[UPDATE: Rodney Mack was released in November of 2019 because of the First Step Act] In 1996, I started dating Rodney Mack. After we’d been together for a number of years, he was arrested for his part in a drug conspiracy. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine being caught up in such a ruthless system of criminal justice. After two high-priced attorneys, a three-month trial, and numerous cooperating witnesses, the final verdict was a life sentence. Our thought processes just couldn’t comprehend: How could someone who never did any prison time, didn’t kill anyone, and didn’t commit a violent crime end up with a life sentence? What happened to the punishment fitting the crime?!?
After Rodney got to prison in 2002, we both started chasing every case we could find to learn more about his rights and how to fight his sentence. Rodney focused hard in there in the prison legal library, and I wrote and called anyone who knew something and perhaps could point us in the right direction. We had little to no luck. By the way, working to change the system was almost like a secret back then—over the years, though, there have been so many helpful advocates, resources, and people willing to come forward and get involved in hopes of changing laws.
Rodney was sent miles away. Once I realized there was no quick fix, I traveled to USP Beaumont to visit him. It was one of the scariest places I have ever been. Reality set in for me when I saw the walls he lived behind and heard the slamming of the gate behind me. I remember that first visit so well, even though it was 18 years ago. I saw that day that he was having a hard time and I was so worried. The system can take our loved ones and turn them into people who are programmed to be institutionalized due to repeated cycles, awful surroundings, and little to no hope. The walls of the penitentiary were Rodney’s harsh truth and reality: no cars, no children, no animals, no trees, no flowers—none of the things we perhaps take for granted.
We met in Plainfield, N.J., in 1996. Back then, we were a funny twist of “Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” Me, the suburban Catholic school girl with the hots for the bad-boy business guy who was too stubborn to listen. Rodney was busy learning the real estate business with his dad and I had just opened a small mom-and-pop business and also posted bail as a part-time job.
I attended college for criminal justice but took a liking to the bail bond industry. On a day-to-day basis I witnessed the beginning of destruction in many lives as they moved through the system. Prior to Rodney being incarcerated, I decided to open my own bail business, a challenging journey for a female in those days, especially for me in the inner city.
Rodney became one of my biggest cheerleaders. He never let my fear overpower me. The bail industry had several components to it, and the key to winning was understanding people’s mindset while pending trial, as well as when they jump bail and in locating them. Rodney was very instrumental in dealing with things that were difficult for me to understand. He was born and raised in the inner city and extremely knowledgeable in that arena. Little did I know then that the same world that he helped me understand would help me keep him feeling human in prison.
Rodney’s involvement in my work ended up being key to our relationship while he was in prison, and also just to Rodney’s well-being in general. I would say to anyone with a loved one in prison: It’s very important to keep your loved one involved in your life, to keep their minds growing, ensuring they don’t lose the sense of belonging in “your” world.
Throughout our journey of Rodney’s incarceration, we saw a lack of love in so many prisoners’ lives. We know firsthand that love is one of the key ingredients in rehabilitation and surviving. Prison sentences make the world go silent, and when it does all you have are your inner thoughts. Loved ones will leave, promises will be broken, your past will haunt you, the regrets are breathtaking, and sadly, in many families the beginning of another cycle begins to brew. There is so much belittling and embarrassment faced by families and inmates in the system.
When Rodney had been in prison about 16 years, we got even closer and more involved in each other’s lives. My bail bond business came to a screeching halt because of changes in the law, and we decided to start our own business, called Line Inmate services (Line LLC). It all started because back in Rodney’s first year in prison, a box arrived for me around Christmas. I remember thinking, “What on earth is this?” I opened it and saw a beautifully decorated candy tower with a card that read, “Merry Christmas Sweetheart.” It was from Rodney. I thought, “How could this man possibly be thinking of me and Christmas when the absolute worst just happened to him!?” Turns out he sent it through a company that arranged gift boxes from prisoners. Year after year, a box always arrived until the company stopped dealing with prisoners.
So for our business, Rodney and I teamed up on a new journey turning an awful time for us into a meaningful one. We set out to help inmates and their families stay connected through pictures, gifts, greeting cards, and other sentimental tokens. The act of love when he sent me that candy tower was the driving force because it definitely helped us. Prison hardens hearts, and heartfelt expressions and thoughts soften them up.
Our journey with him being in prison came to an end with the passing of the First Step Act. In November of 2019, Rodney was released after 19 years inside! Our new journey has given him the drive to be able to provide more services to the men and women behind and the walls, their families, and those reentering society as well.
And I’ve never stopped learning about the system and how badly it needs reform. I try to share my story and help people just like Rodney and me. Our business is an advocacy mission for both of us, and we are never going to stop fighting for reform. Our love survived and even flourished, but we beat some very long odds. Join FAMM and join the fight!
Join Sandy, Rodney, and others who know the injustices of our criminal justice system firsthand — visit our Justice Now Action Center and learn how you can get involved!