Monday, March 25, 2019

Clemency and The Old Ebbitt Grill

Clemency and The Old Ebbitt Grill

Most of the Nonviolent marijuana and other drug offenders serving sentences of life without parole did not receive clemency from President Obama's Clemency Project.  They also will not receive any sentencing relief from The First Step Act.  They need clemency from President Trump. 

In March of 2016 the White House briefing on clemency was hopeful. White House and Justice Department staff spoke about their commitment to clemency for the thousands of offenders serving egregious sentences which have been imposed since the onset of the war on drugs.  These sentences have given us the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate of all the countries with functioning representative government.

We were there to celebrate and inspire these current and future acts of great compassion and mercy advocated for by both sides of the political spectrum.  Clemency represents a commitment to social justice and to fiscal responsibility.  Our prison population is massive and wasteful and invitations to the briefing had been extended to legal scholars, advocacy groups, clemency recipients, the formerly incarcerated and families of petitioners.

I was happy to be invited to have brunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill with about 15 individuals from the briefing.  As we arrived at the restaurant the participants began to trickle in.  There we were, men and women of all ages, backgrounds, hues of color and vernacular.  We were seated at a large comfortable table and proceeded with introductions where necessary and small talk while looking at menus. 

A waitress appeared and the usual descriptions of dishes and questions about ingredients and portions ensued.  We were obviously not DC residents nor were we regular patrons.  The waitress hoped we were enjoying our visit to the capitol.  She was engaging and interested in the patrons she served, asking what had we seen and where were we going.

I sat next to Jason Hernandez, who I view as a hero. Jason’s life sentence was commuted by President Obama on December 19, 2013.  When our orders were complete the waitress paused, Jason asked her, “Do you know what we all have in common?”  She smiled, “No, what is it?”   Jason’s answer was direct and a show stopper, raw and informative.  “We’ve all been in prison.” 

This honest answer said: This is who we are, we’re like you, there’s no reason to fear us, we’re normal and we could be your family.  

It was forgotten that I had not been incarcerated but I’ve been in many prisons and know the stories of countless nonviolent drug offenders with sentences of life without parole.  I ache for them and their families.  I founded Life for Pot to advocate for marijuana offenders with life sentences, but the name of the substance is immaterial.  Jason’s sentence was for crack.  He founded Crack Open the Door.

I know the humanity of the family members who sit in prison waiting rooms.  They hope the screening process will be seamless and they will have a few short hours in a visiting room with their father, mother, husband/wife, sister or brother.  Family visits involve elaborate plans, expense and in most cases travel. Sometimes they must crossed the country just to have this short family interaction that will reconnect them with the loved one locked behind bars for the rest of their life. 

In 2013, Jennifer Turner, the Human Rights Researcher for the ACLU, completed the report Life without Parole, A Living Death.  This research found over 3,000 nonviolent offenders who were serving life without parole in federal prison; the vast majorities were drug offenders.  This sentence is unheard of in other developed countries.  It is one reason we have 25% of the world’s prisoners but only 5% of the world’s population.

As I gathered stories of nonviolent incarcerated people with life sentences or de-facto life sentences, I noted a pattern in charging and prosecution that rose to the top.  A large percentage of those with life sentences were charged with conspiracy and exercised their right to trial.  These two decisions, one made by the prosecution and the other made by the offender may provide some insight into the reason for our disparate sentencing and extreme reliance on incarceration.  Conspiracy charges are broad and hold you responsible for the actions of all members of the conspiracy, even if you were not there.  Conspiracy charges also allow the prosecution to tell the story through the testimony of co-conspirators testifying for a lesser sentence.  Going to trial gives you a sentence that is up to six times higher than those who take a plea.

The reason for my advocacy for clemency and my unease with this sentencing is personal but has become a more universal cry for more moderation in our in our quest for justice.  

My youngest sibling, John Knock has served 20 years of a life sentence as a first time marijuana offender.  The longing for reuniting him with the family that loves him is fresh.  Each visit within the walls of a federal penitentiary leaves us drained, yet somehow renewed knowing that there is hope for mercy and compassion and the promise that we will not have to endure an eternal separation from someone who is integral to the fabric of our lives.  John is 68 years of age.  I know that he is representative of multitudes, yet singular to me as he has been part of my heart for a life time.  He represents thousands.

As Jason Hernandez so gracefully illuminated the humanity of the formerly incarcerated, I would make a plea for those still waiting for the promise.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019






Exciting new businesses are being formed and their many new symbols slide across the trader’s screens, CGC – Canopy Growth, CRON – Cronos, TLRY – Tilray, ACB – Aurora, ACRGF – Acreage Holdings and on they go.  They are being closely scrutinized by those who are betting on the new cannabis business enterprises.  They are worth billions.  Simultaneously millions of new dollars are being funneled to Washington lobbying firms. 

There are new opportunities for those who operate in the juxtaposition between government and private enterprise.  They are establishing firms or hiring firms in the nation’s capital.  Financial participants are rapidly expanding and their names are rolling out as this opportunity explodes,  John Boehner, Newt Gingrich, Martha Stewart, Ron Klink, Joe Crowlay, Joe Montana, Barney Frank, Bill Weld to name a few.

It appears that marijuana legalization is the horse that has left the barn as this federally illegal substance has been legalized to some degree in 33 states plus the District of Columbia.  Over 70% of the population believes that marijuana should be legalized.  

In the meantime marijuana remains on the Controlled Substance Act’s Schedule as a Schedule 1 drug.  It is designated as a more dangerous substance than Fentanyl, OxyContin, and Meth.  In 2017 there were over 600,000 arrests for marijuana. 

There are nonviolent marijuana offenders in federal prison serving sentences of life without parole that will not receive sentencing relief from the First Step Act and did not receive clemency from President Obama.  Concurrently, there are estimates that we spend up to $42 billion per year for marijuana prohibition.  This money is spent for investigating, arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating. 

This Alice in Wonderland scenario simply illuminates the dysfunction of our legislative process, criminal justice system and administrative law.

It is the formula that triggers disrespect for the law and calls into question the integrity of those who are charged with enacting and enforcing it. 
Consistency and integrity would require that all engaged in the emerging cannabis business enterprises be prosecuted for engaging in the sale of this substance that is scheduled as more dangerous than Fentanyl and OxyContin.  If congress is not willing to kill this golden goose then those who are paying the ultimate price for this heresy should receive immediate sentencing relief by Presidential Clemency. 

Congress also needs to act quickly to remove this substance from the Controlled Substance Act’s Schedule and let states regulate it as they see fit.  Anything less is sheer hypocrisy.  

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Conditions - Prisone de la Sante

This is from the Blog Invisible Paris 

It is a piece I wrote many years ago about what it is like to visit a loved one in the oldest prison in France.  It is personal as I was visiting my brother, John Knock who was being held there prior to his extradition to the United States. 

Last December I wrote about the Prison de la Sante, imagining myself in the place of a visitor to the last remaining prison in Paris. Last week, Beth Curtis, a reader of this blog, sent me her memories of visits to the jail to see her brother. I found her account to be so touching and brave that I have decided to publish it in full here.

I came across the photo on your blog of an empty packet of cigarettes left on a gray splintered bench outside the Prison de La Sante, and immediately wanted to write to you about the many memories I have of the place. My first memory is of the bench itself, bolted to the curved metal support structure, with the ancient stone wall of the prison as a backrest and not a hint of greenery in sight. This is the bench that I sat on many times when awaiting entrance to the prison to visit my brother.

John, my brother, had disappeared in 1994. Shortly afterwards an indictment, for conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and to money-launder, was issued from a Court in Florida for him and his co-defendant, Claude Duboc, who was picked up in Hong Kong within a matter of weeks. I did not know where John was, and in my heart of hearts I hoped that I would never see him again so that he would be able to live his life in freedom.

John was later arrested though at a phone booth on the Champs Elysees in Paris when he was answering a call from someone who had been working for Claude Duboc. The arrest was arranged by the US Justice Department who requested that Interpol pick him up and hold him in France until he could be extradited to the US.

John’s first letter after his arrest was almost euphoric. He was ready to fight what were described as exaggerated charges. He had never been arrested before and felt that anything would be better than not being able see his family again or communicate with them. He would fight the extradition for the next three years while housed in La Sante.

I visited the prison many times in those three years. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with my brother’s child, my sister and my brother’s wife, and during my last visit there, with my own adult son. He sat and chatted with me until the window in the wall opened and I could begin negotiating my entrance into the imposing prison that has been called a hell hole. My son could not enter, but he kept me company on the walk to the prison and on the bench.
 Veronique Vasseur, the prison physician, told me that the cells were full of rats and lice. Suicide is rampant, and depression lurks in every crowded cell. It has been said that prisoners with no other means had swallowed drain cleaner as a way to relieve the pain of life. With these thoughts in mind, the prisoners families and friends, who had often traveled to this place from many places around the world, met on the bench where we talked about families and loved ones and gave each other support.

Towards the end of my visits to La Sante, I found a very pleasant route from my lodgings on the Left Bank to the prison which made visits a little easier. It was a beautiful and textured atmosphere that I could sense on my way to sit on this bench. I made sure each time that this walk included a passage through Luxemburg Gardens.

Each time I walked to the prison, memories flooded into my mind of my brother, a small wiry boy, always in motion with a shock of unruly blond hair blowing in the wind. I can see his irrepressible smile and the vision is one of pure joy and freedom.
 I realise that most people have not had the opportunity to go inside La Sante. What is the process? What degradation awaits? How does it smell, feel and look? During the War it housed those who had opposed the German occupation as well as violent criminals, and when France was liberated there was a bloody riot and many were killed. It had a bad reputation but what was it really like?

My first visit was in 1996 when John was 49. This visit was with his wife and 5 year old son. Gaining access to La Sante was always a daunting task. We had made visits to the Ministry of Justice, presented countless documents, and identification, engaged advocates to oil the process. Three times we had everything in place and presented ourselves at the small window in the wall. Our advocate spoke earnestly with the grim face at the door. The language was incomprehensible and our advocate seemed to be a clueless Inspector Cousteau. No, not today - “What must we do?” A shrug of the shoulders, he doesn’t seem to know. We needed a new approach. Finally John’s attorney in Belgium was able to unlock the mystery and the code was broken. We would have a full 45 minutes on a designated day. The anticipation of that first visit was almost unbearable.

We stood at the window and presented our documents. After some scrutiny we were admitted through the small door. Inside was a conveyer belt where we were to place all our belongings and shoes. The inside was dark, in gray concrete with drab chipped industrial paint on metal surfaces. After entering each section of the maze, iron doors are locked behind you. We were destined to communicate with sign language made up of gestures and expressions. We are lead to a counter by a guard with keys and authority. Another door is closed and locked. At the counter, we can leave anything that we have brought for John - books clothes and papers. We stand rigid while we watch these few possessions be examined. They are accepted and we are lead into another concrete room lined with metal lockers that remind me of school lockers in the 1940s and 50s. There we divest ourselves of all possessions. We must not retain even so much as a single scrap of paper.

We are now lead into a large dark room with concrete floors and walls. It is furnished with benches much like the one against the stone wall outside. The wait begins again on these bare wooden benches, and with a five year old child it is very difficult. Time stands still until we are finally called to proceed to the next level.

We follow the guard up a set of stairs and are greeted by a long hallway lined on the left with doors every five feet or so. Another door is unlocked then locked again behind us and we find ourselves in a five by five room with a locked door on the opposing wall. There is a small wooden table and three small plank bottom chairs. I experience fear and joy beyond belief. Now we must wait. We hear a guards gait and ring of his keys, and now he is at the door. There is a small window and through it John’s face appears. There is a smile from ear to ear and bittersweet tears. We have made it.

Beth's conclusion in her mail was a surprising one. "There were many international prisoners there awaiting extradition to their countries. Remarkably they all felt that extradition to the US would be the least desirable outcome, and they were correct. La Sante is unsanitary, and frightful looking - terribly crowded and unhealthy, but somehow civil".

Her brother, John Knock, is today being held in a jail in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. If you wish to find out more about his predicament, see the support website that Beth runs: