Dana Bowerman walked out of a federal prison camp in Bryan, Texas, Monday morning and for the first time in more than a decade, she chose her own breakfast.
"I had five pieces of different kinds of pizza," Bowerman told All Things Considered in an interview. "Been waiting 15 years for that. I about choked though because I got kind of emotional and I'd have a mouthful of pizza ... and it still feels very surreal."
Bowerman is one of about 6,100 inmates released over the past few days as part of a change in the way the U.S. punishes people convicted of federal drug crimes.
She was a first-time, nonviolent offender who got sent to prison in 2001, at age 30, for taking part in a conspiracy surrounding a methamphetamine ring. Under the sentence in place at the time, Bowerman had been scheduled to serve 19 years and seven months, or until 2018.
"A lot of wasted time, I think," Bowerman said. "The money that was spent to keep me in prison all this time could have been better used for drug education and rehabilitation because I needed to get clean, and I needed to change my way of thinking, and I needed a good seven years to do that. ... You couldn't have convinced me when I walked in the door that I had any victims. But now I know that everything I did had a ripple effect, and everything I touched with drugs or my lifestyle affected the people they loved."
Bowerman said she got clean in prison. And she said she's proud of her work there — talking to students about keeping straight and raising puppies, including Angel, who became an award-winning drug detection canine.
The feeling of being free, Bowerman said, is still new.
"I thought when I drove off the property that it would sink in but it still feels weird, different," she said about an hour after her release, in a hotel room surrounded by her mother, stepfather, sister and best friend.
Bowerman had surgery over the summer for a persistent problem with her vision, so, unlike many other inmates, she couldn't take advantage of the option to leave the prison camp near College Station for a halfway house or home confinement during the last six months of her prison term.
Bowerman said now that she's out, she's keeping close track of the rules. No alcohol, so her family toasted her release with sparkling grape juice. And she won't be able to travel beyond the rural area outside Lubbock where she's staying with relatives for at least two months.
But Bowerman said when the time is right, she's eager to try to visit her father, a co-defendant in her prosecution. He's still behind bars.
"I'm hoping and praying and having faith that he'll receive his ... reduction also," Bowerman said. "Even if it's a one-time special visit, I haven't seen my dad in 15 years. I can't wait to hear his voice. I hope he calls today."
Bowerman said she's looking forward to some solitude in her new home in the country "because there's never anywhere to be alone during prison."
She said she wants to volunteer to talk to church youth groups to educate kids about the dangers of drugs. Once a straight-A student, Bowerman had no real obstacles in her way — except for herself.
"I had curiosity and I had no responsibility and I had a selfish attitude and instant gratification," she said. "Now I see in hindsight how it changed all of my decisions."
Bowerman also said she's looking forward to swimming and getting into shape. "I've stayed to myself a lot, and I used food for comfort; now I'm ready to get out there and get healthy and go swimming," she said. "I want to make my family proud. My biggest fear walking out those gates is that I will disappoint my family again. I can do time, I've always been able to do time, but my family can't do one day more."
She said she hopes the Sentencing Commission, the federal body that sets guidelines for federal criminal offenses, understands how much this second chance means to her — and to the 6,000 others who just won early release because of the commission's decision.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Dana Bowerman is one of the prisoners who was just released under the updated sentencing guidelines. She was involved in a meth ring, and she had been free for just about an hour when we talked to her this morning in Bryant, Texas. She had just finished eating something she'd been waiting a long time for - thin-crust pizza.
DANA BOWERMAN: (Laughter) Yes, Ma'am. I had five pieces of different kinds of pizza.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) Really?
BOWERMAN: Been waiting 15 years for that - yeah.
MCEVERS: Oh, really - there was...
BOWERMAN: I'm not choked though 'cause I got kind of emotional, and I'd have a mouthful of pizza. And they were taking pictures, and it still feels very surreal.
MCEVERS: To be out?
BOWERMAN: Yeah. It's - I don't think it's sink in yet. I thought when I drove off the property, that it would sink in, but I still feel weird, different.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) I bet. How old were you when you first went to prison?
BOWERMAN: I was 30.
MCEVERS: And at that time, you were sentenced to almost 20 years. Is that right?
BOWERMAN: Yes, 19 years, seven months for a first-time offense.
MCEVERS: And what would the - if you committed the same crime now, what would the sentence be?
BOWERMAN: I probably would have gotten 10 to 15 years, probably, had I been sentenced today.
MCEVERS: So then you were in prison for 15 years. I mean, that's a lot of your adult life. How would...
MCEVERS: ...Characterize those years now?
BOWERMAN: A lot of wasted time, I think. I mean, some of the things I did in prison are the things I'm most proud of. I went out to speak with at-risk teenagers and tell them my story. And if I could change one child's decision to head down this road that I was on, then my time was not in vain.
But I feel like a lot of the time was wasted. I feel like that the money that was spent to keep me in prison for all this time could have been better used for drug education and drug rehabilitation because I needed to get clean. And I needed to change my way of thinking, and I needed about seven years to do that. I will admit that. You couldn't have convinced me when I walked in the doors that I had any victims. But now I know that everything I did had a ripple effect.
And so it took me a while to realize that. And I took a lot of classes, and it opened my eyes. There's some good things about the Bureau. They have some good things to keep people from coming back if you want it. That's the whole key. You've got to want to change your life and your thinking.
MCEVERS: So your father is still in prison. He was actually part of the same meth bust that you were involved in.
BOWERMAN: We're codefendants.
MCEVERS: Can you visit him in prison?
BOWERMAN: I'm going to try. I know I can't leave my district for 60 days. And then I'm going to talk to my probation officer, and I'm going to - he's going to start it on his end to see if his warden will approve it, even if it's a one-time special visit. I haven't seen my dad in 15 years, and I would love to visit him. I can't wait to hear his voice. I hope he calls today.
MCEVERS: What are your plans now?
BOWERMAN: Well, today is the first day of the rest of my life.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) As they say, yes.
BOWERMAN: I have a couple of job opportunities. I'm going to live with my mom. And it's in a very small town about 50 miles from Lubbock. But my job opportunities are there in that town. I'm going to be out in the country, which is good for me because I need some solitude. You know, there's never anywhere to be alone in prison, and I would just like to go out in the country and be alone for a little bit.
I want to volunteer. One of my first things that I want to do, is - my best friend goes to a church in Lubbock, and I want to go and speak to them about trying to speak to their youth groups and tell my story because I didn't have abuse. I didn't have anything that really turned me to drugs. I had curiosity, and I had no responsibility. And I had a selfish attitude and instant gratification. Now I see, hindsight, how that changed a lot of the decisions. I mean, I'm happy to be out of there, and I'm - I want to make my family proud. My biggest fear walking out those gates is that I'm going to disappoint my family again. I can do time. I've always been able to do time, but my family can't do one more day, not one more.
MCEVERS: Well, Dana Bowerman, good luck.
BOWERMAN: Thank you so much.
MCEVERS: That was Dana Bowerman, who was released from prison today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.