The day Ramona Brant walked out of prison after serving 21 years of what was supposed to be a life sentence, she felt an overwhelming mixture of emotions — elation and gratitude for her freedom, and sadness for the inmates she was leaving behind.
Many of them had stories like hers. They had in one way or another gotten involved in selling drugs, often through boyfriends or husbands who would eventually testify against them in conspiracy trials.
Like Brant, many were there to serve decades, or even life sentences without the possibility of parole.
“I was not comfortable being free knowing that there were so many people who weren’t free to experience the same opportunities that I was experiencing,” Brant told Business Insider.
“I’m not saying I want to go back to prison — what I’m saying is my heart is still with my sisters that I left behind, and my brothers.”
Brant was granted a sentence commutation by President Obama last February, as part of an unprecedented clemency initiative that has now reduced more than 1,000 federal inmates’ sentences.
She is one of more than 40 clemency recipients who signed an open letter sent to the president on Monday pleading for mercy for nonviolent drug offenders serving lengthy sentences who have demonstrated clear conduct in prison.
“We ask for your immediate intervention for thousands more prisoners who will continue to suffer needlessly unless a broader clemency plan is implemented,” the letter said.
“We have remained largely silent in appreciation of your compassion to many suffering under draconian sentencing laws passed during the crack hysteria of the late 1980s and 1990s. But with only six weeks of your presidency left, we must speak out.”
The letter, also signed by dozens of clemency advocates and former inmates, recommends the president adopt a broad amnesty program in place of the current case-by-case review of inmates’ petitions.
It suggests that all nonviolent drug offenders with clear conduct have their sentences reduced to five, 10, or 15 years for first-, second-, and third-time offenders, respectively. It also specifically asks that clemency be granted to female inmates, who the letter argues are more likely than men to be serving lengthy sentences because of drugs their partners or spouses sold, and who make up less than 10% of the inmates to whom Obama has granted clemency.
The amount of clemency denials Obama has issued, too, has begun to worry the advocates and clemency recipients, who requested in the letter that the president reconsider dozens of denials issued without explanation.
“This is about mercy,” the letter said. “The parole board used to focus on whether individuals had programmed and had reasonable conduct while in prison; that is what should be done now.”
The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which reviews clemency applications and recommends them to the president, and the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment on the letter.
A growing urgency
Norman Brown, like Brant, was granted clemency this year after serving 24 years of a life sentence. They, along with several other former inmates, were invited to lunch with President Obama at the White House last March to discuss clemency, America’s criminal justice system, and what they thought should be improved.
What struck Brown the most about the group’s conversation was the way Obama listened to each of their concerns, and recited them back at the end of their meeting as he shook each of their hands. The president had truly paid attention to them, Brown said.
“That in itself meant more to me than anything,” he told Business Insider.
Brown, who has also signed the open letter, is hoping the president will listen again now — to the mounting calls for action to clear the clemency backlog in the remaining six weeks of his term.
“I just would like to know that if there is anything that can be done before his administration leaves, we pray that it be done. And, out of respect, we’re asking that anything that’s in his power to do, for him to be able to do it,” he said.
Although Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates has previously said “every single drug petition” received before Aug. 31 will be reviewed by the Obama administration, activists and clemency advocates have been urging the president for months to quicken the pace of approvals.
Last month’s presidential election, too, has only added to the pressure. President-elect Donald Trump, who has previously called the inmates released by Obama “bad dudes,” has not expressed interest in continuing his clemency initiative. Nor has Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, who supports harsh drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing.
It is estimated that at least 2,000 federal prisoners serving nonviolent drug offenses were eligible for sentence reductions under the requirements laid out under Obama’s program, which stipulate that inmates have served at least 10 years of their sentences. Even more could be eligible should the Obama administration consider inmates who have served less than a decade, as it has already done in some cases.
Due to changes in federal law during their incarceration, many of those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses would receive significantly fewer years behind bars were they sentenced today — but the laws aren’t applied retroactively, and so clemency is the only recourse for many inmates who have already exhausted their appeal options.
Alice Johnson is one such inmate whose final hope for freedom rests on the third petition for clemency she has submitted to the pardon attorney’s office.
From Aliceville prison in Alabama, Johnson told Business Insider in an email that she can’t honestly express confidence that her petition will be approved — but she is trying to remain hopeful she won’t be left behind.
“There are days that I feel so stressed out that I have to take a break from everything and just get alone in my room. My emotions are going haywire from up when I hear that clemencies are about to be announced and then they crash when I'm not on a list,” Johnson said.
“Some have even suggested that I must have committed a heinous crime that no one is talking about. It's heartbreaking for my family.”
Johnson was denied clemency twice before, without explanation, and is unsure what more she can do to win her freedom. She was convicted of drug conspiracy and money laundering charges — her first offenses — and has now served 20 years of a life sentence without possibility of parole.
Johnson is also an ordained minister, playwright, and mentor, and has never had an infraction in prison. She says she’s certain that the public is not made safer because she is behind bars, and she wants Americans and President Obama to know it.
“I'm hoping that when I'm free that I will be able to make a difference by using my story and advocating for change," she said. "It's easier to be harsh when you don't see a face, a life and a family that has been so terribly affected by these draconian sentences like mine have been."
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