Yraida Guanipa, 56, is still fighting her drug conspiracy conviction in 1997 which she says did not reflect the seriousness of her crime. Sentenced to almost 13 years, she served 11, for her role in the delivery of 30 pounds of cocaine at Miami International Airport.
Guanipa admits to foolishly agreeing to pick up the boxes as a favor for a Venezuelan client at the business where she worked, but says she had no knowledge of what they contained. She was arrested by undercover U.S. Customs agents at the airport who had discovered the cocaine aboard a flight from Venezuela and were waiting to see who came to pick up the boxes.
The owner of the boxes vanished and Guanipa was the only person indicted in the case. A Venezuelan immigrant from Coro in the state of Falcon, it was her first and only brush with the law.
"It's been my constant battle. It torments me still," she says of her innocence.
Under Florida law convicted felons are banned from voting in elections and can only have their rights restored completing their sentence, including probation, followed by a five to seven year waiting period and then applying under a highly selective state 'clemency' process.
An amendment on the Florida ballot in November would automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences.
Guanipa originally came to the United States on a student visa aged 20 to learn English in Indianapolis. She went on to study architectural engineering at the University of Colorado and was already a U.S. citizen, married with two small children, at the time of her arrest.
She unsuccessfully appealed her case while in jail, representing herself, In the process acquiring the legal skills she now uses to assist others as a paralegal.
She was released in 2008 and created her own non-profit, the YG Foundation, which helps women with small children in halfway houses as they leave jail and transition back into society.
"I was a stranger to them"
When she was released in 2008 she says her own children rejected her. "I was a stranger to them," she says, explaining that they were babies when she went to prison and were only able to visit her a handful of times during her incarceration.
She went on hunger strike in jail to demand programs for mothers with young children and also believes that first-time non-violent offenders like her should be allowed out periodically to maintain family bonds.
She lived in a halfway house for five months after her release and struggled emotionally. "When you go to prison it’s like you are frozen in time. In fact, time doesn’t stop outside. When you get out you find your children have grown up, society has changed, you feel lost," she adds tearfully.
She recalls she was released at Christmas time and had no money to buy presents for her children. "I decided I wanted to create an organization to get presents for other children, so they didn't have to go through what I suffered," she said.
She now works with three halfway houses in South Florida taking donations for food and toys.
While in jail Guanipa she wrote to every member of Congress to argue her case. One who answered was Senator Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat and a voice for reform of the criminal justice system. She treasures their correspondence which she keeps in a binder.
“He was my voice all the time I was in prison,” she says.
In one letter dated December 8, 2003, Simon wrote: "I strongly believe she can be a force for good out of prison, just as she is in prison.” Simon died a year before her release.
Last week she visited Washington to speak at a conference on prison reform where she was on a panel with former U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr.
She took the opportunity to go to the U.S. Senate to thank one of Simon's former aides, David Carle, who now works for Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
"Yraida reached out to Senator Simon, completely out of the blue. She did not live in Illinois. All she knew was that he seemed like a good person who cares about others," Carle told Univision. "Paul easily could have ignored an appeal from someone in a far-off state, but he did not, and it’s a blessing that they found each other," he added. "I know how proud he would be that she has continued to work hard, against difficult odds, to build a good life and to make the lives of others better."
When she heard that some former felons were planning to sue to the State of Florida over the current cumbersome clemency system, she asked to join the lawsuit. "Yraida is emblematic of who these folks are. They have done everything the state has asked of them," said Jon Sherman, senior counsel at the Fair Elections Legal Network and lead counsel on the lawsuit.
Her federal public defender, Randolph Murrell, has also become one of her advocates.
"She got sentenced in the days when they routinely handed out very long sentences," said Murrell, 67, who is now the Federal Defender for the Northern District of Florida and has spent 40 years working as public defender. "I represented her in prison. She's really driven and she believes deeply in helping others," he told Univision. "She is pretty exceptional when you look at all that she’s done. You really couldn’t find anyone more deserving."
Guanipa is a licensed paralegal and holds an associate degree and a master's from Miami Dade College. She is working on an online PhD in business management from Capella University.
Guanipa finished her probation in 2012 and is eligible to apply for clemency in June next year. She lives near her voting precinct. "I feel this emotion, every time I pass by, I see all the voting signs," she says.
Meanwhile, she has also applied for a presidential pardon which is waiting adjudication with the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice.
"They interviewed everyone from my co-workers to my neighbors, so they know everything about me," she says.
(This is part of a series of articles featuring convicted felons seeking the restoration of their voting rights. Return to main story here)