Erendira Mancias/FUSION

Update: President Obama granted Brant a clemency on Dec. 18, 2015, along with 94 other federal inmates. She was released from prison on Feb. 2, 2016—watch the video of her being released here.

When Ramona Brant tells someone that she’s serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, the first question she gets is almost always the same: “Who did you kill?”

“I’m like, ‘I didn’t kill anybody,’” Brant told me. “They say, ‘So what did you do?’ ‘Well, I was in a relationship with a guy who dealt drugs.’ And they’re like, ‘That’s it?’”

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Yes, according to Brant, that’s basically it. She’s spent the last 21 years of her life behind bars on a first-time, nonviolent drug conspiracy charge. Prosecutors said she was part of a Charlotte, N.C. drug ring run by her boyfriend at the time.

Brant was charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and convicted based on testimony from several other members of the drug ring. During her trial, Brant wasn’t allowed to admit into evidence police report after police report documenting the abuse she endured from her co-defendant boyfriend.

Courtesy Ramona Brant

As he sentenced her in February 1995, Brant’s judge noted that he thought life in prison was too severe a punishment, court transcripts show. But even as he admitted at a hearing that “I absolutely am shocked at the severity of the sentence,” he had no choice—the law essentially dictated how many years she received for each kilogram of cocaine.

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When Congress passed new sentencing guidelines for drug crimes in 1984, legislators hoped to remove subjectivity and standardize sentence lengths. Instead, they took cases out of judges’ discretion and mandated long sentences, locking up a generation of defendants like Brant.

Her case seems to be among the most tragic examples of our national war on drugs. And it’s had a drastic impact on her family: When she was arrested, her two sons were three and four years old. They grew up with both parents serving life sentences.

Now, criminal justice reform is suddenly at the top of the national political agenda, and there are efforts to address the extreme drug sentences doled out in the ‘90s. Brant is pinning her hopes on a clemency order from President Obama. She’s one of more than 35,000 nonviolent drug offenders who applied for clemency in the last two years—a stroke of the presidential pen and she’d be free.

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She told me her story last month sitting in a corner of an empty, fluorescent-lit visitors room in a federal prison in Brooklyn. Tall, in a grey prison uniform, with arching eyebrows and a smile that was warm but worn down, she spoke confidently about the system that condemned her to life.

“How do you sentence someone to life in prison when the only violence in the whole case was against me?” Brant asked. “The only people hurt were me and my children.”

Erendira Mancias / FUSION

Guilty by association

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Brant met Donald Barber in 1989, when she was a hopeful 25-year-old who had just moved to Charlotte from her home on Long Island. Introduced by a mutual friend, she found him handsome, charming, and successful. Before their first date, he called her from Barbados and asked her to join him. She was smitten.

They moved in together quickly. She knew he sold drugs, but didn’t know the details, at least at first. “I thought he was the nickel and dime person, not a big-timer," she said.

Just months after it began, their relationship went south. A series of police reports document the increasingly violent abuse she suffered. It started with flares of anger: After Barber’s auto business folded in September 1989, he kicked in their back door, thinking she was with another man. (She wasn’t.) The next January, while she was pregnant with their first son, he allegedly smacked her in the face. She left him.

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Things changed when their son Dwight was born in May 1990. "He convinced my parents and myself that he would never do it again," Brant said. "He said he really wanted to be a part of the baby's life. I bought the whole song and dance."

They moved back in together, and the abuse returned. When she was 10 weeks pregnant with their second son, DaJon, Barber allegedly hit her in the head with a telephone receiver so hard that she had to get stitches. (Barber’s lawyer did not respond to an interview request for this story.)

In the meantime, Barber was running an increasingly large interstate drug operation, with a series of unsuccessful legitimate businesses on the side. He would take her with him on trips to Florida, where he picked up cocaine, and sometimes brought her along to meet clients or underlings.

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Brant tried to run away, she said, but Barber would threaten her life and her family’s lives. Once, she tried to call for help from a gas station payphone while on the road with him, and he chased her across the street into in a Hardee’s and punched her in the face. Pregnant with a third child at the time, she miscarried.

Something changed. "I woke up one day and started fighting back," she said. She started standing up for herself and carrying a gun. For the longest time, “he had the emotional control, the physical control," Brant said. “If I allowed it, to this day, he’d have the same kind of mental control over me.”

‘I absolutely am shocked at the severity of the sentence…’

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On May 5, 1993, one of Barber’s foot soldiers, Christopher Durante, was caught speeding. When a Charlotte police officer pulled him over, he found two guns and 21 grams of crack cocaine in the car. Durante was quick to break: "Look, this is Donald Ray Barber's stuff," he told police, prosecutors said.

Later that day, nine officers stormed Brant and Barber’s home and business but found no drugs. The couple was traveling, and "his beeper kept going off," she said. Police went to another home and found a ledger, showing who sold drugs to whom—amounts, dates, and names. They arrested Barber a few months later.

Prosecutors offered Brant a plea agreement if she could get information from her boyfriend, or convince him to plead guilty. But by then, their relationship had run thin, and she says she didn’t know enough about his drug business to negotiate with the prosecutors. When she had to choose between taking a plea agreement and serving time in jail or trying her luck in court, she panicked and turned down the plea. Police arrested her in June 1994.

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The trial took place in a hushed, neoclassical courthouse in downtown Charlotte. As she sat next to Barber, several of his associates testified about how Brant had traveled with him, arranged drug buys and sales, threatened competitors, and connected the organization to a source of drugs in New York. Police said the two had introduced cocaine to Charlotte and sold $37 million worth of the drug in the last five years, based on the records they recovered. (Officers never found any drugs on Barber or Brant, however.)

Brant says she drove across the country with Barber to pick up drugs, carried an illegal gun, and delivered messages over the phone for him, but was not personally directing the drug trade. “I wasn’t a dealer, I didn’t set up buys and sales. I was just there while it was happening,” she told me, calling what others said at trial lies.

Brant knew she had a defense: the proof that he was abusing her. "I thought that the law was there to protect me—I would go before the courts and of course I'd be vindicated," Brant said. "I had the police reports, I had my family to testify for me, everyone knew he was abusing me.”

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But her public defender never presented the police reports into evidence or called her family members to testify about their relationship, and the jury never heard a word about the abuse. (The lawyer, Kenneth Epple, told me that he couldn’t break attorney-client privilege to explain why he didn't bring his client's alleged abuse, but wished Brant well in her clemency application.)

On October 13, 1994, after two days of testimony, a jury found Brant guilty of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and cocaine base. Barber was also found guilty.

When the sentencing phase of the trial started the following February, her lawyer tried to introduce the police reports and talk about the abuse, but Judge Richard L. Williams barred him from doing so on procedural grounds.

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In court transcripts of the sentencing hearing, the judge’s frustration is palpable. He clearly did not want to give her a life sentence, but said he had no choice. “It appears to me that it would be counterproductive for society to keep you in prison for the rest of your life,” Williams told Brant. “I think that after you learned your lesson, that you will come out and have the capability of being a useful citizen.”

“I wanted to scream at him, yell at him, ‘What do you mean?’” Brant remembered. “He’s the judge. He’s the ruler, he’s the king, he’s the one with the authority—that’s what I thought.”

But at the time, in cases like hers, judges were far from kings. In 1984, Congress passed a sentencing law that laid out strict guidelines for convicted drug dealers. The kilos of cocaine sold—a massive 183 kilos of powder and 97 kilos of crack in her case—mandated certain sentence lengths, and crack led to a significantly higher sentence than powder. Brant, who prosecutors said was equal to Barber in organizational hierarchy, also received sentence enhancements for carrying guns and for leading a drug organization. Under the law, it all added up to a mandatory life sentence. The only wiggle room came if the prosecutor agreed to a “downward departure”—basically, offering Brant a lower sentence—and she did not.

Brant immediately appealed her sentence, and an appeals court ruled that the evidence of her abuse should have been taken into account. The appeals court told Judge Williams to re-sentence her. But at the hearing three years later, in July 1998, it was like déjà vu: Again, he asked the prosecutor to make a downward departure, and again, she declined.

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“I thought the sentence that I originally imposed on you was entirely too harsh, but it was mandated by the sentencing guidelines, and I had no choice but to do what I did,” Williams said. “Under my oath, I’m obligated to deny the motion and confirm the sentence as it exists, even though I absolutely am shocked at the severity of the sentence.”

Williams added: “I wish right now that the government would make a motion that would permit me to downward depart from it, and if they would, I would happily do so. But I refuse to compromise my integrity by making an artificial finding that is not justified by the evidence.”

Brant couldn’t believe her ears. “I was stunned the first time, and the second time, I felt dizzy,” she said. “I kept thinking, this can’t be happening.”

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She went into the hearing expecting to leave a free woman. Instead, it was back to prison. She still thinks about that moment, and about judge Williams, who died in 2011.

“Twenty-one years later, I still don’t get it,” she said. “I wonder when the judge went home that night, how did he sleep? I wonder if he thought about me. I wonder if he thought about the law he was bound by that sentenced me to the rest of my life.”

“What was going through his mind when he put his head on that pillow?”

Erendira Mancias / FUSION

‘I don’t really know them’

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Dwight Barber was four years old when his parents were both sentenced to life in prison. He doesn’t really remember a time before his mom and dad were behind bars, he told me in a phone interview.

He does remember their absence—how lonely he felt on every “bring your parents to school” day, and how he went to his high school graduation without them.

Brant tried to be a presence in her sons' lives. She would call up their teachers, explaining that she was in prison and asking for updates on their progress. Her mother, who raised Dwight and his brother DaJon, would bring them to visit at least once a year, and they would talk on the phone regularly.

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Of course, it was never the same. “I think about that sometimes, that I don’t really know them know them,” Dwight said, sighing, referring to his parents. “When I go see them, it’s only for a couple hours. I know them through visitation and mailing letters and over the phone—but I don’t really know them like other people know their parents.”

Dwight and Ramona in 2013.
Courtesy Ramona Brant

Brant can’t help but think of what could have been. “Dwight, if I had been home to raise him, he could be a politician,” Brant said. “He loved to debate, even at age three. He’d always have the answer to anything you said.”

“DaJon, he’s a fighter,” she added. “I started fighting back when I was pregnant with him… He took it hard, the fact that we weren’t there for him.”

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Now 25, Dwight lives in Charlotte and works at a flower nursery. He stays busy with work and his own family, with his nine-month-old daughter Mo’Riah. DaJon, now 24, is nearby with his own daughter, Sabrina.

“Nothing that I did for them replaced my presence,” Brant said. “I could have dealt with a five-year sentence. But how do you tell a three-year-old or a four-year-old that you’re going away for life?”

While Dwight and DaJon suffered an extreme case, a generation of kids like them grew up with one or both parents behind bars for drug offenses. A disproportionate number were African-American. Both sons have been in trouble with the law, which Dwight says he doubts would have happened if their parents had been there.

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Politicians talk more about absent fathers, but the number of mothers like Brant locked up has skyrocketed as well. Nationally, the female prison population rose by more than 800% between 1977 and 2007, compared to a roughly 400% growth rate for men, according to the Women’s Prison Association. “I just see this time and time again, where the women are victimized by the system,” said Amy Ralston Povah, a former federal inmate who started CAN-DO Clemency, an advocacy group calling for more clemencies for women in prison.

“Ninety percent of us are here because of a relationship with a man,” Brant said. “Somewhere in the story, there’s always a man.”

She and many of her fellow female inmates carry a special burden. “When we sit down and watch TV and see the news, and they say someone’s been shot, everyone stops, we hold our breath—is that our child?” she said. “You think most men do that?”

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“I think that’s the most hurtful part of doing the time,” she said, a tear sliding down her cheek. “Our children suffered so much. You can be there for visiting time, but it’s not the same. We’re not there in the middle of the night.”

Erendira Mancias / FUSION

Life behind bars

The Metropolitan Detention Center, the prison Brant has spent the last two years in, sits on an industrial slice of the Brooklyn waterfront. At night, the lights of the Freedom Tower shine from across the New York harbor. But her view is just the bleak highway outside her window.

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Despite the less-than-hopeful perspective, within these walls, Brant has taken every opportunity offered her to improve her life. And in the past 21 years behind bars, she hasn’t received a single disciplinary write-up, prison records show.

For most of the time, she’s been housed at FCI Danbury in Connecticut, the same prison where Orange Is the New Black author Piper Kerman served 11 months. Last spring, the prison was converted for men and the female inmates were sent to other prisons around the country, including here to Brooklyn’s MDC.

While serving her time, Brant has been an overachiever. She completed a 500-hour drug treatment program that offers some inmates early release, even though as a lifer she wasn’t eligible for any benefits. She got a certificate in business with legal application from Maris College. She took cooking classes. She even took a class in masonry, “how to build a room, how to use a hammer.”

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She organized a talent show, where inmates sung and danced and read poetry and corrections officers came to watch. In the prison chapel, she leads a small choir. She spends time as a companion for those on suicide watch. After inmates got in “big trouble” for putting on an “X-rated Halloween party” last year, she helped plan a more acceptable celebration this year for Veteran’s Day.

“I don’t just sit around and no nothing,” Brant said. “I really don’t have a lot of time—it’s like I’m working seven jobs.” Sometimes she wakes up at 6 a.m. and doesn’t get to sleep until midnight.

Brant is also known in the facility for her plays, which she writes, directs, and acts in. Growing up, she fell in love with the stage and dreamed of a career as an actor or singer. Now, acting is a form of escape—”it takes me out of what’s going on around me at the time,” she said. Her plays often have to do with struggling mothers and children. Characters go to prison, have out-of-body experiences, and deal with troublesome lovers. She creates costumes and arranges sound effects, and the inmate performers get really into it.

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One of her more recent productions, Fact or Fiction, imagined Jesus in a modern-day death penalty trial, facing a lethal injection instead of the cross. Brant played the judge. “It was hard to sentence him to death,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how you tell someone how they’re going to die—how you fix your mouth to do that.”

The only times she goes outside now are to see the doctor, after suffering from a heart attack in 2009. She even wasn’t allowed to go to her own mother’s funeral in 2006.

Overall, Brant says, she’s a different person than the one who walked into prison 21 years ago—someone who’s stronger and not dependent on validation from others.

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“I learned to be independent, I learned to be who I am, not who other people want me to be,” she said. “I’m confident being the Ramona I am today.”

‘I want to go home’

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For years, Brant’s case—like so many others—was all but forgotten by almost everyone but her family members, whom she credits for sticking by her. Even Brant’s judge saying he thought she didn’t deserve the sentence he was giving her didn’t attract the attention of local media.

But criminal justice reform has gained political steam around the country, and Congress seems ready to rethink some of the harsh drug laws it imposed three decades ago. Progress has already been made: Taking into account cocaine sentencing reforms passed in 2010 and a 2005 Supreme Court case that gave judges more discretion in sentencing, Brant would almost surely receive a shorter sentence than life if she was convicted of the same crimes today.

The latest bipartisan bill proposed in the Senate would reduce extreme sentences for drug crimes, and the final version could apply retroactively to cases like Brant’s. Meanwhile, several thousand inmates on drug charges were released early this year after a federal sentencing commission reformed drug sentence guidelines, but those changes didn’t apply to inmates with life sentences.

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Brant’s best chance to get out is clemency. President Obama has repeatedly declared his intentions to increase the number of clemencies he gives to nonviolent drug offenders like Brant. Under an initiative called the Clemency Project 2014, a small army of lawyers are working pro bono to help inmates file clemency petitions.

Brant and her new lawyer, Jason Cassel, filed her petition earlier this year. It includes glowing recommendations from supervisors in her programs and even an offer by a neighbor to employ her right away if she gets out.

Cassel said he thinks Brant’s history makes her the perfect candidate for clemency. “If she doesn’t get it and doesn’t deserve it, I mean who does?” Cassel asked. “Really, how many people can say they’ve been in 20 years and never had a disciplinary complaint—how many people have received a life sentence and behaved as perfectly as she has?”

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She’s been waiting with bated breath. When Obama announced 46 clemencies for nonviolent drug offenders in July, including 14 serving life, Brant’s name wasn’t on the list. Only four of those whose sentences were commuted were women.

Another round is expected before the end of the year, and Brant said this time “feels right, it feels like it’s my time.” (“I just make sure I check my junk mail,” Cassel added.)

If she gets out—”once I get out,” she corrected herself—Brant’s top priority would be spending time with her family, especially her two young granddaughters, who she hasn’t yet met. She’s held off seeing them in person in the hope that a commutation comes through. “If the list comes out and I’m on it, I don’t want them to come here,” Brant said. “I would rather go and meet them in the free world.” Meanwhile, she’d want to start a career that has to do with drama or acting.

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At the end of our interview, I asked her what she’d want to tell President Obama if she had a chance to talk to him. She was silent for a while, and said it was the only question I’d asked that she wasn’t sure how to answer.

“I’d tell him that I want to go home,” she said, finally. “I just hope he gives me the opportunity to go out into society and show them who I am today… I have a voice that has been silenced for too long that is crying out to speak.”

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.