Last Prisoner Project

Last Prisoner Project on Racism Throughout Cannabis History and How to Get Cannabis Prisoners OUT

Sarah Gersten is the executive director of the last prisoner project. We’re doing a fundraiser in the form of a raffle with them, so we wanted to dig deep and see where your money’s really going and learn about everything they do. 

Listen to the interview or read the transcript below to learn more!


Could you explain the disproportionate impact the war on drugs had/has on minority groups?

I spend a lot of time in this space digging into the history of laws starting with cannabis prohibition, through the Reagan era and the war on drugs. It is very clear when you look through things like the legislative history and comments from lawmakers at the time supporting these laws, that there was racial animus behind each of them. 

You can very clearly tie both prohibition and the broader war on drugs to a desire to control black and Brown communities. We’ve seen that same desire to control and marginalize these communities continue right up to present day. Despite widespread legalization, despite some movements in terms of decriminalization of not just cannabis, but other drugs, we still see a huge disproportionate impact in terms of who’s arrested on drug charges.

That disproportionate impact moves all the way through our justice system. Black and Brown communities are much more likely to be targeted by police. They’re much more likely to be arrested. And then as you move through the system, those rates actually increase. They are even more likely to be convicted and even more likely than that to be sentenced for longer sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

What is the current state of affairs as far as incarcerated cannabis prisoners? What is the impact of COVID-19?

Broadly we still have over 40,000 individuals just in the U S incarcerated on cannabis offenses. We actually think that number is low – it’s based on FBI data. There are so many short term facilities – jails – that it’s really hard to get accurate current data that reflects who might be incarcerated at any one time on a cannabis offense. 

We’ve done a lot of work trying to work with local counties’ Sheriff’s offices to get that data. There’s a real lack of transparency. We say 40,000, but even that is a low estimate at this point in time on who is currently incarcerated on cannabis offenses. 

A lot of the folks we work with, they’re incarcerated on life sentences for cannabis. We also have folks who maybe got caught on a violation of their parole for just possessing a joint.

That’s another huge issue,  once you’ve been impacted by this justice system, it’s incredibly hard to reenter society, rebuild your life and move on from that, because there are so many ways the system works to put you right back into detention. 

Right now is an incredibly difficult time for anyone who’s incarcerated. COVID despite states starting to reopen, presents a huge risk to our incarcerated community. The conditions of confinement inherently do not allow for the types of social distancing and public health precautions that we’ve all been taking to try to mitigate the spread of this virus. Correctional facilities are overcrowded. They don’t have access to basic hygiene, basic supplies. We knew when COVID started spreading in the U S that once it hit correctional facilities, it would spread like wildfire.

Now, unfortunately we’ve seen that happen. Some correctional facilities like Rikers Island or Cook County jail actually represent some of the biggest global hotspots in terms of infection rates of this virus. 10 times more than places like China that we think of as the global epicenters of this virus. It shows you just how dire the situation is in these facilities. 

I think a common misconception people have is that because these people are in confinement, there’s no risk of them spreading the virus outside of these facilities. That’s completely wrong. We have staff correctional officers, healthcare providers coming in and out of these facilities and back into the community. So this is not just a risk for our incarcerated communities, but it’s a risk for all of us. 

The easiest way to try to mitigate the risk of the virus spreading in facilities and then spreading back into the community is to decarcerate to get folks out of correctional facilities as soon as possible.

Do you think at this point  it’s gone to the point of no return, do you think it’s too late?

No, not at all. I think we certainly have facilities that have seen a huge spread of this virus. But we also have facilities where we just heard about a positive case in that facility or there haven’t been any positive cases. We’re still every day worried that that’s going to happen. 

I’m working on a case with a client in Terre Haute, Indiana at the facility there. When I started on the case in May, there were no positive cases. By the end of the month, they had three positive cases and an inmate had died. There’s still very much an urgent risk in these facilities. We need to keep fighting and not forget about the risks that COVID is posing to our incarcerated communities and keep working to get folks out.

Can you explain what Last Prisoner Project Does, how you do it, how the raffle money will be used?

As I mentioned, right now we actually have a COVID relief program. We’re actively funding things like getting donations to our constituents commissary accounts. A big thing that I think people don’t know is that there’s a huge lack of access to supplies in these facilities. Sometimes you can purchase things that might help you to stay safe from the virus from your commissary. 

Another thing is that we still have some States that require  incarcerated individuals to pay a copay for healthcare and even for access to testing right now. Those are things we want to make sure our constituents can afford. We’re also in the midst of the most restrictive federal lockdown of federal correctional facilities that we’ve ever seen. We had been under lockdown because of COVID for months and now due to the protests the federal Bureau of prisons has instituted an even more restrictive lockdown.

At this time, I know for me, I’ve been leaning really heavily on my family and being able to connect even virtually with my network. Our incarcerated community,  Our constituents really can not do that right now. They’re very restricted in how they can interact with their family members, with their friends, with their loved ones. There’s no visitation. Ensuring that they have the funds to make phone calls and send emails, that’s a big part of what we’re actively doing right now. 

Beyond these kinds of urgent relief efforts, obviously a huge part of what we do is working to get folks out. We have a couple legal programs that we do that through. The first that ties into our COVID relief fund, our compassionate release program. This is something that we had started because under the first step act, which was a recent federal criminal justice package that was passed, people like our constituents that have nonviolent drug offenses might be eligible for release basically by saying, times have changed policy around drug reform has changed the sentences that were meted out under things like a three strikes law or mandatory minimums, just don’t comport with our current notions of justice and fairness.

There’s opportunities for release there now with COVID.

When people think of compassionate release, generally you think of someone getting released because they’re elderly or they’re sick. Obviously COVID represents urgent health risk for anyone that is incarcerated. So we’re seeing a huge opportunity, for compassionate release. 

A big part of what we do is match people that are incarcerated for cannabis offenses, with pro bono attorneys to try to get released through compassionate release. A much broader program that we’re working on – pandemic or no pandemic –  is our cannabis clemency program. Clemency is basically getting released through an executive power, either a state governor or the president. Basically what we’ve been doing both on a state level and working with the white house is crafting a category of clemency for nonviolent cannabis offenders, so that anyone who would be eligible under this criteria would get released.

Rather than taking on cases on a case-by-case basis, the goal is to create broader systemic change that lead to many more people getting released. 

Once the Hard Work of Release is Done – How to You Help People Re-Enter Society?

A big part of our mission and values at LPP is that the work does not end with release. Unfortunately in this country, even though you might be physically free from incarceration, you are really not truly free. Once you come out of prison,  a criminal record can create a barrier to your reentry in so many ways It restricts access to employment, to financial assistance for housing. That’s a huge issue. There are all kinds of barriers that our constituents face just trying to rebuild their lives, reconnecting their families, dealing with the trauma that comes from being incarcerated.

The core issue is around employment, a big program that we’ve been developing is our prison to prosperity program. That’s designed to get our constituents employment in the legal cannabis industry. We do that by working with companies like Vagst which is a recruitment platform in the industry that can actually help us place candidates and positions as well as providing mentorship for things like resume editing, interview skills, and general employability skills. That helps folks whether they want a job inside or outside of the cannabis industry, setting them up for success on the job search.

If donating is not in your budget, what are some ways that people can help that are non-monetary?

If you go to our website we have a whole page about how you can get involved. We have volunteer opportunities. We have opportunities for folks that have been impacted by prohibition to share their stories. A huge piece of what we do is around education and awareness and just sharing more stories. 

We have a lot of awareness campaigns for particular constituents. One right now is Michael Thompson. Michael has served 25 years in Michigan for a nonviolent cannabis offense. He is serving a 60 year sentence, essentially a life sentence. He’s now 69 years old, he has type two diabetes. So he’s particularly at risk of contracting COVID and mind you, this is in Michigan. So in a fully legal state with an industry that’s coming up with a progressive seeming governor. 

Michael is sitting in prison and the resources that the state is putting into keeping him incarcerated, despite the fact that he poses no threat to public safety are crazy. He has had an immaculate record since he’s been incarcerated, which is incredibly difficult to do. He has been a mentor to his fellow inmates during his time. He’s just one of the most incredible people that I’ve ever met.

In January we submitted his clemency petition. We worked with some other advocacy groups to get Michael’s story out there. Through that work, we got over 20,000 people to write letters and call the governor’s office. Unfortunately it did not get the governor to release Michael, but it actually got the County prosecutor whose office had prosecuted the case to come on to support our clemency petition. That is an incredibly rare thing to have happen. 

We know it happened because we got tons of people to make their voices heard and push this office to call from Michael’s freedom. Now that the prosecutor has come on board, we’re trying to re engage our network, our supporters, and get the governor to do the right thing and let Michael out. If you go on our website, go on our social media, you’ll see calls to action. We try to make it really easy for folks. We’ve got a sample script, we’ve got all the numbers to call what to say. You can do all that from your home on your computer. If you’ve got a cell phone, if you’ve got a landline, you can really help us to make a difference and to get Michael free.

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