Ramona Brant

Ramona Brant was a first time nonviolent drug offender when she received a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine. She served over 20 years before her sentence was commuted by President Obama on Dec. 18, 2015.

I grew up in Long Island, New York. It was a nice life and even when my parents got divorced around the time I turned 12 years old, we still maintained a strong family with my dad always there and involved, making sure I grew up in the church.

Later in life I moved to Charlotte, NC where I met a man. Initially it was the relationship I’d always dreamed of having but during my first pregnancy, he became abusive. I went back to Long Island and he visited me to plead that I come back to him, promising to never hurt me again. I went back to Charlotte with him and after my son was born, it seemed like life was back to normal.

Then I became pregnant a second time and not only did the abuse return, it came one hundred times worse. I felt trapped because I didn’t know how to talk about what he was doing to me, not even to my mom, and he threatened to take my children away if I reported the abuse.

I was aware of his activity as a drug dealer and there were times that I would accompany him when he picked up cocaine or I’d help him deliver messages over the phone. But I wasn’t a drug dealer and I never sold or bought drugs.

In 1993 he was arrested on a conspiracy charge. There were no physical drugs found in this case and he was offered a plea deal where prosecutors promised not to indict me if accepted their terms. He refused, saying that if he couldn’t have me, nobody else would. So, I was charged and decided to go to trial not knowing that with conspiracy laws simply having the knowledge of his actions was enough for me to be found guilty.

The trial lasted two days. There were three guys who testified that I knew what was happening and I don’t deny that. But nobody ever testified I sold drugs or purchased drugs — just that I was present while this was going on. I was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and cocaine base on October 13, 1994.

I was sentenced to life in prison in February of 1995.

At sentencing, my lawyer tried to introduce evidence that I had been abused, including police reports, but it wasn’t allowed. It seemed like nobody was concerned that I was in this abusive relationship or that I was always under his control. I felt helpless. The only thing the jury heard was testimony from others who received lesser sentences and they weren’t aware that I was facing a life sentence. I want to believe that had they known this, as well as the abuse I endured, they would have decided differently.

When I heard “life in prison” I had no understanding of what this really meant beyond the fact that I had two children, three and four years old, who I was not going to be able to raise. My parents were at a time in their lives when they should have been focused on retiring and enjoying their grandchildren but instead they had to become mom and dad to my children. Worse, my father had just been diagnosed with dementia.

My judge noted that he disagreed with the life sentence saying, “I absolutely am shocked at the severity of the sentence. It appears to me that it would be counterproductive for society to keep you in prison for the rest of your life. I think that after you learned your lesson, that you will come out and have the capability of being a useful citizen.” But with mandatory minimums he didn’t have a choice.

When I won my appeal and went back, the judge asked the prosecutor to depart from the life sentence and she said “absolutely not.” Once again I was sentenced to die in prison.

My prison sentence began in Danbury, Connecticut.

I never got used to the rules in prison. I tried to condition myself to not be incarcerated in my mental state to maintain some sense of freedom. So even though I followed the rules I also didn’t follow them so to speak — I never got in trouble because I never crossed a line but there were many things done in repetition that I just couldn’t bring myself do.

One thing that became clear was that, like me, many of the women I met were there because of a relationship with a man, a boyfriend or husband.

I had used drugs as a way to escape the abuse I was enduring, so I decided to enter a drug treatment program in prison which really did help me learn the impacts drug abuse can have on people. This 500-hour treatment program, which I completed, usually earns people time off but that didn’t apply to me because of my life sentence.

I returned to what I grew up on: my faith. I spent a lot of my time praying and studying and learning what God meant to me, not just what other people had told me. This is where I drew my strength and the confidence that I wouldn’t die in prison. At the prison chapel I helped lead a choir and I took many classes because I hoped to come out with skills that allowed me to get a job and provide for myself.

My sons were three and four years old when their mom and dad were sent to prison for life. That’s a lot for a child to deal with. I did what I could to be a good mom from prison and to be a presence in their lives. I even called their teachers to get updates on how they were doing in school.

My mother would ended up taking care of both of my sons and she would bring them to visit me at least once a year and make sure that we spoke on the phone regularly. I never lost hope that I would someday have a chance to leave prison and reunited with them. That’s why I was always working or taking courses.

“Lifers” like me had to fight for the opportunity just to take courses. We were told it would be a waste of resources. It was like they didn’t even know what to do with us. Eventually I persuaded them and went on to earn a certificate in business Maris College and took cooking classes. I organized a talent show for others inmates and some of the officers came to watch.

In 20 years in prison I never had a disciplinary complaint so I began working on my petition for clemency with my lawyer, Jason Cassel. We filed it in early 2015. It was a strong petition as I not only had completed all of these courses, I also had recommendations from my program supervisors.

President Obama commuted my sentence on December 18, 2015.

A guard woke me up at 5AM and explained I would be going out on a medical trip. I was placed in handcuffs and brought to the SHU to wait to be transported. As I was sitting in the cell, I started singing a song that the chaplain would sing during Sunday services called “Thank you lord for all that you have done for me.” I really began to worship God that morning.

When we returned from the medical trip, I saw a guard who I wasn’t on great terms with approaching me and expected be hassled. It wasn’t until she got very close to me that I realized her whole demeanor was different. She said, “Ms. Brant, I have something to tell you. President Obama called her today, you’re going home.”

I just cried and cried. I cried so much they sat me down, worried I might end up needing medical attention. As I calmed down, one of the guards asked how long I had been there and when I told them 21 years, they all started crying too. The whole staff gathered around me and were truly excited for me. When the other inmates found out their was an uproar of joy. We all celebrated the news.

I called my son and told him I was coming home. He didn’t believe me. I said no, this time it’s really happening, President Obama commuted my sentence and I’m coming home. I told him to wait to tell his brother so we could surprise him but he was already posting to social media! It was an incredible feeling to know not only that I would be finally reunited with my children, but for them to know that as well.

Still, it was bittersweet. These women had become my family. One woman was there with me for my entire sentence. She showed me the rules and helped me acclimate but she is still there serving her life sentence. It was hard to rejoice and walking out of those doors was just as hard as walking in. The last eyes I looked into were Michelle West’s and I told her, “I can’t promise you I’ll get you out. I can’t promise I’ll get any of you out. But I will be your voice.”

When I left prison I was transferred to a halfway house where I kept President Obama’s letter with me all the time. It served as a reminder that freedom was really mine and that I am capable of overcoming the new obstacles life will bring my way just as I did in prison.

I married in March of 2017.

I wasn’t looking for a significant other. While attending church during my time in the federal halfway house, I met Ellis. We would talk about politics, and reentry, and our dreams and goals in life. It was clear that we had the same passions and we connected. Sometimes we ask ourselves “how did this happen?.” But we’re very happy.

I even got to meet and have lunch with President Obama in Washington. I was there to speak at a White House event with other clemency recipients and we were brought to a restaurant, Busboys & Poets. As I was walking past a black car surrounded by secret service, President Obama got out and said, “Hey Ramona! Come on, I’m taking you to lunch.” I thought I was going to pass out. The President knew my name! More than that, I sat next to him during our meal and it  was just surreal to sit next to the person who wrote me the letter that gave me a second chance at life.

I now work for the city of Charlotte and continue to speak up for reform. My cause and my fight is to create housing and employment for those who are re-entering, to give them the opportunity for entrepreneurship and self-reliance. And of course, to free those I left behind.

Photos and story editing by Jon Perri Twitter

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