What it's like to get a presidential clemency after 21 years in prison

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Friday seemed like just another day in prison for Ramona Brant, one more day in the 21 years she's spent behind bars. She got up, had breakfast, and went to a medical appointment. But when she got back to her unit in her Brooklyn prison, a counselor was waiting with an important message: She was finally going home.


Brant, 52, had been serving a life sentence for a first-time, nonviolent cocaine possession charge. Prosecutors said she helped run a Charlotte, N.C., drug ring with her boyfriend at the time. But Brant says she played only a small part and was violently abused by her drug dealer boyfriend. As he sentenced her to life, even Brant's judge said he was "absolutely shocked" by the severity of her sentence.

It seemed that President Obama agreed. Brant was one of 95 federal inmates whose sentences he commuted Friday, the vast majority of whom were nonviolent drug offenders like her.

"My face is hurting from smiling," Brant told me in a phone interview from prison on Saturday. "I don't know how to process this just yet. I am numb, dizzy, elated."

She called her sons first, they put the news on Facebook, "and now it's everywhere," Brant said. She's gotten messages from friends and family all over the country expressing their congratulations.

That night, she told one of her best friends in the prison but asked her to keep it quiet, to give her some time to process it. Instead, her friend "pushed me out into the room, screamed, 'Everybody wake up, get up… this woman is going free!'"

"There was an uproar in here and it did not settle down for about an hour," Brant said. "The hugs, the screaming, the jumping—it was like a grand celebration."


"It's surreal. I feel really blessed," she said.

The fact that 40 of the people who got clemencies on Friday were serving life sentences was especially important to Brant. "President Obama believed in us and I hope that all 40 of us don't let him down," she said. "I hope he can look back years later and say, 'Oh, they made a lot of themselves,' and be proud of us 40 lifers."


Of course, even the joy of her clemency can't erase the fact that she's been in prison for more than two decades. She's missed her kids growing up and wasn't even allowed to go to her mother's funeral when she died in 2006. "The saddest part is, I can't share this with my mother," Brant said. "I wish I could tell her now that I'm free. Her passing with the thought that I would never get out of prison is hard to deal with."

Brant will be free on April 16, 2016. Over the next four months, she's planning to do everything she can to prepare for her return to the outside world.


She'll go back to Charlotte, and live at first in a halfway house and then with her son, Dwight Barber, 25. She's excited to spend time with her two granddaughters—who she's never met in person—and her two sons, who have spent almost their entire lives with her behind bars. "My sons really don't know me," Brant said. "I want to build a relationship with them and my grandchildren. I want to work on that."

Dwight was shocked when he got the call from his mom and she told him she had good news.


"I didn't think it would be so soon," he said. "I can't stop smiling… I want to hug her, I guess, and I look forward to her seeing my baby. "

The details of how she's being released and getting home haven't been figured out yet. But Brant said she's considering not having her family come up to New York. Instead, she might like to have a little time on her own, take the bus down to Charlotte, and just savor her freedom before she's inundated with friends and family. She imagines riding down the East Coast on Interstate 95, the route she used to take between North Carolina and her childhood home on Long Island.


"I want to transition slowly from this life to that life and just enjoy some scenery that I have not seen in 21 years," Brant said. "It's going to be an adventure."

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