Amy Ralston Povah served nine years in prison before President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence. Though she had no active involvement of any kind in her ex-husband’s drug activities, the conspiracy laws were so broad that all of his crimes were imputed to her as well. She is now one of the most knowledgeable and effective advocates for executive clemency, and for sensible reform of the criminal justice reform. Her group, CAN-DO recommends candidates for clemency (sentence reduction), including Alice Johnson, whose sentence was commuted following Kim Kardashian West’s meeting with President Donald Trump. In an interview, she talked about the impact of the drug wars’ mandatory sentences and her priorities for change.
Do we send too many people to prison?
Stats speak volumes — we make up only 5 percent of the world’s population but incarcerate almost one quarter of the prison population — this is an ALARM BELL to the world that has gone unheeded.
The United States population was 319 million as of July 4, 2014, according to the U.S. Census. That accounts for about 4.4 percent of the approximately 7.1 billion world population, which confirms the first part of this claim.
The second part comes from the World Prison Population List, published by the U.K.-based International Centre for Prison Studies. It is considered the go-to source for the breakdown of global prison populations. The most recent report, the 10th edition, used data from 222 countries from September 2011 through September 2013.
There were 2.24 million prisoners in the United States as of Dec. 31, 2011. That accounted for about 22 percent of the global prison population (10.2 million). About half of the prisoners in the world were in the United States, Russia or China.
How have our ideas about who should go to prison changed over the last 30 years?
Two words — slave labor. Starting in the mid to late 80s there was a concerted effort to grow the prison industrial complex through a series of legislation that was by design — not happenstance. Parole was abolished so no one in the federal prison system meets with a parole board that can assess whether a prisoner has rehabilitated. This drastically slowed people from leaving prison and many going in were given mandatory sentences of 20 to life if they exercised their 6th Amendment right to a trial. That caused the prison population to swell and made our nation the world’s largest penal colony.
Mandatory sentences shifted the power from judges to prosecutors. Judges sentence people based on a chart by adding up all the drugs dealt by other people in a conspiracy — sometimes twenty people lumped into one indictment . My own sentence was based on all the MDMA (Ecstasy) my now-ex husband manufactured and he — the undisputed kingpin — cut a deal and got 3 years probation. Because I went to trial, I was held responsible for everything he and others did, so you have two choices. Provide substantial assistance and help convict others, or go to trial and trigger a mandatory sentence of 10 years to life. Post conviction, you enter the system and learn about the long list of companies that profit from this nation’s prison labor force who pay pennies per hour — no benefits, or vacation pay. That’s when the lightbulb goes on and you finally realize what this is all about.
What should our priorities be in sentencing policy?
To determine who is a real threat to society. A first time drug offender used to get probation — now, we have first time drug offenders serving LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE. Many are women like me who were merely on the peripheral edges of a conspiracy due to our relationship with family member, spouse, etc.
What is the difference between a pardon and clemency and when is each appropriate?
That’s tricky — but normally when someone refers to a “pardon” that means a “full pardon.” You are completely forgiven and your rights are restored to vote, own a gun, etc. “Clemency” is referenced when a prisoner gets a “commutation of sentence” and gets released from prison but in almost every case they still serve the probation prong of the sentence. “Clemency” means mercy so it can come in the form of a commutation or a full pardon. So clemency = commutation pardon = full pardon. Typically, you can’t apply for a full pardon until you’ve been “off paper” for five years and have a clean record. Both clemency and a pardon are appropriate when a petitioner can display good cause, but sadly it’s typically a lottery system with no rhyme or reasons as to who gets it and who doesn’t. That’s why the Office of the Pardon Attorney must come out of the Department of Justice because it’s a conflict of interest for those who put us in prison to have final say as to which cases will make it over to the White House.
Why are these issues so important to you?
I was a victim of our conspiracy laws. I tried to help my then-husband after he was arrested (we had been separated for over a year, but still friends) so I collected bail money — most of it was not kosher and he never got bail. My good intentions to help him unwittingly sucked me into the conspiracy law because it only takes one overt act, and you’re responsible for all the drugs dealt in a conspiracy case . In prison, I met many women who’d done less than I had, serving 20 to life. Once free, it’s impossible to go on with your life because you can’t stop thinking about the people still trapped in there. Formerly incarcerated people have an obligation to educate others and I chose a lane; to help prisoners seeking “justice through clemency.” Things are finally changing, mostly due to all the formerly incarcerated people who mean business. We’ve demanded a seat at the table with policy makers. We don’t go home at the end of the day and put our feet up — we are on our computers until the wee hours of the morning, getting out voices out there, writing op- eds, strategizing, conferencing, etc. It was gratifying when the White House asked their source for a list of clemency candidates and they called me, due to 18 years of hard work identifying people in prison and advocating for them.
What is the most significant misunderstanding most people have about prisoners?
We are not like the prisoners you see on TV shows like “Lock Up.” The Bureau of Prisons will not let our stories be told or let camera crews in so sadly, the public only sees sensationalism and a variety of cherry picked individuals that scare people. We are just like your neighbors, and many of your neighbors are formerly incarcerated people whether you know it or not.
Why was Alice Johnson’s story so compelling?
Alice was #1 on the CAN-DO Top 25 women for a reason. She was a low level first offender with a life sentence. But it was her inner spark that captured my attention. The warden appreciated her so much she was given special privileges — other prisoners aren’t allowed to Skype into the public domain. I knew Alice could Skype because she is a playwright and the outside community would come in to watch them. I now serve on the board of the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and they tried to Skype Michelle Miles into Columbia University but she got into trouble for Skyping (she later got clemency from President Obama). I only knew of one person in the federal prison system who might have that privilege — Alice Johnson. She was approved and we started Skyping her into Yale, Wash State, NYU, and posting on social media. Van Jones’ #Cut50 Skyped her into Google and Topeka Sam, co-founder of the Council and Director of the Dignity Act for #Cut50 connected Alice with MIC, which caught the eye of Kim Kardashian West. Kim Kardashian West’s attorney, Shawn Holley, found Alice on the CAN-DO site and called at Kim’s behest, asking to be connected to Alice. Then Kim assembled the legal team; Jennifer Turner, Brittany Barnett, and Michael Scholl.
As part of Team Alice, I thought Kim should reach out to the White House because last November, the White House reached out to [Georgetown law professor and former prisoner] Shon Hopwood seeking info on Alice. Hopwood called me asking if there was any violence in her case, but said not to tell anyone about the White House inquiry. He assumed they were looking for a case to emphasize the need for prison reform, since that was being debated and some folks in the administration were not on board with it. I made an executive decision and reneged on that promise because we were strategizing what Kim’s next move would be. I alerted Kim’s attorney that the White House was aware of Alice’s case and the decision was made for Kim to contact Ivanka. Seven months later Alice was set free! I now call Alice the 8th Wonder of the World.
If you could make one change in the prison or sentencing system, what would it be?
End the drug war, but “one change” is not enough. Bring back a fair, unbiased parole board. Abolish life without parole sentences. Under old law, a life sentence was no longer than 30 years — we don’t need to house octogenarians in prison. End mandatory minimums. First offenders should get probation first and if they violate probation then go to the next step, but give first offenders a chance. When I came of age drug use was referred to as “recreational drug use,” a benign term — overnight anyone associated with drugs or drug use was referred to as “a scourge” by President H.W. Bush, who I suspect was mad that his own son had a drug habit and he took it out on the rest of us. (That’s sort of a joke — but sometimes I wonder.)
What is CAN-DO and where does it get its money?
CAN-DO stands for Clemency for All Non-violent Drug Offenders and we are a 100 percent volunteer staff — NO ONE gets paid including me. We do get a few donations but we have never applied for a grant (we are about to as we are overwhelmed) and only recently was I hired as an Independent Contractor by another organization that wanted our help… but it’s for services and not a donation. We would love nothing more than for a benefactor to step up and offer to fund us so we can hire a few people, as we are overwhelmed. Everyone who volunteers also works full time (except me — I’m full time CAN-DO) and they volunteer because they have a loved one in prison and are personally impacted.
Where should people go to learn more?
CAN-DO, Cut50, Ladies of Hope Ministries, National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, Justice Round Table, Civil SurvivalOperation Restoration, Project Liberation, Beauty After the Bars Prison Expert Equal Justice Under the Law Fed Fam 4 Life RDAP Consultants Life for Pot Crack Open the Door