Through her recently published memoir, “A Knock at Midnight,” Brittany K. Barnett takes readers inside the U.S. criminal justice system and shows the devastating effects of the War on Drugs, both from the perspective of the daughter of a woman who was once incarcerated and that of a successful civil rights lawyer.
Before shifting her entire focus toward civil rights endeavors, Barnett was on track for a lucrative career as a corporate lawyer, working on mergers and acquisitions. But her passion led her down a different path, and she began helping people serving life sentences seek clemency under an Obama-era reform program.
Along with two of her clients, Sharanda Jones and Corey Jacobs, both of whom were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole before receiving clemency, Barnett co-founded the Buried Alive Project, a nonprofit that helps people like Jones and Jacobs. The Buried Alive Project focuses solely on people serving life for drug offenses, which includes about 1,300 to 1,500 people nationally. Barnett is also in the process of launching a venture capital fund to ensure formerly incarcerated people have access to capital and resources so they can have what she calls “life after life.”
Not only are Jones and Jacobs partners in the nonprofit, but Barnett says they’re an inspiration to her and leading examples of a greater cultural transformation.
“They are helping shift the paradigm and helping change the narrative on how people look at formerly incarcerated people,” Barnett says. “With every freedom we secure, we’re pushing forward a movement of people and power and dignity that is going to have a ripple effect on anyone they may positively impact in the future.”
Marijuana Venture: What was the process like for you writing “A Knock at Midnight”?
Brittany K. Barnett: The writing process for me was therapeutic, in a sense, because I start with my childhood story of growing up as a Black girl in rural East Texas and dealing with the challenges of having a mother who was addicted to drugs and dealing with her ultimate incarceration.
It was also a time for me to reflect on the work I’ve done as a corporate lawyer and working on these federal drug cases pro bono. It was almost as if I was living a double life because I was working on these multimillion-dollar deals by day and working pro bono to get people out of prison at night. And the writing process was truly a reflection of how systemic oppression is leading to the utter failure of the War on Drugs, how people are serving life sentences because of these failed policies and how it’s destroying families and entire communities. But then it gave me a chance to reflect on just how brilliant my clients are. I’ve always felt the heartbeat of the people behind bars, but writing the book really gave me that time to be, like, wow, this country is locking up the very ingenuity our nation needs to thrive.
MV: What made you ultimately decide to leave corporate law and focus on working to free people who were incarcerated?
BKB: It definitely was not an easy decision to make, because I enjoyed my job as a corporate attorney and — I’m just going to be real — I also enjoyed the financial comfort of it. I felt an obligation to be in those boardrooms as a Black woman to help pave the way for others.
But it came to a point for me where I was getting very heavily involved in President Obama’s clemency initiative and there were only about 10 months left of him in office, and I just wanted to do all that I could to help get people free. I decided there was nothing more urgent than freedom. I made the decision to resign, and through President Obama’s clemency initiative, I had seven clients receive clemency. And then when he left, quite frankly, there was a period of time in January of 2017, where I was like, what the hell did I do? What now?
I was so passionate about this work, so I linked arms with my clients, Sharanda Jones and Corey Jacobs, who had been serving life for drugs and received clemency from President Obama, and we co-founded the Buried Alive Project to provide legal representation for people serving life under these outdated federal drug laws.
MV: What was it like to go from the Obama administration to the Trump administration over the past four years?
BKB: The transition was one of a lot of uncertainty. We didn’t know how the Trump administration was going to treat criminal justice issues or prioritize criminal justice issues, but I am blessed to have been a part of the legal team for Alice Johnson, who was one of the first people to receive clemency from Donald Trump. And that really got momentum for the movement. But the two administrations were quite different. President Obama granted more clemencies than all modern-day presidents combined. His clemency initiative was truly historical, and I’m blessed to have lived that part of history.
MV: Obviously, the inauguration of President Joe Biden probably brings back some uncertainty, but what are your early thoughts about how the Biden administration will impact criminal justice reform?
BKB: I’m hopeful that the Biden administration will bring back a clemency initiative so that it is normalized. Clemency shouldn’t be this big news story every once in a while. Presidents and governors should be granting clemency on a regular basis. And I’m hopeful that we see that again. I’m hopeful that we see a push to go beyond the First Step Act of 2018 and move on to the second, third, fourth and fifth step, starting with retroactivity and some of the laws that were changed.
We have people serving life sentences today for marijuana and other drug offenses. They’re serving life sentences today under yesterday’s drug laws, so I’m hoping we take several more steps toward restoring a sense of fairness that should be at the heart of the criminal legal system.
MV: What takes up the bulk of your time right now?
BKB: I would say probably half my time is spent with Buried Alive, working on fundraising to build capacity and hire a couple more lawyers. We’re also partnering with law firms that will take these cases pro bono so that we can scale and provide more impact.
And then the other 50% of my time is cultivating this vision I have about sustainable liberation and venture capital and investments.
MV: What kind of racial disparity is there among the people you’re looking to help free and reintegrate into society?
BKB: Over 80% of people in federal prison for drugs today are black and brown.
MV: That’s an incredible level of disproportion. What kind of impact do you see that having culturally and on society in general?
BKB: It’s devasting families and entire communities. And it’s all because of these misguided appeals for law and order under this failed War on Drugs.
Criminal justice reform is popular right now, it’s fashionable. But it’s always mind-blowing to me how little people really know about how the system works, because it’s so overwhelming. Mass incarceration is, to me, the most pressing civil rights issue of our time. There’s something we all can do to help make a difference, just by finding what speaks to our hearts.
I hope readers of my book will see that the true loss of mass incarceration is not just the lives stolen by injustice, but the beauty and brilliance that each incarcerated person might have contributed to this country. I tell everyone: find the area that you’re most passionate about, whether it’s bail reform, whether it’s marijuana justice, whether it’s sentencing reform or parole and probation. Find the area you’re passionate about and make a difference that way.
MV: How did the United States as a country get to where we’re at right now, with 1,300 to 1,500 people serving life in prison for drug crimes? What was the culprit for somebody like Sharanda Jones, who was convicted of a single nonviolent drug crime, being given the same sentence as the Unabomber?
BKB: The culprit was the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that implemented this 100-to-1 sentencing ratio between crack and powder cocaine that punished crack much more severely and implemented mandatory minimums.
The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed with little to no legislative history. It implemented the 100-to-1 ratio that was arbitrary and had no rational basis — other than that it’s no secret that more affluent white people were using powder cocaine at the time and crack cocaine was running rampant through Black communities. So it had this racially biased impact, and I think that that’s how we got here.
It was this appeal for law and order, it was this fear that was carried out into the country about drugs and crack, in particular, which is unfortunate because we had this crack epidemic. When the crack epidemic hit, it wasn’t treated like a public health crisis. It was about demonizing and criminalizing users and dealers. Everybody was locked up, and it has had a devastating impact for generations.
My mom was addicted to crack cocaine. She needed rehabilitation, not prison. Fortunately, my mom found it within herself to become sober in prison, but it was in spite of being incarcerated, not because of it. Right now, we see this opioid epidemic happening, which is horrible and devastating, but we’re rightfully treating it as a public health crisis.
And I make no excuses for my clients selling drugs. My clients sold drugs. They are responsible. There are consequences that come from that. They understand that. The argument is that they shouldn’t have been sentenced to life.
MV: How can how can people get involved and help bring justice to people serving unfair prison sentences?
BKB: I think one of the ways they can help bring justice is to educate themselves about the law and how the system works, whether through reading my book or other books like “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson or “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander or even watching Ava DuVernay’s amazing documentary called “13th” on Netflix. Education is definitely key and there are local grassroots organizations people can find in their area that focus on transforming the criminal justice system that can help them get involved locally.
I encourage anyone with even a drop of interest in this topic to visit a prison, to visit people in prison, and they can do that through their local organizations. Also, help by voting and getting involved in not just national elections, but local elections that have a huge impact as well. And I would be remiss not to say that financial resources are always needed to get more people free and break more chains.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.