SXSW is known for its music, film and comedy festival but they also offer some empowering conferences and panels that highlight various industries, including their revolutionary Cannabis Track that focuses on the cannabis industry. Celebrating the historic 50th anniversary of 4/20, National Cannabis Day, we look at one of the most incredible panels to come out of this year’s SXSW. Truth to Power: Restorative Justice In Cannabis featured veteran cannabis pioneer Steve DeAngelo, founder of the Last Prisoner Project, and his powerhouse team: Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel; Stephanie Shepard, an advisor; and Evelyn Lachapelle, reentry coordinator and advisory board member. The Last Prisoner Project is a nonprofit centered on restorative justice for cannabis prisoners, including efforts to release people currently incarcerated on marijuana-related charges and providing transitional resources for those recently paroled. All panelists shared powerful stories that showed the audience exactly what Last Prisoner Project strives to do. 

Evelyn Lachapelle: Striving Forward

Last Prisoner Project’s staff members have a strong connection with the people they are helping. Evelyn Lachapelle took the time during the panel to share her story about being  imprisoned for cannabis and how it brought her to work with the organization. 

In 2013 Evelyn was convicted on a first-time offense for depositing cannabis profits from a small distribution operation into her personal bank account. She was sentenced to 87 months in prison and ended up serving 5 years and 3 months with two years off for good behavior and completing the drug program. When Evelyn was released on February 1, 2019, beginning a 4-year probation sentence, she found that it was not the freedom she was hoping for. Evelyn finally found herself a job, from which she was shortly fired due to a coworker mentioning her charges and prison record to their boss.. Upon being introduced to Last Prisoner Project, Evelyn realized the depth of the wrongs in her conviction and decided to work to help other people who had had similar experiences. Today, aside from Last Prisoner Project, she has her own cannabis essentials brand Eighty Seven (for the number of months she served in prison), geared toward providing a cannabis consumption experience that amplifies the voices of current and formerly incarcerated women. Most recently, Evelyn appeared in Vanity Fair and PAX’s docuseries The Human Toll: How the War on Cannabis Targeted Black America, explaining how the nation’s punitive system has lifelong consequences for her and others.

Stephanie Shepard: Building Onto The Past

Stephanie Shepard’s path crossed Evelyn’s while in prison. Stephanie, also a first-time offender, was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2010 for conspiracy to distribute 1,000 or more kilos of cannabis. In reality, beyond selling just four ounces of cannabis, Stephanie’s only real involvement in distribution was acting as a caretaker to an ailing cannabis patient who sold the plant to make ends meet. Stephanie was left shocked that she had such a severe sentencing on her first offence. She was given a year off for completing the same drug program Evelyn completed, and was placed on probation on June 5, 2019. Evelyn introduced Stephanie to Last Prisoner Project, which helped convince the latter to share her story and help others. 

Prison’s Drug Program

Both Evelyn and Stephanie completed the federally-mandated drug program, part of the Second Chance Act, while serving their time. This drug program forces people to claim they are addicted to a drug even if they aren’t, in order to receive therapy and transitional benefits including a year off their prison sentences. Given this, most participants attempt to complete the program. However, as many who have actually gone through the program attest, it is mentally damaging and emotionally draining to work through such a curriculum based on treating an addiction that you don’t really have.

Lost Sense Of Self

Steve DeAngelo, a veteran cannabis activist nearly five decades, highlighted the trauma that occurs within prison and within the drug programs because they strip people of their sense of self and the system makes sure of that. Last Prisoner Project works hard on reintegration into society because it is one of the most aspects of being released from prison. People must build up the confidence to live their lives again. They must find a job without any professional help and a sentence follows them everywhere. They also need safe places to live, healthy relationships with their family and to make sure everyone they care about is safe in order to maintain good mental health. Aspects like good hygiene and health, which are neglected within prison, can hinder one’s ability to land a job. 

Is There Hope In The Future?

Steve addressed the possibility of hope for these issues with the new administration in office, but emphasized that “we must remember the facts.” President Joe Biden is one of the chief figures responsible for the three-strikes law largely implemented in 1994, which requires people facing one severe violent felony charge and two previous convictions, violent or nonviolent, to serve a lifetime prison sentence. Vice President Kamala Harris has been responsible for many arrests and cannabis-related convictions during her tenure as attorney general of California. 

The President has the ability to take cannabis off the scheduled drugs list, and to release all prisoners of cannabis. It is up to us to work towards making the government help the people still imprisoned for cannabis-related offences. Some ways to start include supporting organizations like Last Prisoner Project that focus directly on restoration and reentry; writing to your local, state, and congressional representatives to introduce new legislation and funding to address these issues; and amplifying the stories of those who have been in prison.