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Stephanie Shepard and the Last Prisoner Project

By Amanda Ferron

Don’t you just love when you meet someone and just instantly connect with them?

Working in Cannabis has allowed me to meet some truly amazing people, and Stephanie Shepard is a prime example of that. I met her during MJBizCon in Las Vegas at the Golden Paddle Pickleball Competition, where she was working because Last Prisoner Project was one of the sponsors. The same reason I was there actually, as For:20 Minutes sponsor, PayRio, was also sponsoring the Pickleball tournament. We spoke for a few minutes and I thought “I HAVE to write about this amazing woman!”

Stephanie sits on the Board for the Last Prisoner Project, and is their Director of Advocacy. 

She also served 9 years of a 10 year prison sentence for a nonviolent Cannabis “offense”. Since her release in 2019, she has been doing everything she can to help fight for others who have been affected by this phony “War on Drugs”. This is her story. 

10 Years for Conspiracy

Stephanie was born and raised in California, but when she reached adulthood, she wanted to make a change. She had an opportunity to move to New York City, and she took it. While living in the Big Apple, she got into a relationship with a man who would eventually be arrested for a Cannabis “crime”. 

Let’s start at the beginning… How did you get incarcerated?

“Long story short, I was In a relationship… He sold cannabis and got arrested, and he had a bad heart… I got a call from his lawyer asking ‘If the lawyer can get him out on medical bond because he’s not doing well with his heart, could he stay with me?’ And I said yes. It was probably good for all of a week… But when you walk in the courtroom, trust me, you can tell when they’re going to try to fight it. So I walked in, spoke to the judge… The judge said ‘I find this young lady responsible, credible, and I’m gonna recommend he be released into her custody.’ 

I got off the train, I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the time, and my phone rings. It was the attorney saying they’re gonna fight it, AND, they say you’re involved. So I was getting ready, about a week later, to go pick him up. It was on a Monday. I was gonna go pick him up on that Friday. He was gonna be able to stay with me and go to doctor’s appointments and get healthy. He was definitely going to be sent away, so I thought that was the humane thing to do.

He was gonna serve his time for whatever… But he should go into it in the healthiest State beforehand. 

When I was getting dressed to go pick him up, I got a ring on my buzzer and it was two guys; One in an ICE jacket and one in a DEA jacket. And they said ‘We’re looking for Stephanie Shepard. We have a warrant for her arrest.’”

I was arrested, and released on bond. Then I was put on pretrial for one year. They were offering me an eight year plea deal… for Conspiracy to Distribute. They didn’t come after me on my own accord. They came after me based off him being able to get out because of me (they were afraid that he would run). So I think anybody could have walked into that courtroom, and they would have made a case. 

But they were only offering me a plea of eight years. They had cooperating witnesses, of course…”

(HARD eye roll… “Witnesses”… Who were probably getting deals for saying whatever name they were told to say… But I digress…)

So I figure, ‘Eight years, I might as well roll the dice and take it to trial.’ Which I did… Now they do have a 98% win rate for a reason…” Stephanie stated with a giggle that also said: “Maybe wasn’t the best move, but it is what it is…” 

“But I went to trial… I was found guilty, and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 10 years. I was remanded from the courtroom, and never went home after that day.”

This is my life now…

And with that, Stephanie’s life changed forever. With nothing more than an arrest for unpaid parking tickets 20 years earlier on her record, Stephanie was now a felon. She had to learn how to survive in prison. But before doing that, she had to come to grips with the fact that she was even in prison in the first place…

“I just felt like it was a mistake… Surely someone’s gonna wake up and see that anything that I did still wasn’t worth 10 years for a first offense. It took me about five years before I ‘woke up’. I remember the day, in this room of women… At this time, the prison I was at, I always slept on the top bunk… And I looked around and saw these other women in this big room… And I was like ‘…this is not a mistake… This is my reality and no one’s coming… This is my life now.’ 

And that’s when my time really started in my head. So it felt a little bit less of a sentence, because prior to that every day, I felt like ‘This is my last day here. Surely, my Dad’s going to be able to help me, or one of the attorneys is going to be able to help me…’ and it just didn’t come to be. I ended up doing that amount of time (9 years) because you lose ‘good time’ when you get in trouble. I probably could have got out even a little bit earlier, but one of the first things they take from you is an accumulated amount of time. Prior to that ‘wake up’ moment, I was so in my street mode, my ‘boss bitch’ mode… I was the original ‘Karen’ before there were Karen’s. Like I was telling officers ‘Who are you talking to!?!?”

Which makes sense to me, and kind of seems like what a lot of people WOULD do, should they find themselves unjustifiably imprisoned for 10 years. To me, it’d be a survival thing… Especially when you first get in there. You’re in this very hostile environment, where you have Officers dictating every part of your life… You have other people around you who probably don’t deserve to be there, and then some who probably DO deserve to be there… So I feel like you would have to adopt that attitude, just to survive. 

“That was my attitude… So I got a lot of different violations and shots and insubordination because I would question everything. Not that I was being disrespectful, but I was saying ‘I’m going to treat you the same way you treat me’. And you can’t do that in there. I mean, I made it through. But looking back, just the loss of good time and not being able to use the phone for a month, losing commissary. Not worth it. And I got it all… I’ve even lost my property before, where they take away all your sweats… So you have to wear your uniform. They take away your tennis shoes… Everything. So I made it more difficult on myself, looking back.”

You know what they say: “Hindsight is always 20/20…”

The Ugly Truth

Chatting with Stephanie about her prison time inevitably led to us chatting about prison in general, and the people still sitting in cages for non-violent Cannabis offenses. The private prison system is a money maker, but you would be surprised at how many people do not know that. 

“When you have built-in labor for 12 cents an hour… Why would you ever want to let that go? When prisons are typically in very rural areas, they economically support that whole area. Where is the motivation to have no one come back? To keep recidivism low? Where’s the motivation? Let’s say everybody who’s in prison got their act right about themselves and never came back, and nobody did anything remotely considered wrong. What happens to those towns? What happens to the contracts with the town, the military…? I was in prisons where one of their contracts was making shorts for the military. So, that’s all they did all day. How much do you think they’re getting paid versus how much that contract is actually worth to the owners of the Prison?”

Even during her time incarcerated, Stephanie did everything she could to stay up on current news. So obviously, she saw stories on how Cannabis legalization was sweeping the country. Seeing people legally making money off Cannabis, and sleek, elegant dispensaries that will also deliver Cannabis directly to your door, understandably was a hard pill to swallow. Especially while she was sitting in prison serving a 10 year sentence for Conspiracy to Distribute.

They didn’t catch her selling anything, no Cannabis in hand, no violent drug-deal-gone-bad scenario… She didn’t beat anyone, rob anyone, or harm another person in any way. Conspiracy to distribute. TEN YEARS. Mandatory minimums. There are people currently serving LIFE sentences for nonviolent Cannabis offenses. And it is OUR responsibility, as people who are freely enjoying the plant and working in the Cannabis industry, to raise awareness, and do everything we can to affect actual change. We have to tell their stories, write our politicians, share petitions, write letters… All of it. Every little thing we do could possibly make a big difference in someone else’s future. 

The Last Prisoner Project 

Stephanie was released after serving 9 years of her 10 year prison in 2019, and was also handed 5 years probation. (she is almost done with it, but she shouldn’t have to deal with that at all in my opinion…) After her release, she returned home to Sacramento, CA. The year she was released, 2019, is also the year that the Last Prisoner Project was founded. The Last Prisoner Project is a non-profit organization focused on helping those currently incarcerated for nonviolent Cannabis offenses. Their website describes them best:

“The Last Prisoner Project was founded in 2019 out of the belief that no one should remain incarcerated or suffering the collateral consequences of offenses that are now legal. We brought together a group of justice-impacted individuals, policy and education experts, and leaders in the worlds of criminal justice and drug policy reform to work to end the fundamental injustice that is America’s policy of cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs. Our dedicated team works tirelessly to achieve our goal of freeing the tens of thousands of individuals still unjustly imprisoned and creating front-end systemic reform to our criminal legal system.”

When Aubrey Amatelli founded PayRio, she did so with the goal of eventually being able to help Cannabis community related Non Profit Organizations. And lucky for me, she has put me in charge of finding different organizations to work with in the future. The Last Prisoner Project was one of the first that came to mind. A thought that was solidified for both Aubrey and myself after meeting Stephanie and the Managing Director of Last Prisoner Project, Mary Bailey. (Stay tuned for more info on PayRio and the work we will be doing with different Cannabis Non Profits in the future!)

After Stephanie was released from prison in 2019, she was invited to San Francisco to watch a friend of hers, who had been released a few months before her, speak at a fundraiser. 

“Someone that I was in prison with, who was also in prison for cannabis, had gotten out a few months before me. She had linked up with this organization that was just getting started, and she was going to be speaking at their second fundraiser in San Francisco. So I went to hear her speak and share her experience. I was just really going for support… But I met the founders: Mary Bailey, Sarah Gersten and Steve D’Angelo… Met them and they said ‘We’d love for you, if you want, to work with us and share your story. We have this platform…’ and that’s just kind of how it started with me and the Last Prisoner Project. Running into a group like Last Prisoner Project, and hearing about people who actually care about people being incarcerated for Cannabis… And are fighting to change the whole system surrounding people going to prison for Cannabis… I was like, let me in.

No Time for Negativity

In the world of social media, everyone has an opinion. What would you say to the naysayers? The people who claim Last Prisoner Project doesn’t help the way they claim they do?

Stephanie simply replied: “Nothing.”

“Nothing; I don’t listen to the noise. This is actually something that fires me up…  I always say what my Dad says: ‘Consider the source.’ If you have not done even a third of what LPP has done… Let’s say we didn’t help anybody get out… Have you donated three million dollars back to people who’ve been impacted? If you want to know where the money goes, you can easily go to the first page of our website and see how much has been on staff. No one’s expecting the people at Saint Jude’s to work for free, or The Red Cross… People need a living wage. So yes, we pay our staff, but we also help people impacted and imprisoned. We have the highest rating from the Organization that rates nonprofits… We have the Platinum star rating.

So when people say we don’t do anything, I say ‘I can give you a list of people we’ve helped who say we do.’ As Director of Advocacy, I spend a lot of time communicating with people who have been impacted; Be it them or their family members, whoever… THAT is who I listen to. If one of those people says ‘Hey, I don’t like something or why this?’ It’s never a question, that is a conversation to be had. I have not had to have that conversation. But I’ll talk to anyone who wants to actually communicate… Just not angry internet trolls.”

Ready to help?

The Last Prisoner Project makes it incredibly easy for you to become a part of the solution. Their website has links to start a fundraiser, donate, participate in letter writing programs, and more. If you have any questions about the organization, there are links to get those answered as well. And, if you want to talk to someone within the organization, simply use the “Contact Us” page, with different links and addresses, depending on who or what you’re looking for. 

The Cannabis industry has a moral obligation to help these nonviolent Cannabis prisoners… To help make sure that policies are changing, and people are being let out of prison. We must remember that there are human beings locked in cages right now, for something we enjoy everyday… Cannabis. We are able to use it both therapeutically and recreationally, openly and freely. People in the Cannabis Community love to talk about normalization, but true Cannabis normalization only happens when these individuals are no longer prisoners.