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.
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.
The prevailing criticism was that the legislation did not go far enough, ignoring sentencing reform while aiming its benefits too narrowly. Whole categories of people were excluded from receiving “earned time credits,” while candidates were to be vetted using problematic “risk assessment” tools, which are too easily translated into a high-tech form of racial profiling.
Some supporters of the FIRST STEP Act have accused Democratic opponents of rejecting it on partisan grounds — mainly to deny Trump a “win” that was not achieved under Obama. Ajamu has little patience for politics; as she researched the bill and its opponents, “I got kind of aggravated,” she said. She wrote up her thoughts in an email and sent them to a few people. “I’ve been trying to fully understand the opposition regarding the FIRST STEP ACT,” she wrote. “I understand not all will benefit from this, however it will benefit many. In every bill passed regarding criminal justice reform, way too many people have been left behind. … Let’s be totally honest with ourselves. Most didn’t think ANY bill for any kind of criminal justice reform would be passed under the Trump administration. Is this about them or us?”
Long before he was elected, Trump represented the country’s worst instincts when it comes to criminal justice. From calling for death sentences for the Central Park Five, to smearing Obama’s clemency recipients as “bad dudes,” to choosing unrepentant drug warrior Jeff Sessions as his attorney general, Trump has made it perfectly clear who he is. Most recently, he selected former prosecutor Bill Otis — a political fossil whose racist zeal for punishment has been abandoned by even some of the most committed ideologues of decades past — to join the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
For many activists involved in federal prison reform — especially those rooted in racial justice organizing — the prospect of collaborating with an administration like Trump’s is hard to fathom. The day before Kim Kardashian’s highly publicized visit to the Oval Office to discuss the case of 62-year-old Alice Marie Johnson, Trump solicited cheers at a Nashville rally by repeating his favorite dehumanizing line about “animals” coming across the border. The day after the meeting with Kardashian, while saying nothing about Johnson’s fate, Trump announced a pardon for far-right commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to making illegal campaign contributions.
Will be giving a Full Pardon to Dinesh D’Souza today. He was treated very unfairly by our government!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2018
That Trump has used his pardon power almost exclusively to benefit bigots and loyalists is the perfect emblem of his conception of justice; in an article for CNN last week, law professor Mark Osler warned that Trump is using the pardon power to settle political scores. But he also threw out an idea: “If President Trump really wants to make a point about the failings of his opponents, he should go big and grant commutations to the thousands of deserving petitioners who were denied or not ruled upon by the Obama administration,” he wrote.
Osler, a former prosecutor, was among those pushing hard for mass commutations in the waning days of the Obama administration. When we spoke after Trump’s election, he sounded, like so many others, weary and defeated. But he was also firm that the work had to continue. “A lot of us have to step up,” he said. “The Obama DOJ left a lot of great injustice on the table.”
For a number of formerly incarcerated activists, stepping up means stepping into hostile territory. On May 18, activists affiliated with #cut50 attended a prison reform summit at the White House. It was organized by Jared Kushner, whose father once served time in federal prison and who is widely understood as a sincere backer of reform. Ivy Woolf Turk, who spent nearly four years in federal prison and has since founded Project Liberation, had mixed feelings as she arrived, crossing “political lines I was not necessarily aligned with,” as she diplomatically put it. But over the course of the day, she began to feel she had a voice. She was particularly excited to see her friend Topeka K. Sam, with whom she was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut.
Sam is the founder and executive director of the Ladies of Hope Ministries, which works on behalf of criminalized women and girls. At the White House, she delivered a speech that described some of the most humiliating aspects of day-to-day life for women in prison. At Danbury, Turk explained, women were only provided a limited number of tampons and sanitary napkins — the rest had to be purchased at the commissary. When those supplies ran out, women had to use “toilet paper or torn-up T-shirts,” Turk said. At one point, each woman was provided a roll of toilet paper a week — “you wore it around your neck like a Saint Bernard.”
In her speech, Sam explained how she had a medical condition that created heavy bleeding, but the guards did not believe her — “a classic form of mental torture,” Turk said. “She literally would have to show a soiled pad to a male guard to get a pad.” Among the more meaningful practical provisions of the FIRST STEP Act is the overdue requirement that the Bureau of Prisons provide sanitary napkins and tampons in its facilities for free.
“We received a lot of backlash for going to the White House,” said Syrita Steib-Martin, a founder of Operation Restoration in New Orleans. “Social media was very unkind to us.” Steib-Martin, a formerly incarcerated black woman, has spent years fighting for criminal justice reform in Louisiana, the “prison capital of the world.” Before her own nine-year incarceration, she graduated from a high school that still had a segregated prom. For all the fears she heard expressed about the implications of the 2016 election, “Trump’s America has been my reality in Louisiana,” she said. “These are the conditions that I get up and go to work in every day.”
At the White House summit, Steib-Martin spotted Louisiana’s secretary of public safety and correction, along with his assistant secretary, whom she has dealt with in the past. They were seated in the same aisle as she was. They said, “Oh my god, what are you doing here? And I’m like, Well, what are you doing here?” For her, it was important not to cede that space. “It’s about showing my community that we have to work together irrespective of the circumstances,” she said. That includes considering legitimate criticisms of the bill and pushing for improvement. But as a formerly incarcerated woman still in touch with people in prison, she feels the urgency. “How can I stand up and tell them that because this bill doesn’t have everything I want, they should wait a few more years?”
In his brief remarks in the East Room on the day of the summit, Trump spoke with typical hyperbole, promising reform that “will be the best of its kind anywhere in the world.” Whether the FIRST STEP Act moves forward will be up to the Senate. And whether Trump can be persuaded to grant clemency to noncelebrities is far from certain.
Whatever else happens, Ajamu is hopeful that Johnson will receive clemency. She knew about Johnson long before Kardashian visited the White House. “She grew up two doors down from my grandmother in Olive Branch, Mississippi,” she explained. Ajamu remembers how hard it was for Johnson’s family to deal with the stigma of her incarceration — a challenge Ajamu has worked hard to overcome herself. If Johnson is granted clemency, “that’s a win,” she said.
In an email, Ajamu passed along a message from her brother. People “need to know that this is a process,” Shipp wrote. In the years he has been incarcerated, he has been passed over plenty of times. When lawmakers finally passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced the racist disparities governing crack versus powder cocaine sentences — from a ratio of 100-1 to 18-1 — he was not among the beneficiaries. Still, “we were happy for those it did affect.”
“These are real people … real lives that matter to those who truly love them, so any victory, no matter how small — is still a win!” To give up is “the equivalent of giving up on life,” he wrote. “We will never give them that victory. … SO WE FIGHT!”