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A handful of crack put her in prison for almost ten years

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published April 05. 2013 4:00AM

Denise Dallaire of Groton was 26 years old when she was arrested in Westerly for possession of crack cocaine, so small an amount she said it fit neatly in the palm of her hand.

Dallaire is a graduate of Central Connecticut State University, with a bachelor's in accounting. The same week she was arrested in Westerly, in 2003, she had been accepted at Suffolk University in Boston, where she planned to work on a master's degree in taxation accounting.

At the time of her arrest, she said she had fallen in with a bad group of friends and was dealing drugs in a small way because the extra money was appealing.

"I was young and I was stupid," Dallaire told me this week. "I can't justify what I was doing."

Dallaire never made it to Suffolk University.

After her arrest in Westerly, she spent an incredible nine years and 11 months in federal prison in Danbury.

She would still be there, finishing her mandated sentence of 15 years and eight months, if not for the remarkable intervention of a New York judge who got to know Dallaire while making annual visits with his law students to the Danbury prison.

In fact, Dallaire was a model prisoner, not only participating in panels for visiting law students, but working three jobs, including the organization of all entertainment for prisoners.

While not working, she was busy sewing, making thousands of blankets, hats and pillows for cancer patients in Hospice. She even organized a fundraising walk around the prison yard for breast cancer that raised $1,500.

Just imagine how hard it is to raise any money at all from prisoners, and you get an idea what a smart, determined and focused young woman Dallaire is.

I caught up with her last week in Groton after reading an account of her story in The New York Times.

She is considered by some to be a very good example of the ills of the system that unfairly incarcerated so many like her, before the Supreme Court in 2005 ruled mandatory sentencing unconstitutional and changed rules to guidelines.

Some now envision the establishment of a new program similar to the Innocence Project, which tries to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, to help people like Dallaire who have been saddled with unfair sentences.

Even the Rhode Island judge who followed the rules and sentenced her in 2003 never forgot her case.

And this February, now 81, the judge presided over her release, apologizing for what happened to her.

Dallaire was represented in her recent move for release by the partner of an international law firm based in New York, who was recruited by the judge Dallaire had met in Danbury to take on her case on a pro bono basis.

Dallaire said she never blamed the judge who sentenced her in 2003, because he was following the rules.

She does, though, still hold responsible her Westerly lawyer, who didn't realize the impact her two prior convictions, related to drug possession and a bar fight, were going to have on her federal sentencing on the crack charges in Westerly.

Before pleading guilty, she said her lawyer told her she was only going to get a five-year sentence.

The most bittersweet part of Dallaire's release from prison was that her mother died 11 days later of cancer.

Dallaire had seen her mother only the week before and was impressed with how healthy she looked, how well the fight seemed to be going. But on the way home to Groton from the federal courthouse in Providence, she got the bad news her mother was failing.

She told me she was incredibly grateful for the time she had with her mother at the end.

In fact, Dallaire's gratitude, kindness, intelligence and sensitivity struck me in our short meeting. I might have expected a lot of anger, bitterness and disappointment, but none was evident.

Dallaire said she has been struck by how little some people have changed in the 10 years she was gone, while she learned so much from so many people during that time. She is now fluent in Spanish, for instance.

She said she made some friends but tended to keep to herself, in part because she was almost embarrassed in front of other prisoners, to be serving such a long sentence for such a small crime.

"I know it sounds crazy, but I really got a lot out of it," she said of her time in prison.

I felt honored to spend a short time with Dallaire and hear firsthand her inspiring story.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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