Editor’s Note: As we gear up to celebrate 420, we cannot forget the fact that cannabis justice still has a long way to go. Due to continued federal criminalization, deep-rooted stigma, and systemic disparities when it comes to police procedures and the criminal justice system, there are many in our country who are still arrested, prosecuted, and facing long prison sentences for cannabis-related crimes, even when they are non-violent. As a community, it is our responsibility to uplift those who are most affected by the War on Drugs and not leave them in the dust as we continue to build the legal cannabis industry.
In 2013, Evelyn LaChappelle was convicted on three charges related to conspiracy to distribute with the intent to sell marijuana. The single mother and Loyola Marymount University graduate had a previously spotless record free of any crimes or violence. Still, she was sentenced to 87 months in federal prison.
LaChappelle’s ordeal began in 2009. Pregnant, in her third year of college and in a self-described toxic relationship with the father of her soon-to-be-born daughter, Venise, she received an offer from friend Corvain Cooper. He asked that she deposit revenue from a distribution ring into her bank account. She didn’t give the request a second thought, considering the act a gesture to a good friend rather than an income-generating venture for herself.
“Growing up in California, cannabis doesn’t ring too many alarms in your head,” said LaChappelle. Each time, she’d get to keep $200 for her efforts. The arrangement would last nine months.
Long Done With Cannabis, The Law Still Comes For Evelyn LaChappelle
By 2012, LaChappelle had long been done with any cannabis activity for years. The now-single mother had returned to her hometown of Oakland three months earlier, where she worked at the local Marriott. Her life would change when she was stopped over a supposed suspicious car in the area. It was then she was made aware of the pending charges in North Carolina stemming from 2009.
The arrest shocked her, with the crimes not even on her radar by 2012. Evelyn LaChappelle would face the court with Cooper and Natalia Wade included as co-defendants. As the date approached, she didn’t believe the judge would send a college-educated, single mother with a clean record and a $35,000 lawyer to jail.
“Unfortunately, my ego played a major part,” said LaChappelle, adding she overlooked federal prison conviction rates and the fact that people were still going to jail for cannabis.
She’d have a change of heart roughly two weeks before the trial. Her lawyers recognized that the prosecution in North Carolina was angry over LaChappelle not having her bond revoked and a plea agreement signing that was supposed to occur.
At that point, Evelyn LaChappelle and her lawyer, Randolph Lee, decided to go to trial, believing little evidence should sway the jury in her favor. “I knew I was in trouble when the prosecution gave his opening statement,” said LaChappelle. After hearing what she described as a “theatrical presentation” from prosecutors, Lee opted not to make a statement. “That’s when I knew I paid $35,000 for nothing,” said LaChappelle, adding that she hasn’t had contact with Lee since.
Sentencing proved to be another staggering blow. “They kind of trick you to be grateful for the 87 months,” LaChappelle said of her sentence. Instead of the initial recommended sentence of 24 years, she had an opportunity to cut the sentence down. However, it came at a cost, or “the blackmail part of the story,” as LaChappelle put it. Facing nearly a quarter of a century in jail, LaChappelle agreed to waive all her appeal rights for a reduced sentence.
Life In Prison Begins On Suicide Watch
Evelyn LaChappelle’s first night in prison was on October 18th, 2013. She remembers the day vividly, notably the hours of hysterical crying as she couldn’t comprehend how she got here. She also remembers her co-defendant Wade sitting in silence, creating a stark contrast between the two. She cried for hours, through her time the holding cell and into processing.
In processing, she was told she needed to calm down or be put on suicide watch. She tried to maintain, but the thoughts of not seeing her daughter led to more tears and a stay in suicide watch, or “the worst way to spend your first night in prison,” according to her. In suicide watch, she was stripped naked and left with no bed, just a metal bed frame. Instead of clothes, she was given a padded gown. She recalls seeing the padded gown once again recently when seeing a gunman being arrested.
The first night seared a lesson into her brain: never show emotion in prison again. Completely removed from emotion, LaChappelle says she continues to struggle crying today.
Housed at a camp for nonviolent offenders, she wasn’t exposed to much violence, reporting she saw two fights while incarcerated. She spent much of her time painting and crocheting, for which her family sent money to afford supplies.
While not exposed to the typical violence in prison, she continued to face mental hardships. In addition to missing her family and life outside of prison, LaChappelle said the system had her accepting her fate—almost thinking she deserved her sentence.
“The federal government does a really good job of convincing you that you have done a horrendous crime,” she explains. The thoughts came as LaChappelle contemplated her almost 24-year sentence. “I really was starting to believe the things they said about me,” she recalls.
The wave of guilt would last until being transferred back to a California prison, where she’d become friends with other cannabis offenders like Stephanie Shepherd. She recalls the two watching the news, talking about the booming business. “I’m watching these white women talking about the billions of dollars there might be, and then my attitude shifted,” said LaChappelle, who began to feel that race played its part and that there was no accident for her being locked away for her crime.
Just Starting To Come Into Her Own
In September 2018, Evelyn LaChappelle would walk free from federal prison and begin a four-year probation sentence. She wouldn’t return home right away but rather to a halfway house.
While she did not enjoy the experience in a halfway house, LaChappelle benefitted from the house after cutting off her emotions for so long. Instead of returning right back into life as a mom, she incrementally began seeing her daughter for an hour at a time during allowed visits. While difficult to not be home right away, hindsight enabled her to see the benefit in the arrangement. “I realized that after spending five years in custody, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to see my daughter,” explained LaChappelle.
After months of working as a food server to satisfy her release agreement, she’d be hired at the Omni to begin work in the hotel industry once again. However, an employee searched her name, found her record, and LaChappelle was soon let go. Several months later, in June, she was introduced to the Last Prisoner Project (LPP). In August, she met with co-founder Steve DeAngelo, thinking she’d share her story for the group’s mission.
The appearance led to her speaking at LPP events. At one event, she’d be introduced to infusion brand Vertosa. In November 2019, she’d join their team as a community engagement manager. Her role coordinating events would be cut short by the pandemic, leading her to join the LPP team as a program associate.
Life remains a rebuilding process for the formerly incarcerated, Evelyn LaChappelle included. In addition to work, she and now 11-year-old Venise found their own home about three months ago. “This is the first time that life is feeling comfortable,” LaChappelle stated. In addition to working with LPP, Evelyn LaChappelle is now launching a cannabis brand and advocacy venture named after her sentence and ordeal, 87 Months, that should begin this spring.