[Pnews] Women Imprisoned Under the Drug War Speak Out Against Sessions' New Policy

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed May 17 10:39:57 EDT 2017


  Women Imprisoned Under the Drug War Speak Out Against Sessions' New Policy

Victoria Law
May 16, 2017

In the federal prison in California, Michelle West described people 
standing in front of the television in shock this past Friday as they 
learned about Attorney General Jeff Sessions' memo, which promises to 
intensify the war on drugs.

"They knew it was going to be bad because of his past comments regarding 
the criminal justice system, but not this bad," West said.

In federal prisons across the country, a similar scenario played out as 
people, many of whom were sentenced under the drug war policies of the 
1980s and 1990s, learned about Sessions' two-page memo entitled 
Department Charging and Sentencing Policy 
The directive instructs federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious, 
readily provable offense. It thus resurrects the emphasis on mandatory 
minimum sentencing requirements, which have required judges to impose 
draconian sentences for drug crimes, even when they don't believe these 
sentences are warranted. Sessions' memo rescinds and reverses the 
reforms implemented by former Attorney General Eric Holder 
which urged prosecutors to charge people with low-level drug cases to 
avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. Nearly half (or 92,000) of 
the people in federal prison are serving sentences for drug convictions 

Michelle West is one of thousands of women who was charged and 
incarcerated under the policies that Sessions is now resurrecting. She 
was sentenced to life in prison and has spent the past 24 years behind bars.

Ramona Brant, who spent years in the federal system with West, was also 
a victim of mandatory minimums. In 1995, Brant, a mother of two young 
children, was sentenced to life in prison for drug conspiracy. It didn't 
matter that she had not actually sold any drugs. Nor did it matter that 
she had endured six years of abuse from her boyfriend and had police 
records to prove it.

What mattered to the prosecutor, said Brant, was that she refused to 
accept an "open plea" agreement, which would have meant testifying 
against her boyfriend in exchange for a plea bargain that didn't come 
with a specified sentence. In other words, she might testify and still 
end up serving time.

Brant refused the plea and was charged with conspiracy. At trial, her 
public defender failed to present police reports that evidenced the 
abuse she'd suffered, or call on family members to testify about her 
boyfriend's violence. If he had, the jury might have heard about Brant's 
attempt to end the relationship -- and her boyfriend's retaliation. Her 
brother was beaten up in front of his wife and children; her boyfriend 
told Brant that her mother would be next if she didn't come back. She 
returned and, she recalls, from that point on, was forced to travel with 
him, always surrounded by his men. In other words, she was present 
during drug-related transactions, but she didn't have much choice.

In court, however, that amounted to conspiracy. "Someone said I was 
always present. And I was," she told Truthout. "My children's father was 
very abusive, so I wasn't there willingly."

Brant was convicted. At sentencing, the judge told her 
<http://fusion.kinja.com/how-a-first-time-drug-charge-became-a-life-sentence-for-1793853465>, "It 
appears to me that it would be counterproductive for society to keep you 
in prison for the rest of your life. I think that after you learned your 
lesson, that you will come out and have the capability of being a useful 
citizen." Nevertheless, sentencing guidelines 
<http://www.ussc.gov/research-and-publications/working-group-reports/simplification/simplification-draft-paper-2> required 
him to hand down a mandatory life sentence. The chances that Brant would 
emerge from prison at all were virtually nonexistent.

However, Brant was one of the lucky ones. In December 2015, she was 
granted clemency by President Obama, as one of his 1,715 sentence 
commutations <https://www.justice.gov/pardon/clemency-statistics#obama>. 
She walked out of prison three months later, having served 21 years. Few 
incarcerated people are hopeful about a sentence commutation under 
Sessions or Trump -- and Brant noted that Sessions' recent memo makes 
their situation appear even bleaker.

Brant isn't the only clemency recipient horrified at the return to 
failed drug-war policies. Amy Povah, who was incarcerated for a drug 
offense, was granted clemency by President Clinton in 2000. She is now 
the founder and president of CAN-DO Foundation 
<http://www.candoclemency.com/>, a national organization that advocates 
for clemency for people in federal prison for drug convictions. During 
Obama's presidency, Povah pushed tirelessly for sentence commutations. 
She organized with family members to bring attention to their loved 
ones' draconian sentences. She spoke with media, communicated with over 
200 people in prison and held vigils outside the White House. Of the 105 
women eventually granted clemency, 44 (including Brant) were CAN-DO 
members <http://www.candoclemency.com/105-women-received-clemency/>. 
Many had played peripheral, and sometimes unwilling, roles in drug 
sales, and, faced with plea bargains that included prison time, chose to 
take their chances at trial.

"It's frightening to me that they're going to return to these tactics," 
Povah told Truthout.

As reported earlier on Truthout 
Povah was initially sentenced to 24 years and four months 
<http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32745-mothers-serving-long-term-drug-sentences-call-for-clemency#st_refDomain=www.candoclemency.com&st_refQuery=/four-of-the-can-do-top-25-women-in-truthout-org/> for 
conspiracy related to her husband's ecstasy dealing. In contrast, her 
husband -- who fully cooperated with the authorities and named his wife 
as part of the conspiracy -- was sentenced to six years in a German 
prison. He served four years and three months, and left prison in 1993. 
That year, Povah was still looking at 20 more years behind bars. By the 
time she was granted clemency, her husband, who was responsible for her 
arrest and incarceration, had been out for seven years.

Under Sessions' directive, others in Povah's position will be facing 
similar scenarios. Though Sessions has said that the directive "advances 
public safety 
Povah notes that her own story, as well as numerous others, have shown 

Even under the flawed logic of the criminal legal system, it's difficult 
to see how these women's long sentences could have anything to do with 
ensuring "safety."

Povah points to the trial of Michelle West, who was convicted of drug 
conspiracy and abetting a drug-related murder in 1993. The murder charge 
against West and her then-boyfriend hinged on the testimony of the man 
who had actually committed the murder. That man was granted full 
immunity in exchange for testifying, and did not serve any prison time.

West pointed out that the policy that Sessions is returning to 
encourages people accused of crimes to place others in danger; it 
rewards "informing" on friends and relatives, and often, the people 
punished most severely are not the ones who committed the offense in 
question. She noted that, had she accepted a plea bargain and 
cooperated, she would be home by now. But cooperating would have meant 
informing on others -- placing others who were only tangentially 
associated, in the same position as herself. Cooperating also could have 
jeopardized her own and her daughter's lives, a risk that West wasn't 
willing to take. West received two life sentences plus 50 years 

When she learned about Sessions' memo, she was devastated.

"Sessions' new directive will worsen racial disparities, increase the 
number of women serving draconian sentences, like my own, and do nothing 
to improve public safety," West wrote.

Under Sessions' directive, even in the rare instance that a prosecutor 
wishes to make an exception to pursuing the highest possible charge, 
they must obtain approval from a US Attorney or an Assistant Attorney 

Nkechi Taifa is the advocacy director for criminal justice at the Open 
Society Foundations, and works on issues related to sentencing reform 
and clemency. "We're going to be seeing people like Ramona Brant and Amy 
Povah get either life in prison or lengthy sentences," she told Truthout.

Taifa also noted that when Sessions specifies that an offense should be 
"readily provable," that can simply mean that someone who wants a 
lighter sentence has provided testimony about it. That means that people 
with the least amount of information to trade -- often girlfriends and 
wives -- face the brunt of the system. "That's why we saw such an 
explosion of women in the system," Taifa said.

As of 2015, nearly 60 percent of women were in federal prisons 
<https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p15.pdf> for drug convictions. And, 
as with any facet of the criminal legal system, race also plays a major 
role in who is arrested, charged and incarcerated, and Sessions' memo 
will no doubt exacerbate the long-term incarceration of many Black and 
Brown people.

"This is where we get into the institutionalization of racism," 
reflected Taifa. "The system is saying it has to be this way." Though 
white people are actually more likely to sell drugs 
Black people are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for doing so. 
Inside federal prisons, 51 percent of Black people and nearly 58 percent 
of Latinx people <https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p15.pdf> are 
serving sentences for drug crimes.

Sessions' memo directly impacts the federal system only, but it could 
also cause reverberations on the state level.

"The feds set a norm, a standard," Taifa explained. "Who knows what 
incentives will be held out for states to adopt similar policies?" She 
points to the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act as a 
prime example. While the Crime Bill was a federal piece of legislation, 
it provided financial incentives for states to adopt 
"truth-in-sentencing" laws 
<http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/28/the-bill-that-could-break-joe-biden-in-2016> that 
restricted parole, mandating that people with violent offenses serve at 
least 85 percent of their sentences. Oklahoma, for instance, not only 
has the nation's highest rate of female incarceration 
<https://www.ok.gov/doc/documents/annual%20report%202015.pdf>, but the 
number of people who are 50 years and older in the state's prisons 
grew from 85 in 1980 to over 5,455 in 2015 
<https://www.ok.gov/doc/documents/annual%20report%202015.pdf>. According 
to the Council of State Governments, much of this growth has been caused 
<https://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/JR_OK_Analysis_Policy_Framework.pdf> by 
Oklahoma's adoption of truth-in-sentencing laws.

The resurrection of these policies doesn't only affect individuals, but 
also families. Ramona Brant's children were ages three and four when she 
was arrested. They were in their mid-twenties by the time she was 
released. Both of Brant's parents, as well as her brother died while she 
was incarcerated. With each loss, Brant was denied permission to attend 
the funeral because of her life sentence.

While Brant was able to secure a clemency under Obama, Alice Johnson, 
who was sentenced to life in prison for passing phone messages 
<http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32745-mothers-serving-long-term-drug-sentences-call-for-clemency> about 
drugs, is still experiencing the devastation of being torn away from her 
family. "This is my 21st year of being in prison and separated from my 
children on Mother's Day," she wrote. "The failed War on Drugs created a 
culture which caused the over criminalization of women who, in too many 
cases, received much harsher sentences than men. The families who have 
been destroyed and the children who have been left motherless are the 
unseen casualties. Even the suggestion of re-energizing the War on Drugs 
should be cause for great alarm for Americans."

Povah concurs. Sessions' new directive, she said, "is just more kerosene 
on the fire that's been raging for way too long in this country."

Inside the federal women's prison in Alabama, Johnson wrote that she and 
others were filled with "shock and unbelief that he has given those 
directives after all the studies which have shown the aftermath of what 
the War on Drugs has NOT accomplished. We are living the reality of the 
past harsh sentencing and mandatory minimums. The women are very down in 
spirits because, for sure, there does not appear to be any relief in 
sight for a long time; in fact it looks like things are about to get a 
lot worse."

Across the country, at the federal prison in California, there is a 
similarly somber tone. "The mood has been doom and gloom since Obama 
left office and it shows on a lot of the faces of the ones who have 
extremely long sentences," wrote West. Povah, who is in contact 
personally with 150 people in federal prisons, has heard similar 
sentiments repeatedly.

But while the mood in federal prisons is grim, advocates on the outside 
are determined to keep fighting.

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, it never will," 
reflected Taifa, quoting the well-known words of Frederick Douglass. "We 
need to remember that. We may feel our protests aren't changing 
anything, but we need to become a sustained justice movement. We need to 
be creative and be audacious."

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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