Last Prisoner Project Works to End Cannabis Incarceration
From left to right: Steve DeAngelo, Mary Bailey, Sarah Gersten, Andrew DeAngelo, Dean Raise
Photo by Giacobazzi Yanez

Last Prisoner Project Works to End Cannabis Incarceration

The organization is petitioning for the release of cannabis prisoners while striving to provide education to them and their families and aid with reentry into society.

August 13, 2020

When they transported her from one prison to another, the officers shackled her around her wrists, waist and feet. Evelyn LaChapelle shuffled in half steps.

“You're in the middle of a runway with no one else, with the world not even knowing you're there. They don't even allow you to tell your family ahead of time, like, ‘Hey, I'm being transported today,’” said LaChapelle, who served prison time for a non-violent cannabis offense. “So, I'm … getting on an unmarked plane … and we're getting moved like cattle.”

Prison wasn’t exactly what she expected. She didn’t constantly fear getting stabbed or killed, as many inmates in other lockups do. But she cried early on when she realized what her diet would consist of: meat sticks mixed in ramen noodles. The outlook was grim. “Surviving is almost null and void in there,” she said.

LaChapelle served five years of her seven-year sentence for depositing profits from an illicit cannabis operation into her bank account. She was released Feb. 1, 2019, and given four years’ probation. She now works as an event planner, as she did prior to her time in prison.

Photo by Giacobazzi Yanez
Evelyn LaChapelle

LaChapelle is an adviser with the Last Prisoner Project (LPP), a nonprofit founded by Steve and Andrew DeAngelo and Dean Raise. In that role, she shares her story, brings awareness to the issue of people being incarcerated for cannabis and promotes the work of LPP.

Registered as a 501(c)(3) in 2019, LPP’s mission is to free the approximately 40,000 prisoners incarcerated for non-violent cannabis offenses in the U.S, with the help of individuals, organizations and the cannabis industry. Its team engages in multiple initiatives, such as lobbying and gathering petition signatures to convince government to release prisoners, and seal and expunge their records; and setting up scholarships for inmates and their family members.” LPP refers to the prisoners it works with as “constituents.”

The organization has global ambitions, said Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel. “We have already started working in places like Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, the Caribbean more broadly,” she said.

Gersten said LPP splits contributions the following way: 40% for direct services, 14% for scholarships and microgrants for people who are incarcerated and their families, and the rest for “policy [and] legislative advocacy and development.”

LPP has begun offering direct services in three states. They include the Prison to Prosperity program it created in partnership with Harvest Health and Recreation in California; an expungement clinic it hosted with multiple other organizations in Hawaii; and a Cannabis Clemency Program it started in Colorado. LPP has also worked on policy efforts in several more states.

The group’s sense of urgency is heightened by the fact that prisoners are at risk of contracting COVID-19 due to overcrowding and inadequate health care, Gersten said. In May, for instance, cannabis prisoner Fidel Torres, 62, died in prison from COVID-19. He had less than two years left on his sentence.

By press time, Michael Thompson, an LPP constituent incarcerated in Michigan, had contracted the disease. “As a 69-year old diabetic facing malnourishment at the hospital, we are terrified that Michael will not make it,” an LPP email to subscribers reads. “Michael is feeling very weak, but he is a fighter and will fight for his life. Now we must fight for his freedom.”

LPP had previously deposited money into Thompson’s commissary account to pay for a physician, Gersten said. But the group ran into roadblocks with helping when the Michigan government froze his account following that deposit. The state government has the authority to “seek reimbursement if a prisoner has enough money to recover 10% of the estimated cost of care or 10% of the estimated cost for two years, whichever is less,” according to its Department of Corrections. The state’s treasury department argued in court that Thompson owed, but Gersten told Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary he did not exceed either of the 10% limits.

Now, LPP is urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan’s Parole Board to not return Thompson to prison from the hospital.

It’s not always clear which factors lead to prisoners’ release, Andrew DeAngelo said, adding that social justice efforts require efforts on multiple fronts. Government officials often don’t share the why they decided to grant prisoners’ release. “They're very reluctant to spring these folks,” he said. “So, when they do it, they do it very quietly, they don't issue a press release, there are no cameras there unless we send them there.”

A Confluence of Events

In the 1970s, when Andrew DeAngelo was 9 years old and his brother Steve was in his late teens, Steve went to jail for several months for cannabis.

“The impact on children and families and parents—people forget, or don't want to think about that—when we talk about incarceration. But it has a big impact,” Andrew DeAngelo said. “It was a traumatic experience to go visit your brother in jail, have all the people that are running the jail telling you that your brother is bad, and you know your brother's not bad, you know your brother's good!” He called this a “foundational experience” of his life.

Photo courtesy of Andrew DeAngelo
Andrew DeAngelo

Later, he joined Steve in the illegal cannabis trade, in which he did things like handle logistics in the importation of cannabis from Mexico. The two then moved into the medical and legal markets, building Harborside from an Oakland, Calif., medical operation into a full-blown vertically integrated company serving patients and adult-use consumers throughout California.

Andrew said his brother has told a story in which Steve was sitting in a board room with people from cannabis companies; at the same time, a friend of theirs was locked up in Pennsylvania for transporting several pounds. This experience sparked the idea for the Last Prisoner Project.

“We just began to build it from there, as my brother and I usually do, over a cannabis consumption session,” Andrew DeAngelo recalled. They broke out the whiteboard and started building their team. Along with Raise as co-founder, they brought on Gersten as executive director and Mary Bailey as managing director.

Gersten said she met Steve through a social equity committee she sat on in Denver, and he told her about his vision for LPP. “I kind of jumped at the chance to be involved with this organization because I thought it was really something no one was focused on, yet it's such a critical part of moving this industry and moving legalization forward,” she said.

Improvements on the Outside

Efforts to release people from prison, whether through clemency or compassionate release, need to be paired with broader policy and societal changes, LPP stakeholders said.

When LaChapelle returned home from prison, she had trouble becoming financially independent and finding housing for her and her daughter, Venise.

“My struggle was paying for her tuition, for school,” LaChapelle said. “Last Prisoner Project set up a scholarship fund, and they're paying her monthly tuition. Moving forward, once I'm in a position to do so, I would like to see that done for [other] children affected by those who are incarcerated.”

LPP’s scholarship and policy efforts are focused on federally legalizing cannabis in a way that can help fix racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, Gersten said.

Photo by Giacobazzi Yanez
Sarah Gersten

Gersten extends an invitation to the cannabis industry to help. “They need to work with stakeholders like LPP and those representing those that have experienced the harms of prohibition to ensure that any legalization measures include those restorative justice provisions,” she said.

LaChapelle said she would also like to see inmates be able to gain employment that they are qualified for, as she was able to do. But many people with records can’t find work.

A month and a half into a job, LaChapelle said someone Googled her name and pulled up a damaging news release from the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The human resources manager called her into her office. “She asked me, 'Is this you?' and I told her, ‘My name is Evelyn LaChapelle, I don't imagine that there's many more of us.' I was asked to pack up my belongings and leave in the middle of a workday.”

The ICE release exemplifies how media narratives can affect the public’s perception of a person or event. LaChapelle contends that the same release influenced the jury in her trial.

Now, though, her name shows up on search engine results next to “Last Prisoner Project.” “I Googled my name the other day, and I'm extremely grateful that there's so much more content out there that at least now, you can see both sides of the story, as opposed to in February, there was only that one side, which was their side of the story,” she said.

Momentum for the Movement

Andrew DeAngelo compares social justice to business, in that they both require momentum, adding that LPP is beginning to build it and achieve its goals.

That goes for expunging records, he said, adding, “A lot of that work depends on whether the state—when they legalized for medical or adult or both, whether they also put provisions in those laws to address expungement.”

Many states don’t include those provisions, he said, either because of their lawmakers’ ignorance or their decisions to avoid perceived political risk.

Gersten said it will take time for LPP to make progress in every state. “The first states that we're working in are states with more progressive-leaning officials, states that have already legalized fully,” she said.

Andrew DeAngelo admits that to release the U.S.’s 40,000 cannabis prisoners will take “years and years and years and many millions of dollars and thousands of hours of legal and other work.”

“When people think about transforming something like the legal system, the justice system, it seems daunting, it seems impossible,” he said. “But I remember when we built the architecture that we're living with today in the 1980s. It was built one little bit at a time.

“It was first the mandatory minimums. Then the prosecutor got all of his power. Then they took the discretion away from the judges. Then they started instituting urine analysis tests for just about every job in America and squeezing people that way. And it was just one assault after another. And we can undo it."

Andrew DeAngelo said cannabis dispensaries can get involved with LPP’s “Roll it Up for Justice” program and gather donations at points of sale. LPP also has its “Partners for Freedom” program, through which he said a participating business can put LPP’s logo on its packaging or website and LPP will in turn promote the company on its site and social media.

“Partners for Freedom" participants also will receive mention in LPP’s annual report and, as the donation amount increases, will receive additional benefits, according to information Bailey sent to CBT and CD.

“What we need right now is the cannabis industry companies and brands to step up and either join one of our two programs, or contact us about something more entrepreneurial and ambitious, if they want to start a strain named after a prisoner or something like that,” Andrew DeAngelo said.

Giving back is good for business, as customers want authentic connections with the businesses they buy from, he said. It’s never too late, and being “late to the party” is better than not showing up at all.

“The industry is extremely lucrative,” LaChapelle said. “It was just deemed essential in a pandemic. I think that a lot can be done in sort of righting the wrongs. I think if the industry took a bigger notice of those who are still incarcerated, then it forces the community, the country as a whole, to take a bigger look at it.”

Nearly a year and a half out of prison, LaChapelle looks back on what she did that got her in trouble. She said she had no idea of the consequences. “Had my friend approached me with, 'Hey, I'm selling heroin, crack or cocaine. Can I put the money in your bank?' that would have been a hard no.’ That would have been a ‘No way, Jose.’ But it was weed."

Correction (Aug. 14, 2020, 3:15 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this story stated that Evelyn LaChapelle served four years in prison. She served five years and is currently serving four years of probation.