jesse’s childhood was chaotic. “My mother was a single mother, raising me and my sister alone, in an exceptionally low income area,” says Jesse. Highly intelligent, he was placed in honors classes and offered a place in a high school program for gifted and talented students – which he had to decline because his mother couldn’t afford the fees.
“During my senior year in high school, I became a father and had no income to care for my child or help my mother. My neighborhood was riddled with those who sold drugs, and, at that time, I saw that as my only option to provide for my child and my family.”
He dropped out of high school and began selling drugs. “I dreamed of college and getting an MBA and running my own business, but I was so caught up in the environment.”
Darlene gets it. “I actually understand why he did what he did. It’s a reason that many Black males in impoverished communities are in prison. It’s because he was surrounded by drug activity, drug dealing, they made it look glamorous. ‘You just do this, you get a lot of money and you can support your family.’ And he did what he had to do. And then he wanted to stop doing that, but he had kids to support and he’s always very responsible. His kids came first, his family came first. And until people have been in such a desperate situation, they say, ‘Oh, I would never do that.’ Well, your kids have never been truly hungry either or threatened to be homeless. So you don’t know what you would do.”
While behind bars, Jesse has gained clarity on how things fell apart. “I was never a major drug dealer. I barely took care of my financial obligations for rent and childcare. I knew I was wrong, and I wanted help. None was available for a very poor Black male. When I was arrested, I thought I would spend time in prison, rightfully so, and return to society for a second chance to prove myself to me and my family. I never imagined I would be sentenced to Life for selling drugs. When I was sent to prison, I lost everything. I lost my home, my family, my respect, and dignity as a man.”
He’s working extremely hard to recover all of that, studying economics, finance, and computer operations. He is constantly reading and meditating, plus he makes the time to help the newer prisoners stay out of gangs.
All of this is made a little easier because of Darlene’s support. “We email and talk every day,” she says. “We stay positive by focusing on the future. Let’s come up with a game plan. Let’s talk about things we’re going to do that we want to do. Let’s talk about writing to your children. Let’s talk about things that will give him hope, something to look forward to.”
“I have so much more in me than what people label me as,” says Jesse. “I only want a second chance to reunite with my children and become a successful and productive member of society.”
As for Darlene, she’ll never stop fighting for Jesse, and for change. “I feel very strongly about criminal justice reform. I never knew anything about it until I went to work for prisons. And then your eyes are open, and you can never shut them again.”
If you think that it’s wrong that there is only one person in an entire state serving LWOP for drug crimes, please help us fight for second chances for people like Jesse Dunaway.
Name: Jesse Dunaway
Sentence: life in prison without the possibility of parole
Offense: organizer of a continuing criminal enterprise; attempting to manufacture marijuana; conspiracy to distribute less than one-half ounce of marijuana
Priors: two charges of distribution of cocaine and conspiracy to distribute cocaine; four misdemeanors
Year sentenced: 2006
Age at sentencing: 23
Projected release date: N/A