“Those people don’t want to hear about a poor country boy’s sad story.” — Paul Houser
Paul Houser’s story is sad, but it is well worth hearing. He’s now 11 years into a 60-year sentence for drug crimes. How he got there points to Mississippi laws that are unjust and harsh, and a childhood that was anything but childlike.
Paul was born in the small town of Caledonia, Mississippi, the third child of four. His mother was studying to become a nurse, and Paul’s energy and rambunctiousness were more than she could take. “She always said I was too much for her handle,” he says now.
When he was eight years old, Paul was diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication, but he still tried his mother’s patience. “I was always disrupting the other kids, so my mom was always making me stay away from the house and go to work with my dad.” Paul’s father, Gerald, installed floor covering.
“I never really had a childhood,” Paul says. “Or got to play with the other kids. Then when I was about 10, I came home from school one day and my mom, brothers, and my sister were gone. Just gone.” His father explained to him that his parents were getting a divorce, that it would just be the two of them for a while.
In eighth grade, Paul quit school and went to work full-time for his dad. The work was hard and intense, involving enormous physical labor, moving huge pieces of carpet, tile, ceramics, and wood. Indeed, when he was 15, he hurt his back. The doctor prescribed hydrocodone (an opioid pain medication) and after six months, Paul was hooked and his long relationship with addiction began. He started using marijuana and drinking alcohol regularly, and at 19, he was arrested for marijuana sales. He would be arrested three more times in the years to follow, all drug charges.
Paul married and had children, then divorced, and throughout the years, addiction dogged him. Finally, in 2006, laid off from work because of his back, he went into a convenience store one night to buy lithium batteries and BC Cold and Sinus powder, which contains pseudoephedrine. Before he paid, a police officer came into the store. Increasingly nervous, Paul left in a rush and sped away in his car. The clerk at the store told the police what the suspicious looking man had purchased, and they took off in pursuit.
The police caught up with Paul and arrested him for possession of the batteries and the cold medicine—ingredients to make methamphetamine. In Mississippi, “possession of precursors” is a felony, even if no methamphetamine was made or discovered. Plus, Paul was categorized a “habitual offender” because of his prior convictions. Paul, then 44, found himself looking at a very long sentence: 60 years.
His projected release date is 2067.
Paul’s sentence is as long as it is because of two parts of Mississippi’s criminal code mandating sentence length. The first states that “any person convicted of a second or subsequent offense under this article may be imprisoned for a term up to twice the terms otherwise authorized.” In Paul’s case, the “term authorized” for his possession of precursors was 30 years—and “twice that” meant that he could be sentenced to 60 years.
The other article of the code that applied to Paul, the habitual offender law, requires the maximum sentence for anyone with two prior felony convictions. Because of Paul’s prior drug felonies, he was a “habitual offender” and was sentenced to the maximum term—in his case, 60 years without the possibility of parole.
“Habitual offender means they basically lock you up and throw away the key,” says Paul’s stepmother, Patsy Houser. She married Paul’s father soon after the divorce. “The system has given up on Paul. It’s not right.
“We try to visit once a month, but it’s so far away, and Gerald and the condition he’s in, it’s hard. And I’m 68, and I got knee problems and shoulder problems … it’s hard.”
In 2014, Mississippi changed its laws, and the sentence for Paul’s offense was lowered to seven years—quite a bit lower than 30. Even with the habitual offender enhancement, Paul’s sentence today would be 14 years. As much as Paul and his family think that’s a great development, they’re frustrated that the change isn’t retroactive.
Patsy has become a strong supporter of her stepson, and also sees the big picture. “I think the prisons and the law need to be reformed. I think they should do away with the mandatory sentencing altogether. I think Paul needs to come home. He got more than 50 years for something that gets a lot less time than that now.”
There’s someone else who feels exactly the same way: Paul’s grandson Kyler, 10 years old. The family has always told him the truth about his “Paw Paw,” why he’s in prison and how long he’ll be there. Kyler visits his Paw Paw when he can and they talk about hunting and fishing—even though they can’t actually go hunting and fishing.
“Kyler’s never been shielded from it,” Patsy says. “We’re always talking about it, talking about what can be done and what should be done. He’s knows it’s not right.”
Name: Paul Houser
Sentence: 60 years
Offense: Habitual Offender and Second or Subsequent Offender of the MS Uniform Controlled Substances Law pursuant to 99-19-81 and 41-29-1-47; Possession of Methamphetamine Precursors 41-29-313
Priors: 1983, sale of marijuana; 2002, possession of methamphetamine precursors with intent to manufacture methamphetamine
Year sentenced: 2007
Age at sentencing: 44
Projected release date: 2067