Cynthia Powell was not an addict. She was not a dealer. She sold 35 of her diabetes pain pills to a confidential informant—for $300. Just enough to make ends meet that month. Next thing she knew, she was arrested, charged, and convicted. Her sentence? Twenty-five years.
On April 11, 2002, a battered green minivan pulled up to a Starbucks parking lot in Sunrise, Florida. It was in this van that Cynthia Powell sold pills containing hydrocodone to an undercover police officer. The sale was for $300.
For this offense, she is serving a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence in a Florida state prison.
Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses like Cynthia’s were designed to deter drug trafficking by punishing severely the kingpins and other “major players” in Florida’s drug trade. Cynthia Powell sold 35 hydrocodone tablets, which weighed 29.3 grams, about the weight of a slice of bread. She had never been arrested before.
“Cynthia’s life has always been her family and kids,” says her cousin, Ericka Richards. “As a child herself, she was always a happy kid. She had the nickname ‘Stomp’ because she was always dancing and stomping around. She is very shy, sweet, and loving.”
“Stomp” was born in a small town in Alabama. At age 17, she dropped out of high school and gave birth to a daughter, Jackie. Jackie’s father left when the baby was only a month or two old. On disability because of uncontrollable diabetes, Cynthia focused her life on raising her daughter and helping out with other family members’ kids. (At the time of her arrest she was raising a niece.)
Jackie had a premature daughter, Precious, who weighed less than two pounds at birth. When she was released from the hospital after five months, her grandmother Cynthia took on a major part of the responsibility of raising her.
Over the years, Cynthia’s diabetes worsened, and she began taking the prescription medication Lorcet, which contains hydrocodone, for severe pain in her legs. In the spring of 2002, she chose to sell some of her own pills to make a little money to help make ends meet. An acquaintance of hers was working as a confidential informant (CI) for the police, and called Cynthia. She had the flu, she said, and she’d heard that Cynthia had a prescription for Lorcet. Cynthia refused, but the CI kept calling. Eventually Cynthia agreed to meet the woman at a Starbucks parking lot. She sold 35 hydrocodone tablets and Soma tablets, also from her own prescription.
“She was never an addict,” says Jackie. “She wasn’t a drug user, or a drug dealer.” She was charged with trafficking in hydrocodone over 28 grams, less than 30 kilos and possession with intent to sell or deliver a legend drug (prescription). The Lorcet pills containing hydrocodone weighed 29.3 grams, just 1.3 grams above the weight necessary to trigger a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. After failing to provide the prosecution with “substantial assistance,” she was cut no breaks.
At her sentencing hearing, Cynthia was bewildered, seemingly unable to grasp what was happening to her. To Judge Ana I. Gardiner she said, “Ma’am, can I ask you – can I – can you – you all put me on house arrest or something like that?”
The judge replied, “I’m sorry, Ms. Powell, there’s nothing else I can do. It’s not an easy thing, but I can’t do anything else.” The mandatory minimum stripped Judge Gardiner of all discretion.
Cynthia has been incarcerated for more than 14 years. Had she sold two fewer pills, her sentence would have been 15 years. Under reforms passed in 2014, if she were convicted today of the same offense, she would be sentenced to seven years.
In prison, Cynthia is known as Mama; she’s still really good at taking care of people. Precious, Cynthia’s baby granddaughter, was 7 years old when she went to prison. Today she is almost an adult. Jackie’s son Siyah was born after Cynthia went to prison, and the only contact they have had is through prison visits. He always asks why she has to be there.
The woman known as Stomp and now Mama will turn 55 years old in May. She has six years left on her sentence (with gain time, her release date is 2023). Cynthia is no drug kingpin, she was never a “major player” in the drug trade, and Florida’s mandatory minimums were never intended to cover petty drug sales like hers. Cynthia’s continued incarceration does nothing to make Florida safer.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Cynthia’s cousin, Ericka. “The time did not fit the crime.”
Name: Cynthia Powell
Sentence: 25 Years
Offense: Trafficking hydrocodone
Year sentenced: 2003
Age at sentencing: 41
Projected release date: 2023