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Lawyer Combats America's 'Huge Crisis' Of Mass Incarceration

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Another step in the retreat from the war on drugs was taken Friday when the House of Representatives voted to decriminalize marijuana and expunge federal marijuana convictions dating back to 1971. The bill is considered unlikely to pass the Senate. My guest, Brittany Barnett, is a lawyer who has been fighting for people serving life sentences without parole or other harsh sentences because of the mandatory minimum sentences legislated as part of the war on drugs. Her clients were convicted of nonviolent drug crimes on flimsy evidence and given sentences that have since been deemed unfair and unconstitutional.

She secured freedom for dozens of men and women who were sentenced to life. She got involved with this work because her mother, who became addicted to crack, was sent to jail when Barnett was in ninth grade and then later served two years in the Texas state prison system when Barnett was in her early 20s. Seven of Brittany Barnett's clients were granted clemency by President Obama and two by President Trump. She also founded the programs Buried Alive, which works to free people left in prison under outdated Reagan-era laws, and Girls Embracing Mothers, which brings girls to prison to visit their incarcerated mothers and helps mentor those girls.

Barnett has written a new memoir titled "A Knock At Midnight." It's about her work and about her early life growing up in east Texas, where many people she knew were sent to prison. Brittany Barnett, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your book. Your first client was Sharanda Jones. And you found her when you were a law student. You were writing a paper and wanted to make your case about people serving these mandatory minimum life sentences. So you Googled - what did you Google, woman, prison (laughter), life sentence?

BRITTANY BARNETT: Yeah. I Googled woman, prison, life sentence.

GROSS: And she's the one who came up. And she's one of the people that you got clemency for. She's out. She's free. It was a very, very long process, started when you were a law student. So explain the charges that she was serving a life sentence for.

BARNETT: Sharanda Jones was set to spend the rest of her natural life in prison for her first ever conviction, felony or otherwise, for federal drug conspiracy. And Sharanda Jones accepts responsibility. She participated in a federal drug conspiracy by way of being what you would sort of call a drug mule. She transported drugs on a handful of occasions for two drug dealers. And Sharanda Jones, being naive to this massive beast of the criminal legal system that we have, she opted to utilize her constitutional right to go to trial.

And when she did, those two drug suppliers that she was transporting the drugs for testified against her at her trial and received lesser sentences in exchange for their testimony. Sharanda Jones was accused of transporting powder cocaine. The co-conspirators who testified against her vouched that it was powder cocaine. However, the judge found that Sharanda Jones knew or should have known that the powder cocaine was going to be rocked up, as they call it, into crack and enhance her sentence under these harsher crack cocaine penalties.

And for people listening who may not understand this 100-1 ratio, it means that, Terry, you could have 500 grams of powder cocaine. I could have only five grams of crack cocaine. And you and I would receive the same sentence in prison. And this harsh 100-1 sentencing disparity came into play in 1986 in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. And it created a hugely disproportionate sentencing that led to, even today, over 80% of the people in federal prison for drug offenses are Black and brown people. And so this law had this racially biased impact that devastated lives and entire communities.

GROSS: She was told by her lawyer that she had a great case and there was basically no way she was going to jail. So she was misled about that - not intentionally misled, but still misled. Had she not gone to trial, do you think she would have given a lesser sentence, like if she copped a plea?

BARNETT: I do. I feel if Sharanda Jones had accepted a plea deal, there's no way she would have received a life sentence in this case. Sharanda Jones' trial lawyer had never tried a federal drug case before. And what many people don't understand is just this wide-reaching net of federal drug conspiracy laws. And these laws simply mean that two or more people come to an agreement to traffic drugs. And in Sharanda's case, for example, there was no physical evidence whatsoever that Sharanda Jones was involved in this drug conspiracy.

There was no controlled buys. There was no surveillance. There were no large sums of cash, no drugs even found. But in the federal court system, all you need is the testimony of co-conspirators and you're held accountable for what we call ghost dope in the federal system. And that ghost dope is dope that's never found, you know? It's dope that only exists based on the testimony of co-conspirators. And that's the most unfortunate part about the entire process because the more drugs you're held accountable for, the more excessive your penalty.

GROSS: Sharanda Jones' mother was in prison, charged with the same conspiracy. On what grounds? Her mother was paraplegic.

BARNETT: It's mind-blowing. Her mother was sent to prison for the same charge as Sharanda Jones. Essentially, I feel her mother was sent to prison because she refused to give up any information on her kids or cooperate. Sharanda Jones' entire family was swept up in this large drug conspiracy. And her mother, as you mentioned, was paralyzed from the neck down and was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. In fact, 12 of those years she served in the same prison as Sharanda Jones.

GROSS: You managed to get clemency for her from President Obama. Tell us a little bit about what the clemency process is like. What do you have to do? You, basically, have to apply for it.

BARNETT: Yeah. So clemency, to me, is where justice meets mercy. And as I was working on Sharanda's case, I kept trying to find these avenues to get her free and just had to be real with myself, Terry, that there's absolutely no way I can get Sharanda free through the court. And that's when I learned about clemency. And President Barack Obama was in office at the time. And the way I approach my clemency cases is to show the heartbeat. I wanted to show the woman behind the prisoner number that she had been assigned. I wanted to show who she was as a person, a truly center of the human element.

And so I prepared a clemency petition for her. And I applied for clemency for Sharanda Jones in November of 2013. In the normal clemency process, you apply with the office of the pardon attorney. If they recommend a favorable clemency recommendation, it goes to the Department of Justice. And it goes through several levels of review within the Department of Justice, five or six. If they recommend a favorable clemency petition, then it goes the White House counsel and ultimately lands on the president's desk.

GROSS: How do you get the notification that your clemency request has been approved?

BARNETT: You get notified by a call from an attorney in the Office of the Pardon Attorney's office.

GROSS: And what was it like when you got the call about Sharanda Jones?

BARNETT: Oh, my (laughter). It is a day and time I will never forget. You don't get a heads-up for this call. And at the time, Sharanda Jones' clemency petition had been pending for two years - two years of ups and downs, highs and lows, of, is she going to get it? Have I only been working this hard and supporting her to get our hopes up? Am I going to let her down?

And it got to the point in December of 2018 (ph), where it was the week before President Obama made his annual family trip for the holidays to Hawaii. And we were all hopeful that President Obama would grant a round of clemencies for the holidays. We had hope for the holidays. And Monday of that week passed, Tuesday passed, Wednesday passed, Thursday passed and no clemencies.

And that Friday, I was driving around running errands with my mama. We were preparing for a Christmas program for girls with incarcerated mothers through Girls Embracing Mothers. And around noon that day, I got a call, and it was a number from Washington, D.C. And that was the day. It was an attorney from the Office of the Pardon Attorney's office. And she said that she was calling to let me know that President Barack Obama had granted executive clemency to Sharanda Jones. And I still get emotional thinking about that day because that meant that, with the stroke of his pen, President Obama had saved her life.

GROSS: How many years had she been in prison?

BARNETT: Sharada had been in prison for 16 years and nine months when we received the news that she was going to be immediately released.

GROSS: And then you called her. What was her reaction?

BARNETT: She had no idea what the call was about. And many times when you're in prison and you get an unexpected call where you have to go to your counselor's office for the call, many times people in prison are bracing themselves for bad news because those are usually calls about a death in the family or something tragic happening to your family. And so I could tell when she got on the phone, she was a tad bit nervous because she wasn't sure what to expect.

And I couldn't hold it, Terry. I just screamed, you're going home. And she began to cry. We both began to cry. And she just kept saying, thank you, thank you, thank you. And her daughter was expecting to give birth a few months later, you know? And Sharanda had been worried. Her daughter had been worried of how she was going to handle being a first-time mom, you know, without her mom there. And Sharanda just kept whispering, I get to be home for the baby. I get to be home for the baby.

GROSS: Sharanda's mother died in prison of a staph infection after a surgery, and Sharanda was devastated after that. So her mother was not alive to know that Sharanda received clemency.

BARNETT: She was not. Her mother was not around. You know, Sharanda and her mother served 12 years together in prison at Carswell Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. And to be incarcerated with your mother is one thing, right? I can't imagine being in prison with my mom and for so long. And Sharanda's there with a life sentence. And what is really helping to give her hope and helping to push her forward to be so positive is, one, it's innately who she is, but two, her mama. And it was definitely an extremely heartbreaking and challenging time for Sharada when her mother passed away in 2012.

GROSS: What is Sharanda doing now?

BARNETT: Sharanda, of course, is spreading joy to everyone that she encounters. She is such a soulful person, and her smile will brighten any room. Sharanda has always had a passion for cooking. She owned her own restaurant before she went to prison. And her dream had always been, upon her release from prison, to have a food truck where she would be able to hire formerly incarcerated people to work and to serve good food. And I am so happy to say that Sharanda has her food truck. She's in the process of designing the inside and planning to launch in the first quarter of 2021. And her food truck will be called Fed Up, a play on the...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BARNETT: It's a play on the federal system (laughter) and a play on just being fed up with the system. But you will truly have your belly fed with some amazing food.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brittany Barnett. Her new memoir is called "A Knock At Midnight." We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brittany Barnett, a lawyer who has been fighting for people serving life sentences without parole or other harsh sentences because of the mandatory minimum sentences legislated as part of the war on drugs. Her clients were convicted of nonviolent crimes on flimsy evidence and given sentences that have since been deemed unfair and unconstitutional. She's responsible for the release of dozens of people.

You know, we were talking about Sharanda Jones and how she was given clemency by President Obama, who had a whole clemency initiative for people sentenced under mandatory minimums who wouldn't have gotten these sentences today. President Trump also granted clemency to two of your clients. One of them was Alice Johnson, who you became aware of because she was a good friend of Sharanda Jones in prison, and Sharanda, when she got out, said, you got to free Alice Johnson. So you took on her case. The way it got to President Trump was through Kim Kardashian West, who took the case to President Trump by contacting Ivanka Trump first.

I'm sure you're so grateful to Kim Kardashian West and President Trump, but I'm just wondering if you're ambivalent about the power of celebrity being able to get clemency for someone when somebody else who is also in a similar situation wouldn't have that opportunity because there's no celebrity who went to bat for them. And you have clients in that position.

BARNETT: Yes, I do not think it should take a celebrity to be able to help free someone from prison. There is a huge problem this country is facing right now with this crisis of mass incarceration, and it should not take celebrity involvement to pick those locks to human cages. You know, I'm grateful that Kim Kardashian West used her platform. I think she was able to help shine a light and raise awareness. But I also am hopeful that people aren't getting so blinded by the spotlight of celebrity that they are missing the importance of looking past that spotlight and seeing the hundreds of thousands of people like Alice Johnson who are just as deserving of their freedom.

GROSS: Yeah. And I should mention, you were on a panel - I forget what the group was called, but it was a panel, like, reviewing cases, like the cases that you take on, people who are sentenced during the mandatory minimum era and are still in prison, even though those sentences are now considered unconstitutional. And you became aware just, like, how many people are in this situation. It's really overwhelming.

BARNETT: It's so overwhelming. And, you know, this whole notion of criminal justice reform, if that's what people want to call it, it's popular now. It's fashionable. And many people are talking about it. It has bipartisan support, you know. But I'm always still surprised at how little people really know about how the system works. And so it's one of the reasons why I wanted to write a book. I wanted to write about what I learned, you know, and share the stories of the extraordinary men and women who are serving these draconian sentences, who are victims of the war on drugs.

And being a part of the Clemency Project 2014, I came in contact with thousands and thousands, and I came in contact with their loved ones and their families. And I remembered when my mom was in prison. And my mom served 2 1/2 years in prison, Terry, and those were the longest 2 1/2 years of my life. And I couldn't imagine if my mom had 20, 30, 40 years, life without parole.

And so in my work, I am very conscious of merging my lived experiences with my legal experience and ensuring that people, directly impacted people, are centered and that their voices are amplified because there are hundreds of thousands of Alice Johnsons. And we have a lot of work to do to restore a sense of fairness that should be at the heart of this nation's criminal legal system.

GROSS: Well, let me introduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brittany Barnett. Her new memoir is called "A Knock At Midnight." We'll be back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Brittany Barnett, a lawyer who has been fighting for people serving life sentences without parole because of the mandatory minimum sentences legislated as part of the war on drugs. Her clients were convicted of nonviolent drug crimes on flimsy evidence and given sentences that have since been deemed unfair and unconstitutional. She's responsible for freeing dozens of people.

So you got into this work in part because of your mother, who became addicted to crack when you were around 10. And as you say, she served 2 1/2 years in prison. When she was addicted, how did you watch her personality and behavior change?

BARNETT: Due to my mom being addicted to crack cocaine, there was a time in my childhood where life was an emotional roller coaster because of her addiction. There's something about being 10, Terry, and watching devastation unfold within your mom your tiny arm's reach away. And I felt - and I know that many children in the same situation, for some reason, we feel we can fix our parents, that we can save them. You know, I wanted to save my mama from addiction and not knowing at the time that, one, I couldn't fix her, nor was it my responsibility to. And my mom is my hero. My mom was a nurse. She put herself through nursing school. She cared for my sister and I the best she could. And then she had a crack cocaine addiction that became much stronger than she was. And so to see her at the top and then to see my hero on ground zero was definitely a time of my life that carried a deep wound. You know, there were many mixed emotions of fear, worry, concern, resentment, anger. And all the while, there was this deep, unconditional love.

GROSS: So the first time your mother was arrested, you had to take a day off from school - you were a freshman in high school at the time - to go to her hearing. You went with your grandmother. Describe how your mother was brought out into the courtroom and what your reaction was.

BARNETT: I remember going to the courtroom in Red River County, Texas, where I'm from, and first having to walk past the statue of a Confederate soldier in the parking lot and climbing the steps to this courthouse with my grandma - my mother's mama. And we're sitting in the courtroom, and I remember the door opening, and I see a sheriff walk through with a cowboy hat on. And behind him was my mama. And I will never forget that sight. She was in a soiled jail uniform. It was black and white, you know, with those large black and white stripes that you would see in a "Looney Tunes" cartoon. And it was so big and hanging off of her. And my mama, you know, we looked at each other, and we smiled to keep from crying.

But it was heartbreaking to see my mama like that. And it made me think, you know, what kind of system is this that she's being brought into? You know, my mom clearly had a drug addiction. She committed a crime and was placed on probation. My mom had never been in trouble before. And because my mother could not pass her drug test, she was revoking probation and given more probation. She'd fail another drug test, given more probation until, ultimately, she was sentenced to serve time in the Texas prison, but not because she had committed any new crimes. In fact, that the only crime she had committed, if you want to call it that, was a crime against herself and her own body from her addiction. My mother needed help. She needed rehabilitation and not punishment.

GROSS: You write that when one family member is in prison, the whole family is in prison. And you founded a group called Girls Embracing Mothers in which girls are funded to take long trips to visit their mothers in prison because it's sometimes like a two-, three-, four-hour car or bus trip to get there. And you founded this group because you experienced this firsthand, having to travel hours to see your mother, and it was very traumatizing for you to see her in those conditions. Set the scene for us a little bit when you were visiting your mother. I mean, even just getting into the prison to see her, what was that part like?

BARNETT: The entire process of visiting a loved one in prison is dehumanizing from the moment you drive onto the prison grounds. I remember the very first visit to my mom while she was in prison. And I couldn't wait to get there. It was a 2 1/2-hour trip from Dallas. And I couldn't wait to see my mom, to hug her, to touch her, just to smell her scent. And I get there only to find out that I couldn't get a contact visit with her because she had not been in prison for 60 days yet. And so I had to visit my mother through the glass. And anyone who's ever visited their loved one in prison through the glass can tell you just how deceptive that glass is. It's about three inches thick, and your loved one is right there on the other side, but it feels like you might as well be on another planet.

And I remember being so disappointed of not getting to touch my mama or just smell her scent, you know? And you have to speak to your loved one through the glass using a telephone. And I just pressed that phone so hard up against my face, Terry, because I did not want to miss a sound of my mama's voice. And this glass was such a barrier to our maternal bond. And that first visit was devastating for me of - how did we get here? You know, and we laughed a lot, and we cried a lot, and then we laughed to keep from crying even more. And a sight I'll never forget is, while I was visiting with my mom and I had my hand up against her hand on the glass, and I saw to my right a tiny set of lip prints, where some small child had tried to reach their mama before my visit. And that sight broke me.

GROSS: When you first asked for your mother, you had to give her prison number as opposed to her name. What was it like for you to memorize her prison number, a number that you reprint in your memoir?

BARNETT: One-three-seven-four-six-seven-one - that's a seven-digit number I'll never forget, is the number assigned to my mother by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice when she began serving her prison sentence. And that's the first step of dehumanization in the criminal legal system once you're incarcerated. And one of the visits to my mom, I walked into the prison visit room, and I remember telling the guard at the front desk that I was there to visit Evelyn Fulbright, and she kind of barked back at me, inmate number.

And it honestly, Terry, took me a minute to realize she wasn't going to identify my mama through her name, Evelyn Fulbright. She needed this seven-digit number. And I had, of course, memorized this number on my way to the prison because I didn't want to forget it and get denied visitation privileges. And so once I got over my initial shock, I was able to tell her - 1374671.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brittney Barnett. Her new memoir is called "A Knock At Midnight." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brittany Barnett, a lawyer who has been fighting for people serving life sentences without parole because of the mandatory minimum sentences legislated as part of the war on drugs. Her clients were convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, typically on flimsy evidence, and given sentences that have since been deemed unfair and unconstitutional, but not retroactive. She also writes in the book about her mother and her mother's addiction for drugs and her mother's incarceration.

Your mother got sober in prison during those 2 1/2 years that she was in prison, and she's stayed sober since. She's back to being a nurse. Is she still active as a nurse?

BARNETT: Yeah, she actually works as a drug recovery nurse.

GROSS: That's great. Do you think that this is an argument that prison helped her break her addiction and resume a good life - a good, healthy life with a really good job helping other people, that - work, I'm sure, is fulfilling to her?

BARNETT: Absolutely not. I do not feel that my mother needed to go to prison. My mom needed rehabilitation, not incarceration. And my mother became sober in prison because she voluntarily took courses and voluntarily began her journey of recovery. These courses that my mother took to have self-improvement and to overcome her addiction weren't mandatory by the prison system. And I always say that my mother became sober in spite of prison, not because of it.

GROSS: When you were growing up in East Texas, many of the people you knew were involved with selling drugs in one way or another, including your boyfriend. Why do you think - at the risk of asking a question that may be obvious, why do you think that so many people in this community - and this was a community in an area that had been a sundown town - in other words, if you were Black and caught after sundown on the streets, you were going to be probably in prison. So this was a small Black community between two railroad tracks, and that's where you spend a lot of your childhood. So why do you think so many people were involved with drugs - either using, selling, distributing?

BARNETT: You know, I grew up during a time in rural East Texas where, unfortunately, some form of involvement in drugs was the norm, part of the culture, and you either knew someone selling drugs or you knew someone using drugs. And I dated a drug dealer my senior year of high school. And looking back now, I realize that we didn't know better. We didn't know what we were up against. And I had other people - I had friends who sold drugs.

And when I look back during those times of high school, you know, none of the guys or girls that I knew selling drugs woke up one day and said, I want to be a drug dealer. I saw them selling drugs to eat. I saw and knew that they were selling drugs to help their mom with the light bill. Now, granted, there are some people who become addicted to the money and the lifestyle, and that's a whole 'nother story. But there's this mechanism of survival that I witnessed. And me being that proximate to it gave me a different perspective.

GROSS: So your boyfriend did sell drugs when you were a senior in high school. And you knew that. Could you have been charged of a crime because he was your boyfriend and you knew that he was selling drugs? Could you have ended up in prison?

BARNETT: Knowing what I know now, without a doubt (laughter). I knew nothing about federal drug conspiracy laws when I was 18 years old. I knew nothing about this literal guilty by association.

GROSS: Yeah. So what charges could have you been charged with?

BARNETT: I could have been charged with federal drug conspiracy because I would drive to Dallas on a couple of occasions as a senior in high school, where I would stop off in east Dallas to a white clapboard house. And my boyfriend would go in the house, come out 10 minutes later and slide a package wrapped in plastic under the front seat in my car. And I never asked any questions. He never told me anything about it. But I knew that there were drugs in that package.

And at 18 years old, I never thought much about it. I never knew there was this thing called federal drug conspiracy, where I could have been implicated in his wrongdoings. And learning about federal drug laws in law school and learning more about how the system worked and how I could have been in prison just like Sharanda Jones, you know - I was determined to fight for Sharanda Jones' life as if it were my own, because it was.

GROSS: In a few weeks, if you petition a president for clemency for one of your clients, that president will be President Joe Biden. Now, Biden was one of the authors of the 1994 crime bill that was signed by President Clinton. What was the impact of that crime bill? And what will it be like to petition President Biden?

BARNETT: The impact of the 1994 crime bill was far-reaching and devastating. And there is no doubt that after the implementation of that bill, we saw federal prison population skyrocket. We saw state prison population skyrocket. And I am hopeful that the Biden administration takes concrete steps to help restore justice to this nation's criminal legal system. Many, many people are still in prison suffering unjustly under these draconian drug laws, you know?

And to think that there are people set to die in prison for laws that have since been deemed unjust is unconscionable to me. And during my work, Terry, I've come across some of the most brilliant minds through my clients. And there is this untapped population of genius that is behind bars and human ingenuity that our nation needs to thrive that has been locked away for decades. And I'm hopeful that the Biden administration keeps that human element in mind, sees the heartbeats and works to break chains and restore families and entire communities.

GROSS: Well, Brittany Barnett, thank you so much for talking with us about your work and your life. I greatly appreciate it.

BARNETT: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Brittany Barnett's new memoir is called "A Knock At Midnight." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIONEL HAMPTON'S "WHITE CHRISTMAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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