By Shammara Lawrence
You hear the statistics all the time: the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world — a direct, decades-long result of harsh drug policies born out of the War on Drugs ignited by President Richard Nixon — with nearly 2.2 million people serving time as of 2016. But what about the people who make up those numbers? Frequently, they’re erased. Brittany K. Barnett of the Buried Alive Project and MiAngel Cody of the Decarceration Collective are on a mission to change that.
The two attorneys have joined forces on a new initiative called the Third Strike Campaign, which sheds light on people who’ve been imprisoned for life for low-level drug offenses, often due to laws that imprison repeat offenders by default after a certain number of charges. The practice of Three Strikes laws began in Washington state in 1993; at present, 28 states have some such law on the books. Championed by “tough on crime” legislators, the laws impose a mandatory life sentence without parole on offenders for their third conviction. In some states, strikes can include nonviolent offenses, like low-level drug charges and petty theft. Federal offenders with three or more convictions are given mandatory life imprisonment for serious violent felonies or drug trafficking, meaning the manufacture, sale, importation, transportation, or distribution of outlawed substances such as cocaine and marijuana.
According to the Sentencing Project, 450,345 incarcerated people in the U.S. in 2016 were serving sentences related to drug offenses – more than 10 times the number of people incarcerated in the country for the same crimes in 1980. That same year, the Sentencing Project reported that 30 percent of the federal prison population were serving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. That’s 1,907 people who never stood a chance.
Through the Third Strike Campaign, Barnett and Cody aim to educate the public on the profound impact Three Strike laws have had on communities across the nation, especially on people of color and individuals from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. The multimedia project was launched on June 19th by their nonprofit law firms, the Buried Alive Project and the Decarceration Collective. It features a variety of stories from people who have been sentenced under the pernicious law, as well as federal judges advocating against it, told through written accounts, original recordings, and photos.
Barnett and Cody are widely known for working with Kim Kardashian West, who funded the 90 Days of Freedom campaign in February 2019. That campaign’s work ultimately freed 17 people under the First Step Act, which was signed by President Donald Trump on December 21st, and gives inmates with good behavior, particularly those serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, further opportunity to shorten their sentences.
One such person is Albert Reed, who grew up in the Winbrook housing projects in White Plains, New York. Before he turned 17, he lost both parents to cancer and was suddenly tasked with looking after his two sisters. He started selling drugs to survive, and ultimately served 25 years of a life sentence for three separate drug crimes: At age 19, he received probation for selling $20 worth of crack; at 22, he served two years for possessing 81 grams of cocaine. His third strike came at age 24: life imprisonment for selling 193 grams of crack. Reed was recently released from prison on May 16, 2019, as part of the 90 Days to Freedom campaign.
After decades of explosive growth, the public and political opinion on our prison system is finally shifting, and with policymakers across the political aisle have begun to show support for criminal justice reform in recent years. Still, there are countless of inmates behind bars for low-level drug crimes due to draconian penal laws such as the Three Strikes Law — and The Third Strike project is bringing their stories to the forefront in hopes of inspiring change on a cultural level.
MTV News spoke with Cody and Albert Reed about the genesis of the Third Strike campaign, how Three Strike laws are applied in our criminal justice system, and what they hope people take away from the project.
MTV News: Where did the idea for the Third Strike Project come from?
MiAngel Cody: Al Reed was one of the people that we got out during the [90 days of Freedom Campaign, and the First Step Act]. That limited piece of legislation opened a sliver of a door for some people to get out. But in doing the 90 Days of Freedom campaign, there were a whole bunch of people that we had to send letters to and say, “you don't qualify under this under The First Step Act, we can't get you out of prison.”
We designed the Third Strike Project in order to respond to and raise public awareness that, yes, The First Step Act was great, but it was just the first step. And there are people doing life today under yesterday's old law. Had the provisions of The First Step Act been retroactive, we would be getting hundreds of people out of prison. I would be going all around the country filing motions for people. But The First Step Act wasn't entirely made retroactive so there are people who are still buried. We want people to understand that the law isn't yet legitimate if it's not retroactive.
MTV: Under our current penal system, what’s the likelihood of people overturning life sentences for drugs?
MiAngel: It's very, very slim. We're all happy that Al is free, but he is the exception, not the rule. His drug was crack and the law goes back and looks [specifically] at crack. Most people who get the three strikes life sentence, they're destined to die in prison. The law is not retroactively helping them.
One other thing I would say is this life sentence was imposed by the prosecutor, not the judge. Once the prosecutor files the three strikes enhancement, the judge is required to impose life. The judge has no power. A lot of people in America think judges decide what the punishment is or a judge can change a sentence if he wants to. A lot of people don't realize that for three strikes federal cases, the judge had no power. So that's really important because what prosecutors do is they punish people for going to trial. Even though people think they have a constitutional right to a trial, the reality is you're going taxed and punished more harshly if you exercise that right. And if you don't cooperate, if you don't snitch, then you're going to get a three strikes enhancement. There are a whole host of reasons why people don't cooperate: Maybe they have concerns about their own safety or the safety of their family members.
MTV News: Al, what was the day you received your life sentence like?
Albert Reed: I [remember] sitting there in front of the judge and he said, “I have to sentence you to the mandatory statutory life term of imprisonment.” It shook me because I knew at that time that this is a death sentence. When I made the trip back to the holding facility, the judge was in the elevator [with me] along with the prosecutor. The marshals had me handcuffed. The judge actually said, “I really didn't want to give you that sentence but my hands are tied; the law is a law. There was nothing I could do at the time.”
I continued to go in there and fight [the] case but I just felt this is the judge, he can do what he wants to do, he has the power to do what he needs to. I didn't have an understanding of the law. I sat there thinking, ‘how can I get this sentence overturned?’ My grandfathers always told me that the things you do will eventually catch up with you. And then once [they] do catch up with you, you have to be a scientist par excellence to get out from under this trap that people have laid for guys like you doing the things that you're doing. That is what stuck with me for the whole 25 years that I was incarcerated. It pushed me to stay in a law library to keep abreast of the laws of what's going on out here in the world. The love of family helped keep me going [and] helped me realize that a lot of things had to change.
MTV News: When you were incarcerated, did you meet other inmates in similar circumstances?
Reed: In the law library, I saw guys with the same three-strikes sentence. We all got together and tried to figure out ways based on new laws that were coming into effect, how to go about and file certain motions and petitions to the court so that we can get out. If you don't file nothing, then you're going to continue to keep the sentence. We were actively trying to do something to facilitate our release from prison.
You have to understand, most of us really didn't have a college education. We may have dropped out of high school, may have dropped out of middle school even. So now that you are in prison and they tell you have a year to fix your motions or the courts are going to block you, we're really at a disadvantage. Likeminds had to work together to try to overturn the situation.
MTV News: What are some common misconceptions you often hear about people who sell drugs?
Reed: It's not like everybody wants to sell drugs because it's a dangerous lifestyle. You can lose your life. I've seen loved ones get kidnapped. I've seen homicides. It's a dangerous business. Nobody wants to sell drugs. If you have another opportunity to make money or if you have the opportunity to acquire a skill that can bring you some money so you can take care of yourself and your family, that's what the average person is going to do.
But where I grew up, there were no jobs. There were no places where we could go to develop a skill because even in schools, the skills were taken out of [the] school system. Here we are in a school system where we're not learning anything [and] we feel like it's a waste of time because we're not learning anything that can bring us some income when we're in a poverty-stricken area. All those things are what we need in today's society, especially in these areas where you see all this crime and drug dealing.
MTV News: What do you think about the changing public perception around marijuana as of late — especially considering how many Black and brown people have felonies or are still serving time for drugs?
Cody: Decriminalization of marijuana is happening on a racially discriminatory level. Some people can smoke marijuana and do so freely without criminal prosecution. Those people are typically not Black people or people of color.
I live on the South Side of Chicago, where young black men are still being pulled over and their cars are being searched because officers say they smelled marijuana, even though marijuana is decriminalized in Chicago. And the state is also profiting off the privatization of prisons and the jobs that prisons bring. So it's sort of like the state wants to have it both ways: they want to tax the marijuana industry while also punish people who have previously been involved in the marijuana industry and profit off of their human caging. Decriminalization is important because it means that fewer people are going into the prison pipeline. But in order for it to be morally legitimate in this country, it has to be racially fair and it has to be retroactive.
Reed: Right now, profits are going to overrule whether or not it's fair for somebody who has a marijuana offense to get a sentence overturned. It's the right thing to do, no question. That's what we're pushing for, that's what we want to see. But when money and profit is involved, guys are going to be serving time that's unfair.
MTV News: What does a fair criminal justice system look like to the both of you?
Cody: I am not a criminal justice reform advocate because I don't believe we have ever had true criminal justice in America. It hasn't yet been born, in order to be reformed. There has not been a time in America where we weren't profiting in some way off of human caging but, particularly people of color and poor people.
What I'm hopeful for is that we will one day have true criminal justice. I hope we will have a measured and racially fair criminal justice system and one that doesn't rely on putting people in cages. I think America addicted to incarceration. That's really what we exist in, a system where we as a society have grown addicted to putting people in cells and thinking that that solve our problems. We sort of want to numb our own fear and all concerns by putting people in prison. I hope that we will become sober from our own addiction to incarceration first.
Reed: I agree with MiAngel, insofar as it hasn't been born yet for us to really say that's there's a fair playing field for all. I believe that what the seed is, is what the fruit will bear and it wasn't planed to be fair when it comes to people of color.
We're just addressing the disparities that lasted a generation. The least we can do is enlighten people as to what's really going on so that they can make informed decisions, and realize the perils and the traps that are out there.