Though Stephanie Shepard will never get back the nine years she spent incarcerated, she’s dedicating her life to helping others achieve their freedom. As the Partnerships Manager and a member of the Board of Directors at Last Prisoner Project (LPP), Shepard is an integral part of the nonprofit’s mission to release people imprisoned on cannabis-related charges, provide various aid and services to those behind bars, and facilitate reentry into the community. She feels it’s her own personal purpose to lend her experience wherever she can, having originally come to LPP as a constituent in 2019 shortly after being paroled. Now, with her addition to the organization’s board just a few months ago, she’s already making further impact by bringing in another activist, M1 of the iconic hip hop group Dead Prez, to take LPP’s reach to new levels.
Last Prisoner Project, M1 of Dead Prez, and the Let's Get Free Concert at SXSW 2023
M1, Shepard, and the LPP team will be taking South by Southwest 2023 by storm this week. The highlight of the festivities will occur on Monday, March 13th at The Far Out Lounge with the Let’s Get Free Concert, a benefit featuring the talents of Dead Prez, special guests, and appearances from Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, the creators and stars of the hit TV series Blindspotting. Let’s Get Free is hosted by cannabis advocacy group Keep Austin Weed and presented by DeLisioso, the brand established by Richard DeLisi - formerly the nation’s longest-serving cannabis prisoner, who was released in December 2020 after serving 32 years and decided to go full-circle by forming a company with his family to make the plant more accessible to all. Honeysuckle is proud to be a partner at this outstanding concert for a cause, alongside sponsors including PAX and Natural Ways CBD. ($10 donation suggested; get advance tickets on Eventbrite.)
Where Else Can You Find Last Prisoner Project and M1 at SXSW 2023? Outlaw Party and SXSW Cannabis Track
Before the music begins, the crowd at SXSW will hear from M1 and Shepard up close and personal on Friday, March 10th at Grow House Media’s third annual Outlaw Party. The Texas-based cannabis media company traditionally hosts this advocacy event on the opening night of SXSW; this year’s party will feature a keynote from M1 and talks from Shepard and Ferrell Scott, a fellow LPP constituent who served 13 years in prison. Meanwhile, guests will enjoy food and beverages throughout the night, two DJs, 360-degree views of Austin, open-air consumption spaces, multiple bars, a joint rolling station, and live artwork, all at an undisclosed location. Sponsors include PAX, Weedmaps, DeLisioso, MJ Unpacked, Nabis, OpenBook Extracts, and MJBiz. Tickets are free, but the RSVP-only event is now at capacity with a waitlist. Last year’s party had 400 attendees!
Throughout SXSW’s strong cannabis track this season, LPP makes its presence known. The organization’s Managing Director Mary Bailey will be on hand for mentor meetings on Saturday, March 11th 4-5:15PM CT. And don’t miss many other exciting programs throughout the conference.
Last Prisoner Project's Stephanie Shepard Talks M1, Aiding Cannabis Prisoners, and the Future of Restorative Justice
Ahead of the whirlwind, Shepard spoke to Honeysuckle about getting M1 on LPP’s board, the organization’s next steps, and what every person can do to help cannabis prisoners in 60 seconds or less.
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: Congratulations on joining LPP’s Board of Directors!
STEPHANIE SHEPARD: Thank you. It’s been a couple of months now that I’ve been on the Board of Directors, and it’s been nice to be able to lend my voice to the direction of the organization with my background especially. I came to Last Prisoner Project as a constituent. When I got out in 2019, I met up with the founders at one of their first fundraisers, and they were really just starting to get off the ground. [A girl I had been incarcerated with was] sharing her story at that fundraiser in San Francisco. I had been so embarrassed by it all, getting arrested, getting caught, going to prison. But when I saw and heard a room full of people get [this girl’s] story, connect with it and want to change the system, I realized my story, my experiences can land. I wanted to do anything I could to help. I’ve been with LPP ever since, first as a volunteer, then as Partnerships Manager and now as a Board member.
You’ve also been responsible for bringing on M1 of Dead Prez as a Board member. You were the first to nominate him, right?
Yes, M1 is now a Board colleague of mine. That’s very exciting because he’s so passionate about just doing the right thing. Being able to have his voice on our Board, especially as a Black man in America who sees the injustices that we face disproportionately with cannabis sentencing, is powerful.
We’ve followed M1’s work for a long time. He spoke very passionately about freeing cannabis prisoners when he protested with LPP in front of the White House this October.
For me, that was the thing that said this person really cares. That at his level he would take time out of his schedule to come and lend a voice to our incarcerated cannabis community. That just made me say, “Yeah, I definitely want to have him sit on the Board with me.” I thought it was important to have a Black man’s perspective on the Board so that voice can be heard, and I thought his voice was just perfect for that.
But you and M1 have worked together closely even before the protest, correct?
I met M1 maybe two years ago. He and [rapper] Talib Kweli moderated a panel discussion for Weedmaps for 420. It was Evelyn LaChappelle, Corvain Cooper, Donte Westmoreland, and myself [all LPP constituents and ambassadors] on the panel. We were part of an all-day streaming of different artists and different conversations being had for 420. Ever since then, I’ve just paid more attention to the work that M1 did on other topics and issues, and I was so impressed with him. I’ve always enjoyed his vibe, so being able to nominate him for the Board and having the Board agree, it meant a lot because he’s someone I truly respect. He’s a wonderful family man. A gentleman. Talented. He’s just awesome, to be able to get some of his energy is fantastic.
Our Board meets monthly as a group, and part of that is helping make all the different ideas and voices heard. I have some experience as the only person on the board who has been to prison for cannabis, so come from that angle. M1 has a wonderful background in fighting on many different levels for political prisoners, cannabis prisoners and everyone else. Everyone brings something unique to the table. To make the organization run as well as Last Prisoner Project has been run, all those voices have to be heard from all different angles. So it's really nice to get different perspectives.
So the Let’s Get Free Concert partly celebrates M1 becoming a Board member, but it’s also going to be a significant event for LPP overall.
It’s going to be really exciting. I’m a huge hip hop fan, but I’ve actually never seen Dead Prez perform live, so this is going to be a first for me. It’s a free concert, with suggested donations, featuring Dead Prez and several surprises mixed in there.
Change in this industry should start with the release of cannabis prisoners. We care about getting people home to their families. We care about the policy changes so that people are not getting arrested in this country every 90 seconds for cannabis. Those are our goals. And then once people get home, if they decide that the lane they want to take is the legal cannabis industry, we are also there to support them any way we can in those efforts as well. One of our constituents is Richard DeLisi, who has a wonderful brand DeLisioso that is our main sponsor for the Let’s Get Free Concert. It’s amazing to see our partners who believe in us and see our work, and don’t mind putting some money behind it to further that work. But instead of one person at a time, let’s do hundreds, let’s do thousands. This is the same plant that you can get delivered to your front door [in some states]. So no one should be in prison for that and away from their families and missing important events.
That’s why this concert is a benefit concert. Hopefully people will feel compelled to want to help in the fight and they come out, have a good time, get to meet M1, whatever other surprises will be there. But it’s really in the name of getting the word out, letting people know that there are tens of thousands of people in prison for cannabis. I hope people use their voices and participate in campaigns like our Pardons to Progress campaign or any of the other actionable items that people can do in less than 60 seconds. And if we raise enough money, we can use those funds to go to our reentry program and grants.
What can people do to contribute to LPP and help cannabis prisoners in 60 seconds or less?
They can go to our website and sign a petition. They can send a letter to their governor. They can write to someone incarcerated for cannabis. They can help someone like Kevin Allen, who is currently serving a life sentence in Louisiana for selling $20 worth of cannabis. You can kill someone and be out in 40 years, but you sell $20 of cannabis and get life. It makes no sense. But that’s why my message to people is always just do something, write something, say something instead of ignoring it. Even if it’s not your problem, I guarantee it’s someone in your family or your friend’s problem. Signing petitions may feel small, but it has a big impact because it makes our voices heard and helps politicians to feel the pressure to change their policies.
Can you explain more about LPP’s Pardons to Progress campaign?
In October 2022, President Biden pardoned thousands of people convicted of federal possession charges. Now, we know he didn’t actually let anybody out of prison, but one of the good things that did come out of that announcement was that he called on state governors to let people out of prison. And that’s where the majority of cannabis prisoners are, on the state level. So our Pardons to Progress campaign goes to the governors and says, “This is what we collectively as a people want.” But it’s got to be a push and they’ve got to feel that pressure through signatures and sharing of information.
We’re also working on a New Jersey clemency initiative in particular, because the state has been developing its recreational cannabis sales. While they have made some progress with expungement, there are still many others who remain incarcerated in the state and we’ve combined our efforts with a coalition of advocacy groups to call on the governor there to release those cannabis prisoners.
Another of LPP’s most important programs is the reentry program, which includes grants of up to $5000 to people who have just been released from prison. What is the impact of those grants?
$5000 doesn’t sound like a lot to some people. But when you’re coming home from prison and you haven’t touched money - in my case, in nine years - having that control back is like a small piece of not having to depend on someone if you want to even just buy a pair of socks. That grant is first and last month’s rent somewhere. That grant is a used car to help you get back and forth to work or your probation appointments or whatever you need to do. So it really jumpstarts your life.
Aside from those grants, we have grants that help with commissary funding for those who are incarcerated. We put money in people’s commissary accounts quarterly… That pays for hygiene items, food. You can use it for the phone and for video calls where you can actually see your family. A lot of those things have been shut down during Covid and during lockdowns they have. When you’re on lockdown, you can’t use the computer to get emails from your family or do video calls or even use the phone. So that’s where I’m really proud of LPP’s letter writing program too.
We also do family support. People think that prison is free, like you have everything taken care of, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. So once again, the responsibility falls back on your family and God forbid that you are the breadwinner in your family, and now you're incarcerated and you've left your spouse and your child at home. So it's hard for them. Plenty of days my sister put money on my account when I feel like she didn't have it, but she always got it. Everybody doesn't have it like that. Some of these people did have to leave their children at home. Some of these children have grown up without their parents. Some are college age, so a grant to help them pay for books or housing or a car, that's a small thing that we can do as free people who are enjoying the privilege of the plant without being afraid that they're going to go to prison for it. I can’t, because on top of my 10-year sentence I got a 5-year probation so I’m still going through that. But for those who can buy whatever they want and consume it, this is a small thing to give back.
LPP’s letter writing program is also on the website?
That’s on our take action page; you can digitally send a letter to a prisoner. It has a letter guide. Send that message of hope, because when I was incarcerated, I didn't have that. To be able to help facilitate knowing that this may be the only communication that people are getting from the outside, and these people are actually fighting for their release and caring like that would make a huge difference in the time you're doing. That’s another small thing people can do to be active and make their voices heard.
Since partnerships is your forte, what are you looking for from corporate or nonprofit or other groups who may want to partner with LPP?
There’s something that everyone can bring to the table. We have some small business partners and they sometimes will send a nice donation, but others wonder, “Hey, we’re just starting out, what can we do?” Then we give them other tools. If you’re a brand or a dispensary or other business that’s smaller and you want to be involved, there are different levels of partnership. And we love businesses that aren’t part of the cannabis industry, but just want to recognize that freedom and love too. The level that most partners come in at is $1000 a month, and that gives you different incentives to be able to use LPP’s logo on your packaging and some other things. But anybody can help and be part of the fight. We’re here for all of it.
What else can we expect from LPP after SXSW?
420 is quickly approaching. Everyone is going to be celebrating. We’ve been working hard to partner with people who understand that yes, it’s a great business day for people partaking. But for Michael Woods and Edwin Rubis and Parker Coleman and all those incarcerated, it’s not. So if on 420 people feel compelled to do something, they can go on our website and do just that.
We’ll also be headed to the National Cannabis Festival in Washington D.C. on April 22. Then we’ll be at MJ Unpacked in New York April 26-28. I’ll be moderating my first panel there, the Legacy to Legal panel. There’s a lot on the advocacy side, so stay tuned.
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Featured image: M1 of Dead Prez speaks outside the White House to protest for the freedom of cannabis prisoners with Last Prisoner Project and other advocacy groups (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media @tissuekulture