In 2011, three days before Christmas, 23 year-old Ashley Renee Keeton was worrying about being able to put toys under the tree for her four young children. Wanting to make some quick cash to buy gifts, she decided to take a risk — she agreed to deliver a large quantity of marijuana for a drug dealer she had met at a party. As a result of that single bad decision, a young mother who had never had so much as a traffic violation was separated from her children and sentenced to five years. (Update: Ashley was released on August 26, 2016. She is now living in Amarillo, Texas. Says Ashley, “There have been some really rough patches, but overall I’m doing wonderful!”)
Ashley was charged with conspiracy with intent to distribute marijuana. The day she was arrested was her very first encounter with law enforcement. “I had never in my life been in any kind of trouble,” she says.
While Ashley worked hard to provide for her family, she still sometimes had trouble making ends meet. The idea that she could drive a car to a designated location, let several men toss in a few bundles of marijuana, and then drop off those packages seemed like a fast, easy way to make money. She was told she’d be given $5,000 once she had made the delivery. So she’d have some company on her trip, Ashley reached out to a friend who was also having financial problems, and said she’d give her some of the money if she’d ride along with her.
Ashley drove to a remote part of Texas, where four men loaded the van they were driving with 133.13 kilograms of marijuana. But before she could deliver it, she was stopped by Border Patrol in Sanderson, Texas, her car was searched, the drugs were seized, and she was arrested. She spent Christmas Day in jail, and has been in prison every Christmas since.
Ashley received 60 months for her offense, the mandatory minimum sentence based on the amount of drugs found in her vehicle. She might’ve been eligible for a lighter sentence, but received a sentence enhancement because the prosecution said that arranging the delivery, using her vehicle, and “hiring” her good friend made her a “leader” in the conspiracy. While Ashley takes full responsibility for her actions, she still doesn’t understand why she was treated so harshly for asking a friend to ride with her, and offering to give her some money for her trouble.
Ashley’s grandmother, Sandra, knows that her granddaughter’s crime was serious, but also doesn’t understand what is gained by locking away a nonviolent, first-time offender. “Yes, she was guilty, but it’s totally ridiculous the amount of time she got,” Sandra says.
Since being incarcerated, Ashley has obtained her GED and will soon graduate from cosmetology school. She also recently joined a program that allows inmates to train service dogs, which she says keep her spirits high. Still, she and her family are suffering. Her four children, used to living in one household, have been split between family members and friends willing to take care of them, and Ashley’s mother is gravely ill.
“My four kids have all been separated and never see each other, and my mother has colon cancer and many other medical problems,” Ashley says. “I was the one who would take care and help her at home. It terrifies me to think that I could very well lose my mother before I get home.”
Ashley knows there must be repercussions for her actions, but can’t believe that one bad judgment call made when she was 23 could have such a profound consequences for her and her children.
“My whole family is slowly just falling apart,” she says. “I’m not a bad person and I very much believe that warehousing people will never accomplish anything. We need help, not to be put away! I wish people could see that putting people in prison for so long and tearing apart families doesn’t help anything and never will. It creates a chain reaction and will continue to do so until something drastically changes.”
The Facts: Ashley Renee Keeton
Sentence: 60 months (5 years)
Offense: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana
Year sentenced: 2012
Age at sentencing: 23
Released: August 26, 2016
Ashley is now living in Amarillo, Texas. She says, “There have been some really rough patches, but overall I’m doing wonderful!”