04 June, 2018 6:54 PM

Despite Backlash for Working With Trump, Activists Say Prison Reform Can't Wait- The Intercept

VEDA AJAMU WAS in her car about to leave work in January 2017 when she paused to check her email on her phone. She found a message containing bad news. Her younger brother, Robert Shipp, in federal prison for more than 20 years on a nonviolent drug charge, had just been denied clemency. Again.

“I literally just froze,” she said. “And I just sat in my car.” She began to cry. “I had to wait until I could see clearly before I pulled out.”

Ajamu had been fighting for her brother for years. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, she went to Washington, D.C., for a series of events organized by #cut50, an advocacy group founded by activist and pundit Van Jones, who led a push for Barack Obama to commute as many sentences as possible before leaving office. At home in Memphis, Tennessee, Ajamu often felt isolated and overwhelmed as she navigated the federal system on her brother’s behalf. But in Washington, she was surrounded by families in similar situations. She came home feeling empowered — she even started planning a welcome home party. “I was so sure that he was gonna get clemency,” she said. Instead, she had to tell her brother the bad news.

Of the thousands of people in federal prison whose clemency appeals were either rejected or left unaddressed by the Obama administration, Shipp is one of the lucky ones. He was sentenced to life on crack cocaine charges in 1994, but his punishment was reduced to 30 years in 2015, thanks to a hard-fought amendment passed by the United States Sentencing Commission. Shipp’s release date is set for 2019 — just around the corner. But Ajamu has learned not to take a single day for granted. In the year and a half since Shipp’s second clemency rejection, her husband has been treated for cancer. Her mother — Shipp’s stepmother, with whom he was extremely close — has died. And three of his grandchildren are being raised by his mother, who is 70. “Every second counts,” Ajamu said. “Because you never know what might happen.”

Last month, Ajamu celebrated when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act, which stands for “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person.” As prison reform goes, it is not exactly transformational. Federal prisons hold only a small fraction of the United States’s incarcerated population. But it would still positively affect thousands of people all over the country. A number of its provisions are notable for restoring a basic degree of humanity to the ordeal of incarceration. The bill dictates that people sent to federal prison must not be placed farther than 500 driving miles from home. It bans the shackling of pregnant women. The bill also offers increased “good time credits,” which is particularly significant to her brother, who has a clean disciplinary record. The provision would apply retroactively — meaning he could potentially come home right away.

Trump has signaled his willingness to sign the FIRST STEP Act if it reaches his desk. For Ajamu, who had little reason to hope anything good might come from a Trump presidency, “a win is a win.” So she was startled when she began following the debate over the bill online and on TV. “Some people who I thought would be for it were totally against it,” she said. Her local congressperson, Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, voted for it. So did Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., citing the support of the renowned Equal Justice Initiative. But Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., voted against it. So did Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. In fact, a long list of civil rights organizations had signed onto a letter urging lawmakers to reject the FIRST STEP Act, from the NAACP to the Brennan Center for Justice.


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