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As Obama’s Presidency Enters Final Months, Thousands Behind Bars Hope for Clemency

President Obama can help criminal justice reform by issuing mass commutations of unduly harsh drug war sentences.

As Obama’s presidency enters its final months, thousands of people imprisoned on federal drug sentences fervently hope he will grant them clemency. But family members, loved ones and those who have spent time behind bars are determined to help push as many people as possible out the prison doors before Obama leaves the Oval Office.

In August, their effort got two significant boosts. On August 3, 214 people in federal prisons across the country were called into their case managers’ offices. There, they were told that the president had issued them clemency, meaning that their sentences had been commuted and they would soon be released from prison. It was the largest group of clemencies issued in one day since Gerald Ford’s 1974 blanket amnesty for those who dodged the draft or deserted the military during the Vietnam War. Less than four weeks later, on August 30, another 111 people received the same news: their sentences had been commuted and they would be released soon.

In between those two dates, on August 8, thousands of others were called into their case managers’ offices and told that their clemency applications had been denied. That denial means that they are unable to reapply for clemency for one year, by which time they will face the challenge of convincing not just the Office of the Pardon Attorney but also a newly elected president to give them another chance.

“I don’t understand the logic of the denials,” said Amy Povah, founder and president of CAN-DO Clemency, a national organization that advocates for clemency for people convicted of drug offenses. Issuing denials means that the president no longer has the option to grant that person clemency before leaving office, effectively leaving many to die in prison.

Povah knows what it’s like to hope and wait and pray for executive clemency. In 1991, Povah was sentenced to 24 years and four months in prison for conspiracy related to her then-husband’s ecstasy dealing. (In contrast, her husband fully cooperated with the authorities and was sentenced to six years in a German prison. He served four years and three months.) She applied for clemency. In July 2000, Povah was called into her case manager’s office and was told that she was going home. She had received clemency.

But she remembers another visit to her case manager’s office months before. On Christmas Eve 1999, Povah was sitting on her bunk. Prison staff had already passed out its Christmas goodie bags — each woman received a pair of socks and sticky candy without a wrapper, some of which, Povah remembered, was stuck to the sock. Then she heard her name over the prison loudspeaker ordering her to an administrative office.

“I thought, Omigod, this is it. Why else would someone call me on Christmas Eve?” She remembered that her legs were shaking so hard that she barely made it across the lobby to her case manager’s office. Hands trembling, she pushed open the door and found not her case manager but a staff person from commissary who wanted her to sign off on a special purchase she had made.

Seven months later, when the prison’s loudspeaker called her name again, she refused to get her hopes up. “In fact, I figured they were going to ship me to another institution or that it must be bad news ’cause that’s all we used to get in there: more bad news, never happy news.” But this time it was happy news. Povah would soon be going home.

Four Months and 11,000 Petitions to Go

Obama has a little over four months left in office and over 11,000 petitions for commutations (as well as nearly 1,500 petitions for pardons) pending. Advocates, family members and soon-to-be-released drug war prisoners are celebrating the 562 clemencies Obama has already granted, but they’re also realizing that currently, clemency campaigns are a race against the clock.

“Come January, when he’s done with his last term, the ones serving life sentences, they’re going to die in there,” said Jason Hernandez, the founder of Crack Open the Door, which advocates for clemency for those serving life sentences for federal crack-cocaine convictions.

Hernandez can’t envision Trump — who has railed against criminal justice reform, called clemency recipients “bad dudes” and warned the public to “sleep tight” —granting clemency. And, he says, even if Clinton were inclined to undo some of the devastation wrought by her husband’s policies, she most likely would not do so during her first term.

“A lot of presidents won’t grant clemencies during their first term, especially not to people who are not white-collar criminals, are minorities and are going to be returned back to the same communities where there are drugs,” Hernandez said. “It would be political suicide to grant someone clemency in your first term and they come out and do something else [and are re-imprisoned].” But even if Clinton is elected to a first, and then a second term, there’s no indication that she will continue Obama’s mass commutations. For those who are already aging or sick, the delay may indeed mean that they will die behind bars.

Like Povah, Hernandez has firsthand experience with clemency. In 1998, Hernandez had been sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute. At his sentencing, the judge stated that he disagreed with the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity but, under the sentencing guidelines, had no choice but to sentence the 21-year-old to life without parole. Hernandez applied for clemency in 2012; in December 2013, he was among the first clemencies granted by Obama, known as the Obama Eight. He spent one year in a halfway house, then returned home to Texas where he continues to help others file for clemency. He stays in touch with many of the people he met while behind bars through CorrLinks, the federal prison system’s e-messaging system. He encourages them to file clemency on their own rather than wait for Clemency Project 2014 — a nongovernmental working group that that reviews the cases of drug war prisoners, assigns them a lawyer and files clemency applications on their behalf. Hernandez walks those in prison through the process, providing advice not only for the person seeking clemency but also for family members.

Josephine Ledesma is one of the many he’s helped. In 1992, Ledesma (whose name was misspelled as “Ledezma” in court documents and subsequent prison records) was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to transport cocaine. Her daughter Lizette was then 11 years old.

Ledesma never gave up hope of being reunited with her daughter. When Clemency Project 2014 (CP2014) was announced, she filled out the paperwork and was assigned an attorney. That attorney disappeared without filing her application. Through Povah and another attorney, she later learned that she had been denied because of her alleged leadership role in the conspiracy (others charged in the same conspiracy had named her as a leader).

When Povah, who had served time with Ledesma at the federal prison in Dublin, California, met Hernandez at a White House event, she mentioned Ledesma’s case — and the fact that her attorney had disappeared. Hernandez offered to file Ledesma’s petition himself and did so in March 2016. Given that his own clemency had taken two years, he wasn’t overly hopeful. “I told her, ‘Look, this might not get to Obama in time,'” he recalled.

He and Povah also reached out to Lizette, now an adult, and began walking her through what she, as a family member, could do to increase her mother’s chances. Lizette contacted people who had known her mother — both before and during her time in prison — and gathered letters of support to include in her mother’s clemency packet. She met with her Congressperson Norma Torres to talk about how her mother’s incarceration continues to affect her. Torres then contacted the Department of Justice (DOJ) in support of Ledesma.

“They helped me take those steps that I probably wouldn’t have taken,” Lizette told Truthout. “Otherwise, I would have just sat there and waited.”

On August 3, Ledesma’s name was on the list of clemencies. On August 31, she walked out the prison gates and, for the first time in 24 years, had breakfast with her three adult children. They then drove her to a halfway house in Riverside, California, ten minutes from her daughter’s house, where she will spend the next month before being released on home confinement until August 3, 2017.

“You have to do things that you think don’t really matter,” explained Povah, who noted that, when she was applying for clemency, 20 legislators had written her letters of support after receiving multiple packets from their constituents.

But Povah is reluctant to credit herself or CAN-DO with the increase in clemencies. Following the announcement of 214 clemencies, she issued the following statement: “We realize many factors are involved, not the least of which is a vigorous vetting by the Office of the Pardon Attorney and Deputy Attorney General who have the final say as to which cases travel to the White House.”

Hernandez, however, does believe that organizers’ efforts have had a significant impact. He points to Ledesma, who would have fallen through the cracks and lost her opportunity for clemency. He also pointed out that CAN-DO’s efforts continually raise not only individual applicants, but help garner wider support for (and lessen opposition to) mass clemencies. “People need to understand that they’re not just a statistic, they’re not just a number. They’re someone’s mother, daughter or sister,” he said.

The Guardian Angels Spring into Action

Povah and Hernandez have teamed up with other clemency recipients, such as Ramona Brant and Angie Jenkins, to create the CAN-DO Guardian Angel Program. Their goal is to match federal drug war prisoners seeking clemency with outside supporters who can help garner letters of support, file paperwork, follow up with the Office of the Pardon Attorney and draw public attention to the injustices of their sentences. Over 50 people have signed up to help with the race against the clock. Some, like Lizette Ledesma and Rita Juarez (whose fiancé Antonio Lopez also received clemency on August 3), are family members who have never given up hope. Others, like Povah and Hernandez, are formerly incarcerated.

Lisa Hanna knows what it’s like to have her life ripped away because of drug war policies — and what it means to have a helping hand from the outside world. Like Povah, Hanna’s imprisonment was the result of her husband pointing a finger at her to reduce his own prison time. Hanna had already left him months earlier after he had beaten her and threatened to kill her. Though he had no idea where she had gone when he was arrested for dealing methamphetamine, he told DEA officials that all of the drugs in the house were hers. For his cooperation, he received an 87-month sentence. Hanna was offered a 235-month sentence if she pled guilty. If she chose to go to trial, she faced life in prison. “And the feds don’t have parole,” she reminded Truthout, referring to the fact that federal parole was eliminated in 1987. She chose to plead guilty, ultimately serving over 15 years.

Hanna was released from prison in January 2015. She spent three months in a halfway house and another six months under home confinement at her sister’s house. That November, after she had completed home confinement and had started her five-year probation sentence, she received word that she had received a two-point reduction under the Drugs Minus Two sentencing reductions, taking 47 months off her prison sentence. In other words, “I basically over-served my sentence for four years,” Hanna told Truthout.

Hanna did not forget the women still left inside. She also remembers what it’s like to have help from outside. In 2004, she received a letter from Amy Povah, who had seen her story posted on the website of the November Coalition, an organization that challenges the drug war and works to free those impacted by it. “She asked if I had filed clemency and if she could help me do so,” Hanna recalled. Povah helped Hanna file three petitions for clemency. Each was denied. “When Bush was president, he granted one [clemency] per year to people who were darn near dead and should have gotten compassionate release. So I was in good company being denied; there were thousands of us.” (George W. Bush granted 11 commutations during his presidency.)

Though none of these efforts succeeded in securing an earlier release, Hanna emphasized the importance of that support. “It was great to feel like someone out there cared even if I didn’t go home early,” she said. So this year, when she saw Povah’s call for people to become Guardian Angels, she immediately signed up.

Initially, Hanna had hoped to advocate for Lori Kavitz, who was sentenced to 24 years and four months for conspiracy to distribute meth in 2001. “I spent nine years with her in Illinois and Florida,” she said. The two met when Hanna first arrived at the federal prison camp at Pekin, where Kavitz was the librarian. Hanna, who had a law degree, spent many hours in the prison’s library helping women with their legal work. Between helping others, the two women bonded over books. “She can recommend a book to anyone that will speak to their heart,” Hanna said, recalling that Kavitz recommended Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to her. “It was awesome,” she said.

When Hanna learned that her 25-year-old nephew had died, Kavitz was her emotional bedrock. “Most people would say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,'” she explained, her voice choking at the memory. “But when I saw Lori, she opened her arms wide and held me and cried with me and went through it with me.”

By the time Hanna learned about the Guardian Angels program, someone else had already signed up to be Kavitz’s Guardian Angel. So Hanna began working with Pauline Blake, who had also been sentenced to 24 years and four months.

As Blake’s Guardian Angel, Hanna ensured that all information published on CAN-DO about Blake and her case was accurate. She kept in contact with the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which vets all applications, to ensure that Blake’s case was still pending and to keep her name in front of the decision-makers. On August 3, Hanna scanned the list of names and found Blake’s. “I was elated,” she recalled. But when she scrolled down to the Ks and didn’t see Kavitz’s name, she said she was devastated. “It breaks my heart every time a list [of clemencies] comes out and Lori Kavitz’s name is not on it. I look and she’s not there and I cry.” She’s determined to do everything she can to help Kavitz get clemency before Obama leaves office. “She’s got children who are grown and grandchildren she’s never met,” she said.

Left Behind Because of Language Barrier

One population that has largely been left out of clemency support has been those whose English is limited or non-existent.

Hernandez is Mexican, but he doesn’t speak Spanish, so when he began receiving emails from people who only spoke and wrote Spanish, he had difficulty communicating and helping them.

After filing Ledesma’s petition, Hernandez asked if she would speak to Eva Palma Atencio, who was sentenced to life in 2003. Neither Palma nor her family, who live in Mexico, speak or write English. Hernandez asked Ledesma, who is fluent in both English and Spanish, if she would translate for Palma. For years, Palma and Ledesma had both been in the federal prison in Dublin, California, but their interactions were limited to attending the same religious services. “They never sat down and learned each other’s life story. It wasn’t until I asked Josephine to talk to Eva that they made the connection.”

Palma is not the only drug war prisoner who faced linguistic barriers. “A lot of people can’t read English and so they can’t fill out the forms,” Hernandez said. Many do not know how to file a clemency petition. Some have mistaken the initial form to apply to CP14 [Clemency Project 2014] as the petition for clemency. “When I ask if they filed a petition, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I filed,'” explained Hernandez. “But a month later, I’ll get their paperwork and realize it’s a form sent to CP14.”

The limited literacy also means misinterpreted responses. “When CP14 told them they couldn’t represent them, they thought they’d been denied by the Pardon Attorney because they couldn’t understand the paperwork.”

Some family members, particularly those who are not in the United States, start online petitions calling for their loved one’s clemency — but may confuse these with official clemency petitions. “Because they’re not from here, they don’t understand that this is not a petition to the president and that Obama may never see that petition,” Hernandez explained. “There are people who are going to be left behind because they couldn’t fill out the form or think they got denied.”

Hernandez has struggled with these misunderstandings, especially given his own lack of Spanish skills. But now, he’s got some help. With her mother soon on her way home, Lizette Ledesma continues working with the Guardian Angels, particularly with Eva Palma’s family in Mexico. She says that Palma’s family sometimes calls her with a question; she then calls Jason and relays his response. “What Amy and Jason have given me, I’m trying to pass on to them,” she said.

Behind bars, Ledesma is also helping. In addition to speaking with Eva Palma, she translated the form for clemency from English to Spanish, which neither CP2014 nor the Bureau of Prisons had done. “They have everything [else] in prison translated into Spanish,” Hernandez pointed out, “but this [form] wasn’t.”

Ledesma sent her translation to her daughter, who forwarded it on to Hernandez. He, in turn, sent it to several dozen people in prison who can only communicate in Spanish. “As a result, [more] people filed for clemency,” he said.

Even 200 per Month Won’t Do Justice

On August 11, 2016, 11,477 clemency petitions and 1,454 pardon petitions were listed as awaiting decision. (As of August 31, those numbers had not been updated.) The DOJ has stated that it feels confident that it will be able to consider every application before Obama leaves office. Others, however, are more skeptical. Hernandez, noting the numbers of drug war prisoners, stated, “One hundred or 200 [clemencies] each month still won’t do justice.”

Both Hernandez and Povah are hoping that, for those whose petitions don’t make it to his desk, the president will use his executive power in another way. “One thing I feel really strongly that Obama can do before he leaves office is commute every life sentence to 30 years,” said Povah, pointing out that before the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 eliminated federal parole, people sentenced to life could be paroled after 30 years. Presidents have the power to issue mass commutations. Presidents Ford and Carter used their executive power to enact a blanket amnesty to those who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War.

Obama could, Povah and other advocacy groups have pointed out, issue mass commutations that retroactively adjust the sentences of those convicted under old (and now outdated) drug laws. “That’s one action he can do that would benefit everyone,” Povah said. “He wanted criminal justice reform. He wants it to be part of his legacy. That would be one way of using his power to ensure that.”

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