Thousands of drug war prisoners are going home early thanks to years of organizing

On October 6, the Justice Department announced that nearly 6,000 people in federal prisons will be going home early. The move, U.S. officials told the Washington Post, is an effort to both reduce overcrowding and to provide relief to people who received harsh drug war sentences over the past three decades.

In 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes, held two public hearings about drug sentencing. At these hearings, commission members heard testimony from then-Attorney General Eric Holder, federal judges, federal public defenders, law enforcement and sentencing advocates. The commission also received more than 80,000 public comment letters, most of which supported the change. As a result, the commission voted unanimously to reduce the potential punishment for drug offenses. It also made that change retroactive, meaning that 46,000 people who were sentenced during the zealous years of the drug war are eligible to apply for reduced sentencing and early release. The 6,000 people who will soon be rejoining their families are the first wave of early releases; the commission estimated that another 8,550 people would be eligible for release before November 1, 2016.

While the majority of those 80,000 letters supported a change in sentencing, the shift in public opinion happened after years of organizing against the racist war on drugs and its destruction of low-income communities of color. Remember, when Reagan began expanding the war on drugs in the early 1980s, the majority of the American public did not view drugs as a particularly heinous problem. But, three years later, a government-sanctioned media campaign publicized the emergence of crack cocaine with fears of “crack whores,” “crack dealers,” and “crack babies,” combining people’s racist fears about inner-city black people with scary images of drug addiction. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, the media, hungry for salacious stories to replace the grisly images of the Vietnam War, fueled these fears — between October 1988 and October 1989. For example, the Washington Post, alone, ran 1,565 stories about the “drug scourge.” Other media, not to be outdone (or outsold) also jumped on the drug hysteria bandwagon.

“The media helped usher us all into prison,” reflected Amy Povah, the founder of Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders, or CAN-DO, and a former drug war prisoner. “They made it easy to fast-track legislation and for politicians to create false narratives to get elected.” People became afraid. More money was poured into drug enforcement. Harsher laws were proposed and passed. More people were sentenced to longer times in prison.

But against this well-funded machine, people have been speaking out and organizing to oppose this racist war on drugs. Organizations have emerged or taken the issue on. Individuals, including those who have been imprisoned or had their families destroyed by drug policies, have been speaking out and organizing. Slowly, their voices have helped turn the tide of public opinion so that, when the Sentencing Commission held its hearings last year, the majority of those 80,000 letters favored reform.

Amy Povah, whose story I recently described in an article for Truthout, is one of those voices. She is also one of the many people who had her life destroyed by the drug war. When Povah’s then-husband Charles “Sandy” Pofahl, a major ecstasy dealer, was arrested in Germany, he fingered her as part of a plea bargain with U.S. and German authorities. In 1989, Povah came home to the couple’s home in West Hollywood, California, to find federal authorities waiting for her. She was questioned and arrested. She refused to accept a plea bargain, which would require wearing a wire and implicating others, and went to trial. She lost and was sentenced to 24 years and four months in prison. Her husband, on the other hand, was sentenced to six years in a German prison; he served four years and three months.

Ten years later, in 1999, Glamour profiled Povah. The publicity became a cornerstone in her fight for presidential clemency. People from her Arkansas hometown, along with two state senators, took up her cause. “I wouldn’t have gotten that kind of support if it weren’t for the Glamour article,” she later reflected. Still, she spent another year in prison hoping for executive clemency.

When she received clemency, she was beyond excited. But, at the same time, she remembered the moment being bittersweet, knowing that she was leaving behind many women with similar stories who hadn’t gotten lucky. As she waited to be released, she remembered that women walked up to the window in the room where she waited to say good-bye. “They were out of bounds,” she recounted, explaining that, in prison, people are only allowed to be in certain areas; being out of those areas is a violation of prison rules. But the women took the risk to say good-bye and express their joy. “They were all shouting and excited for me,” Povah recalled, “but at the same time, they’re all wondering, ‘Why you? Why not me? Did you do something that we should do?'”

Although she was eager to walk out of the prison and leave the nightmare behind her, Povah wanted her friends to come with her. “I made them a promise and told them, ‘I’m not going to forget you guys.'” And she didn’t. When she arrived at her parents’ house in Arkansas, she helped women with their paperwork, a continuation of what she’d been doing inside the prison. She also began compiling lists of names to send to President Clinton. “I felt like since I understood the process, I could repeat it and help these women,” she recalled. When Gore lost the election, Povah recalled feeling emotionally bankrupt. “I thought I had the recipe for getting people out of prison,” she said, a recipe that would be much less effective with Bush as president.

Nevertheless, she persevered, filing for non-profit status for CAN-DO in 2004. Since then, she’s advocated for clemency for women (and several men) serving lengthy to life sentences for federal drug charges. Now, with the latest sentencing change, popularly known as “Drugs Minus Two” (or, in prison, simply a “Minus Two”), at least three of those women — Therese Crepeau, Beth Cronan and Deniese Watts — have gone home. Irma Alred, sentenced to 30 years for conspiracy to distribute marijuana, will soon be rejoining her family after spending 21 years behind bars. Dana Bowerman had been addicted to methamphetamine when she was arrested as part of a drug ring in 2001. Her drug dealer testified against her in exchange for a reduced sentence. Bowerman could have testified against her father, but she refused and was initially sentenced to 19 years and seven months. But under Minus Two, her sentence has been reduced and she will be walking out the prison doors on November 2.

“I have been waiting 14 years and eight months to go home,” she wrote from the federal prison camp in Texas. “I have nothing to show for 45 years of life and am looking forward to starting my life over. The drug laws and sentencing in this country are outrageous. I do not believe I needed almost 15 years in prison to pay my debt to society. I believe the money spent on incarceration could be used in drug rehab and education.”

Povah, CAN-DO, other formerly incarcerated women, family members and advocates are part of a chorus of voices magnifying that refrain and advocating for an end to the drug war and its devastation of lives, families and communities. That chorus, which now includes certain segments of law enforcement and political hopefuls, has been growing louder and louder, pushing those in power for change. When Povah first walked out of prison, those voices were much fewer — and virtually none focused on women. Now, however, those few voices have grown into a movement.

But, Povah states, much more needs to be done. “A two point reduction is really a small band-aid on a massive wound,” she said, pointing out that many are not eligible and that resentencing still relies on a judge’s decision. “Instead of cheering, we have to fight for everything. We need more and we need better. We have tormented people in prison long enough and we need to say, ‘We’re not going to back off until we have meaningful change.”

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