The Last Prisoner Project: Until All of Us Are Free

The women of the Last Prisoner Project fight for Drug War justice in the legalization era.
The Last Prisoner Project: Until All of Us Are Free
Sarah Gerstein and Mary Bailey/ Photo credit: Giacobazzi Yanez

In the United States, legal cannabis pulled in a smooth $10.4 billion in 2018, making it a banner year for pot profits. And the industry is on track to smash that record in 2019. All that prosperity is cause for good cheer—unless you or someone you love is one of the 40,000 people sitting in US jails for the same cannabis-related actions that are now making others rich. Over the past 10 years, as the recreational- and medicinal-marijuana industries have grown, 15 million people have been arrested on cannabis-related charges. Not all of them have been able to erase the negative marks that this encounter with the justice system had on their lives.

Cannabis entrepreneurs (and even consumers) benefiting from now-legal marijuana should feel some responsibility to help those who were penalized for growing and selling the same plant prior to legalization. That’s the reasoning behind groups like Cage-Free Cannabis and, more recently, the Last Prisoner Project (LPP), a retroactive-justice advocacy organization that launched in September.

“This is something we reiterate to cannabis companies constantly when we’re trying to fundraise for these programs,” the initiative’s executive director, Sarah Gersten, explains. “We believe that every cannabis company—and really, every individual who is able to profit off this industry—has a moral imperative to give back in some way to those who suffered from prohibition.”

The LPP’s creators are the noted marijuana activists and co-founders of California’s Harborside dispensary chain, Andrew and Steve DeAngelo. However, day-to-day operations are handled by two women who, like the DeAngelos, boast years of experience in the marijuana game.

Harvard-educated Gersten went from working in a federal congressional agency to becoming a full-time cannabis lawyer, collaborating with the Marijuana Policy Project and NORML on national campaigns. She started her law firm, Gersten Saltman, to take on the cannabis industry’s legal issues, but she knew it was key that the group also do its part when it came to ensuring the rights of those whom cannabis legalization has largely left behind. She established a pro bono initiative for the firm, which she led herself. When she met Steve DeAngelo at a cannabis conference, the two became convinced that she would be an excellent choice to help lead the LPP.

Gersten’s joined by LPP managing director Mary Bailey, who was previously the organizer behind the Maui Cannabis Conference and has been a longtime electronic music booker in Hawaii. Bailey became involved when, saddened by media reports on the continued incarceration of many individuals for cannabis-related offenses, she asked Andrew DeAngelo to put her in touch with a nonprofit working on retroactive-justice issues. Her unique background has given the LPP a distinctly melodic character; Bailey has been able to utilize her vast recording-industry Rolodex to find partners who are able to amplify the LPP’s message. The group’s board of advisors features Damian and Stephen Marley, Rebelution’s Eric Rachmany and a roster of high-powered industry professionals.

“I’ve been in and around the cannabis industry for most of my adult life,” Bailey says. “Personally, I don’t feel that anybody should be in prison for an amazing plant medicine such as cannabis.”

The Last Prisoner Project

With these women at its helm, the LPP is targeting issues with retroactive-justice laws. Even in states where cannabis has been decriminalized or legalized, and even in states with the political will to pass so-called automatic-expungement laws, the logistics of how to facilitate clemency and expunge records for people with cannabis-related offenses are tricky. Many jurisdictions have paper-based backlogs of criminal records that are nearly impossible to search in batches, which means there are people still sitting in prison on charges that no longer warrant their incarceration.

Groups like Code for America are doing their part to set up algorithms for government agencies that aid in the sorting of such criminal records. The LPP is working with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to replicate the clemency program that the group developed for New York State. “Rather than having to go on an individual-by-individual basis and file clemency petitions, we’d be able to file bulk petitions to release all the individuals that were deemed eligible,” Gersten explains of the developing strategy.

And it’s not just about people currently serving time. A past marijuana-related offense can adversely affect someone’s ability to find housing and employment, making it essential that in states where it’s legally possible, individuals have the tools they need to erase such marks from their criminal history. To help those looking to clean their record of past cannabis offenses, Gersten facilitated an expungement workshop in her home state of Massachusetts during National Expungement Week’s 2019 launch (National Expungement Week co-founder Torie Wallace sits on the LPP’s board of advisors). In Hawaii, Bailey pulled together a historic coalition of legal-rights organizations to host the first such workshop in the state—a much different proposition given that, unlike in Massachusetts, few social-equity programs exist in Hawaii to help those with cannabis-related marks on their record to move forward.

“Now that we know we have a working group of people that can focus on the problem and go to our legislators, we can work together to create change,” says Bailey.

Nobody knows what so-called “justice-involved individuals” (as LPP leadership refers to people who have faced criminal charges related to cannabis) need to repair the damage done to their lives by the War on Drugs as much as they do themselves. To that end, the LPP has filled its board of advisors with not only musicians, managers and industry professionals, but also people who know firsthand about the adverse effects of marijuana policing.

One of the group’s advisors is Evelyn LaChapelle, an Oakland mother who was sent to prison for 87 months for a minor role in an illegal marijuana operation. She was released in February 2019 after serving her time, but when a co-worker discovered that she had been incarcerated on cannabis charges, LaChapelle was fired from her job as a hotel sales and catering coordinator. Now the owner of a car-wash business, LaChapelle was tapped by LPP to serve as an advisor. Other LPP advisors include Corvain Cooper, who is currently serving a life sentence in California on marijuana charges, and Dennis Hunter, who went from spending six years in a federal prison for a cultivation offense to running his own legal marijuana company, the manufacturing corporation CannaCraft. Their expertise was essential in planning a key LPP pilot partnership with the cannabis company Harvest Health & Recreation.

In the United States, the Department of Justice has found that two-thirds of individuals go back to prison within three years of being released. If you take into account the stats after six years, 79 percent of people will be incarcerated again. “We know that recidivism rates in the country are incredibly high because we don’t put in those resources to support people coming out of prison,” says Gersten.

To that end, Harvest and the LPP’s “Prison to Prosperity” re-entry program aims to connect 15 former marijuana prisoners with cannabis- and hemp-industry job training, as well as financial planning skills, physical- and mental-health services, immigration assistance and voting-rights restoration by early 2020. The program will take place in Los Angeles, which Gersten says was chosen because it has a much more progressive take when it comes to making sure that those negatively impacted by the War on Drugs have a place in the legalized marijuana industry.

“In a lot of jurisdictions, having a criminal record, and particularly having a cannabis offense, will in fact bar you from entering the cannabis industry,” she says.

The LPP’s plan is to gauge how much re-entry help people can reasonably take on when they are getting out of prison, with the aim of applying those lessons on a larger scale. “The goal is absolutely that by doing it on a very small scale and taking the time to develop a well-thought-out program that we’ll create something that will be scalable, not just to all of California, but to all the country as laws continue to change and greater access is afforded to justice-involved individuals,” says Gersten.

Fighting Back Against The War on Drugs

Real-life experience with the War on Drugs is not the only valuable perspective the LPP’s advisors lend to the organization; they’ve also compelled the group’s leadership to look at retroactive justice as an international issue. Gersten credits that policy emphasis to lobbying done by the Marleys, who made her and Bailey aware of the situation in Jamaica. There, the government has chosen to decriminalize cannabis instead of legalizing the plant. That distinction has not entirely served to neutralize the animosity that police have for the island’s Rastafarian community, for whom use of marijuana is an essential religious sacrament.

As such, Jamaica has become the site of the LPP’s first acts of international activism. In September, Steve DeAngelo was a keynote speaker at the Montego Bay marijuana conference CanEx, where Gersten also led a panel on retroactive justice. She was joined by Niambe McIntosh, who is active in various Drug War justice organizations and is the daughter of beloved Wailers singer Peter Tosh. On the same trip, Gersten met with the staff of Jamaica’s public defender, Arlene Harrison Henry, to talk about prison reform and cannabis decriminalization. “It was great to take the first steps toward making this a global project,” says Gersten, who adds that the LPP is also staying in close contact with members of the growing Canadian retroactive-justice movement.

With emails pouring in from places like Latin America and Africa inquiring about Drug War justice strategies in those regions, the women of the LPP know they have a lot of work ahead of them. You can help by amplifying the LPP’s content on social media. “We want the masses to understand that there are still people behind bars for cannabis, and some of them are serving mandatory life sentences,” says Bailey. “That’s how people can get involved, by helping us share the message.”

As more jurisdictions legalize and regulate cannabis, the urgency of retroactive justice deepens. Programs like the LPP, led by people with the power to convince their industry peers of their responsibility to help those still incarcerated for cannabis, are key. Its leadership team knows that what they’re doing could make a huge difference in people’s lives. “There’s this deep disparity and injustice in that you are able to now profit and make millions of dollars off of this plant while others are still sitting behind bars,” says Gersten. Fortunately, the Last Prisoner Project is on the case. m

You can contribute to LPP’s clemency initiative. Visit
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This article was originally published in the November 2019 issue of High Times. Subscribe here!

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