Is there real hope for prison reform? Nonviolent offenders and the "Kim Kardashian moment"

Activist and ex-convict Amy Povah on the window for real reform opened by the release of Alice Marie Johnson

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published June 29, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

 (Reuters/Fred Thornhill)
(Reuters/Fred Thornhill)

When Kim Kardashian went to the White House in May to advocate for prison reform and clemency, it was the first time many of us had heard of Alice Marie Johnson. In the early '90s, after she'd lost her job with FedEx, the Alabama grandmother became involved in a local drug trafficking operation. She maintains she only handled coded messages via phone and never handled drugs directly. For doing that, she had been serving a life sentence. But Johnson, who is now a free woman, had long been on Amy Povah's radar. Like Johnson, Povah had lost years of her life to the punitive war on drugs.

Back in the late '80s, a few years into her marriage to her now ex-husband, Povah discovered that he had been involved in an international ecstasy business. He asked her to handle some "financial matters" for him while he was dealing with some legal wrangling. At her trial, there was no evidence she'd sold drugs or been directly involved with the dealers. The ex eventually served four years in prison. For conspiracy, Amy was sentenced to 24.

"As is so often the case with conspiracy laws," she now says, "you can just be one spoke in the wheel and no clue what your network is." And you can wind up incarcerated indefinitely.

Grassroots efforts for justice for Povah kept her story from being completely forgotten, and a 1999 Glamour magazine feature on her plight helped lead to her sentence being commuted under the Clinton administration. She had served nine years. "It’s been a long journey," she says.

Today, Povah is the founder of CAN-DO, a nonprofit foundation whose shorthand name stands for Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders. The organization seeks to educate the public about drug conspiracy laws and advocate for those currently incarcerated under them. Back in 2015, Povah put Alice Marie Johnson at the top of her list of women who deserved clemency.

There are roughly 2 million people in the current U.S. prison and pre-trial detainee population. A 2016 Time magazine report found that nearly 40 percent of them are incarcerated "with little public safety rationale," and a quarter of them are there for nonviolent, low-level offenses (usually related to drugs).

When asked why she thinks that the harsh sentences have continued, administration after administration, under Democrats and Republicans alike, Povah says, "There’s been movement on sentencing reform and prison reform, and yet there’s always some villain" who prevents any such legislation from being passed. "Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is one. Mitch McConnell is one." And then, she says, "of course" you can't neglect Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

"Here we are in 2018 and I have to listen to Jeff Sessions continue with this narrative that there is no such thing as a low-level drug offender in federal prison," Povah says. "A lot of people believe when they hear Sessions say everybody in federal prison was a major drug dealer. That’s just not true. He bases that on the fact that most of our cases are conspiracy cases. But there are many low-level offenders inside that conspiracy case. I was a victim of conspiracy law. They came to my home and shoved me in the interrogation hot seat and told me I was looking at 20 [years] to life unless I became a working informant."

Much of the incentive to put people in prison and keep them there appears to boil down to money. Povah recalls, "Once I got to prison, I was sitting in orientation and the staff comes through and explains how the education department works and how the kitchen works and how recreation works and that everybody has a job." Then somebody new showed up, she recalls, "and it's like he’s part of a pyramid scheme, because he is so excited and full of energy and he hopes that we would go to work at Unicor."

What is Unicor? Originally known as the Federal Prison Industries Program, Unicor is one of country's cheapest and least known labor sources. "They say that they rehabilitate and teach prisoners a trade," Povah explains. "Unicor has been around for a long time, but at some point I am certain the lights went on and it was like, 'Hey we can make a lot of money with this.'

"They start you off with 23 cents an hour. All the federal agencies at one point were mandated to buy products from Unicor. They didn’t have a choice. So just imagine every government building — the desks, the chairs, the curtains, you name it — had to buy the goods from Unicor. We are building a desk [in prison] where we don’t get sick leave or vacation pay or pensions. And here’s the deal: They don’t pass on the savings to the taxpayer."

But that's just the beginning of the profit potential of incarceration. Starting back in the years of what Povah calls the "drug war on steroids," the incentives for towns to cash in on prisoners became more generous. "They would literally allocate funds in communities to show that they were prosecuting these drug cases." Then the controversial but profitable procedure or asset forfeiture kicked in, "where they are seizing assets -- so cops, prosecutors, everybody are incentivized and pressured."

With the pardon of Alice Johnson, the current administration — even as it simultaneously pushes for the death penalty for some drug offenses  has brought new attention to the plight of non-violent drug offenders. Povah is trying to stay cautiously hopeful.

"I am encouraged that for the first time we are seeing somebody who possibly understands the complexities of the Office of the Pardon Attorney being controlled by the Department of Justice," she says. "There are a lot of dirty cases and they don’t want those to see the light of day, so they let their prosecutors have the largest voice as to which cases go over there. Trump now apparently understands this and that is why he’s asking for a list. We are honored to have been asked to provided a list, so fingers crossed."

Prison reform has become one of the few potential bipartisan successes of the administration. "I went to the White House for Jared Kushner's prison reform summit," Povah recalls, "and it looks like, now that we have got this [plan] past the House, the same reforms are going to be added at the Senate level." She is encouraged that Trump and other Republicans have "stopped saying that we need to just lock up drug offenders. ... I foresee that change is on the way, and I am excited."

But while reform movements, along with legalization efforts and calls for fewer drug arrests and lighter sentences have gained some traction, Povah remains frustrated at the minimal attention given to cases that don't have a Kardashian stamp of approval. "We are not the bogeyman," she says. "Almost every family in the country now has somebody who has been touched by the drug laws in some way. I can see that this terrain is shifting because we have demanded a seat at the table with policy makers.

"We are very strong now; we get into panels and we tell our stories. In the past, we would be in the cheap seats because there was a perception that people who have been to prison cannot articulate themselves properly, or they are not educated enough. We are very articulate, and our stories are really compelling when we share them." Political leaders still lack "the political strength, the backbone or the will to get everyone on board," Povah says, and it may be up to people like her to create change. "We need to be making demands. We need our stories elevated."

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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