Thursday, February 20, 2020
The Geneva Cooley Story 
By Kimberlee Buck, Staff Writer  
Published March 8, 2018


Geneva Cooley (courtesy photo)

Black women represent 30 percent of all incarcerated women in the U.S. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “with one million women behind bars or under control of the criminal justice system, women are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population at nearly double the rate of men since 1985.” 

Let me introduce you to Geneva Cooley. She is a 70-year-old woman who is behind bars at Julia Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka, Alabama. Her story begins with her arrest by an officer for trafficking in heroin, hydromorphone and failure to affix tax stamps.  

On October 20, 2006, Cooley who had two prior felony convictions from New York, was sentenced to life without parole for trafficking in heroin in addition to life on the other charges.  

Later, she filed a pro se handwritten motion for a new trial accusing ineffective assistance of counsel for the October 2006 trial. However, court documents do not reveal a hearing on the motion or a ruling. The following year, Cooley’s conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the application for rehearing was overruled.  

Today, Cooley is still behind bars at what is known to be one of the worst prisons in America according to nonprofit organization, Mother Jones. There she is set serve 999 years, 99 months, and 99 days. However, criminal justice and women’s rights advocate, Susan Burton, won’t allow Cooley to serve that full sentence without a fight! 

Burton, who is also the founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project, first met Cooley in November 2017 at Julia Tutwiler Prison after Burton’s discussion on her newly released book, “Becoming Ms. Burton.” Shortly after the presentation, Cooley introduced herself to Burton and informed her that she would not be released from prison due to her conviction of carrying drugs on a train.  

“She said she was sentenced to life for drugs and I was blown away,” said Burton.  

Burton informed Cooley that upon her return to Los Angeles, that she would begin speaking with staff from the Equal Justice Initiative to see if there was anything they could do about Cooley’s case.  

“I went over there and as soon as I said her name in their office they said they were familiar with her and her case but there was nothing that they could do for her under the law. That really distressed me. To be sentenced to life for a drug conviction, I don’t care what the amount of drugs are… she is a 70-year-old woman and she has been in there for 15 years and she is going to die in there for drugs if she doesn’t get some help,” said Burton. 

When people read or hear about Cooley’s story, the number one thing Burton wants them to take away is the “harsh penalty of our nation.” 

“I want people to understand what we are still living under and how we waste resources not only in Alabama but across the nation, on punishment and not rehabilitation. What possibly could be achieved by giving a person life in prison for having some drugs on their person or on their body?”   

Although Burton and Cooley are more than 2,000 miles away from each other, Burton isn’t letting that stop her from finding Cooley the resources she needs to get out of prison. Recently, Burton contacted Alabama University to see if the school would be able to assign someone who could help Cooley receive governor’s clemency.   

“It could have been me, and it wasn’t me, so I have sort of committed myself to doing whatever I can to help her.” 

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