When Stephanie Shepard first saw the world outside of prison after seven years of incarceration, she was passing through an airport. She had three more years to serve for a non-violent cannabis charge. It would be another two years before she began using her first-hand knowledge to champion other former convicts as a Development Associate with the Last Prisoner Project.
She had been given approval to travel alone for a prison transfer but still deemed too dangerous for full freedom. Her grey suit was the first non-prison garb she had worn in years. The only identification she carried was a prison ID. Like a traveler dropped in a foreign land—dress was different, language was different, culture had changed, and so had she.
“That was my first time in the free world and at that point, it had been maybe six or seven years,” Shepard told Honeysuckle. “I wanted to get back to prison. That's where I felt more comfortable.”
When Shepard was finally released, she returned to Sacramento to live with her family. Per the rules of her probation, she was given two weeks to find a job while wearing an ankle monitor. She also was required to inform every potential employer that she wasn’t only a convicted felon but that they would need to speak with her parole officer regularly.
“I just remember crying in the interview,” Shepard said. “Just having to say the word—I'm a felon. If you hire me, you will have to talk to my probation officer. You will have to sign paperwork stating you know I'm a felon. I can't stay any later than scheduled because I'm on an ankle monitor.”
Before prison, Shepard had been a successful real estate agent but her license was revoked upon conviction. After prison, the only place that would hire her was Starbucks. She was in her 40s; her manager was 19. The experience was more than demoralizing. Not only was she facing the adjustment of reentering the world a decade removed from the one she once knew, but every facet of her life was painted in the light of a former conviction.
First, upon release, she would need to physically check in with her probation officer with, at times, only a few hours of notice. Not only would her life be thrown into chaos at the last moment but also her sister would have to drop everything to drive her. The freedom and independence that was promised to her post-incarceration ended up a facade covering further infantilization.
Advocating for Cannabis Justice with Last Prisoner Project
Shepard says the first real freedom she felt was on a drive to San Francisco. It was the first time post-release that she was granted approval to leave her district. She took the trip to see Evelyn LaChapelle speak at a fundraiser for the cannabis justice nonprofit Last Prisoner Project (LPP). LaChapelle, Community Engagement Manager at LPP, spoke about her own experience as a former incarceree and how the organization had provided a lifeline for herself and her daughter. Shepard was sold. Now, as a Development Associate at the organization, she joins LaChapelle in advocating for the 40,000 people still in prison for cannabis charges.
Much of Shepard’s work revolves around getting funds for $5,000 reentry microgrants. Already, LPP has provided $600,000 to formerly incarcerated individuals, a group which is disproportionately made up of Black and brown folks while 90% of CEOs in the industry are white. As someone who has faced the return to the outside world firsthand, she knows the comfort and dignity that a financial cushion can provide. Shepard helps to raise these funds through programs like Roll it Up for Justice which prompts customers at cannabis shops across the country to donate to the reentry program. While Roll it Up for Justice continues to be incredibly successful, LPP’s most recent venue for acquiring the funds is through a collaboration with PAX Labs, an award-winning vaporizer brand.
PAX Labs and Last Prisoner Project: A Collaboration Fighting for Policy Reform
As the national leader in vape technology, PAX Labs holds a firm standing in the cannabis community. The company believes that fighting for a future where no one is incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis crimes is a moral imperative. In a show of its commitment to the cause, PAX designed a tote bag and bucket hat with all of the proceeds being donated to LPP in honor of their two-year anniversary.
Both the bucket hat and tote show a hand offering the peace sign with the overlain words, “Until the last cannabis prisoner is set free,” while the tote also reminds the public of the “40K+ Incarcerated for Cannabis in the US.” For PAX, stepping beyond performative activism was easy.
“Last Prisoner Project is doing such important work in this area, not just to free cannabis prisoners and help rebuild their lives, but to advocate for critical policy reform,” wrote Steven Jung, Chief Operating Officer at PAX. “We are proud and fortunate to be able to support them.”
Along with the financial support, PAX has honored Shepard’s work and experience along with LPP’s Legacy Fellow Donte West who will soon be highlighted in the documentary The Story of Donte West by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Kevin Wilmott (BlacKkKlansman).
What PAX sees as unique about LPP is its sustainable support of the restorative justice movement. And the feeling is mutual. When other cannabis companies’ support of formerly incarcerated people strikes Shepard as performative, she has always felt heard and seen by PAX. She emphasizes that cannabis companies need to not only put their money where their mouth is but make sure their money is being put in the right place, and the only way to do that is to listen.
“I've participated in their team meetings, which I think was also a driving point [for the products],” Shepard said. “I feel like once someone hears from someone who's been through it, what it's like and how it has impacted them and how it is currently impacting those incarcerated, I think it opens people's eyes a little bit more and it makes it more personal.”
Shepard’s work with LPP came not only with an increase in salary and a sense of purpose but also the satisfaction that comes with feeling useful. She felt that the skills she spent years developing as a realtor weren’t being put to use as a barista. Beyond easing reentry, she sees a huge opportunity for cannabis companies to hire former cannabis incarcerees who built the industry’s foundation. Shepard makes clear that the cannabis industry would not be the multi-billion dollar powerhouse it is today without the thousands who shepherded it through decades of being underground. PAX agrees.
“Beyond our external social impact initiatives, we understand the importance of reentry support and strive to make PAX a place where justice-impact individuals have access to career opportunities within the cannabis industry,” Jung wrote.
Last Prisoner Project Microgrants: Addressing Trauma from the War on Drugs
Good paying, stable positions within one of the few industries without an added stigma can change the future of those who have already lost so much to the over-criminalization of the plant. LPP’s Executive Director and Founding Member Sarah Gersten points out that in the 1980s with the intensification of the War on Drugs, the rate of incarcerated mothers went up 100 percent and incarcerated fathers increased 75 percent. With this, “the children of incarcerated parents are, on average, six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves,” Gersten wrote. This clear pipeline of intergenerational trauma is also what LPP is working to address.
“That is why LPP provides grant funding not only to our constituents returning home from incarceration but to the children of our constituents while their parent is still incarcerated,” Gersten wrote. “By providing financial resources for needs like tuition, school supplies, housing and transportation, as well as mentorship and other emotional support, LPP works to end the cycle of intergenerational incarceration.”
And LPP’s little engine that could, has kept on chugging despite its relatively small team. With the support of companies like PAX, LPP has been able to expand its legal programs to five states while engaging in legislative advocacy at all levels of government. While the team works to smooth the bureaucratic gears of government to provide release and clemency for the victims of the War on Drugs, it is constantly reminded that the system as it stands, is nothing sacred or holy but rather the product of institutional racism and prejudice.
“It's always worth remembering that America's carceral system isn't divinely ordained,” wrote LPP’s Policy Advisor and Director of Strategic Initiatives Natalie Papillion. “It has been created and subsequently enhanced by countless decisions local, state and federal elected officials have made over decades and decades. Unfortunately, many people aren't aware that they, as voters, have the ability to both interrogate authorities about the wisdom of these decisions, as well as pressure them to reverse course.”
PAX collaboration items are available now until the end of the holiday season.