When we elect a president, we give them extraordinary power, including the power to grant clemency — to pardon or commute the sentence of someone convicted of a federal offense. A commutation means their sentence is reduced and they are often set free. President Obama has commuted the federal sentences of 348 people, more than the past seven presidents combined.
For 53 year old Ramona Brant, President Obama’s grant of clemency last December meant she would not spend the rest of her life in prison. Brant was a first time offender convicted in 1995 on charges of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine.
Reporter Shandukani Mulaudzi met Brant on February 2, as she was released from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
PANDORA BRANT: My name is Pandora Brant I am the sister of Ramona Brant. I’m here this morning because me and my family are so happy that she is being released from prison. She has been in prison 21 years. She has been in there before my second oldest son Anthony Priest was born. I wish that my mother and my brother could be here because my mother has waited so long for this but she passed away in 2006 and I just wish that my younger brother could here – my brother has passed away this – January would be three years for him so I’m just excited for all of this to be happening today.
DOMINIQUE BRANT: We’re walking down second avenue in Brooklyn, towards the gate, they just opened it up. There she is! uuuuh!
RAMONA BRANT: Hi! Hello… Oh my God. Oh God. God bless you I’m free. Yeah. I am. This feels so weird. After 21 years it feels really weird to walk out of that gate without being shackled or handcuffed or escorted by two or three officers it’s just uhm – it’s a great feeling. It’s a great feeling. I thank everyone for their support, for everything that’s happened to get me to this point in my life. it’s an awesome moment for me and uhm – thank you. Thank you – I don’t know what else to say I’m just.
OSSAM BYER: God is great.
RAMONA BRANT: Yes he is. God is amazing. February 2nd 1995, I was sentenced to life in prison and I woke up that morning and I said I’m not doing this time and lot of people thought I was going to lose my mind and I said no, I’m not going to lose my mind. Because I believe God is gonna bring me through so today – February 2nd 2016 I believe God is saying I honored your effort, I honored your faith by and so here I am 21 years later – a free person. Now I need to head to North Carolina. Thank you so much for being here. We’re gonna leave.
RAMONA BRANT: It’s been six weeks already, six weeks since I left MDC Brooklyn and uhm I’m at the McLeod Halfway House Center, Charlotte, North Carolina. I still wake up here and I look around and I touch the bed and I touch the wall and I look out the window that was like the best gift they could give me. Having this bed at that window to look outside and really see freedom. And uhm I’ll pull up the blind and I’ll just sit here and watch the traffic go by and uhm we had a storm a couple of weeks ago and I turned off the lights and I just watched the rain and these are things that I many people take for granted and I think I started crying because I thought thank you God to be able to experience this again.
RAMONA BRANT: I moved to Charlotte just to start life over and uhm I met Donald Barber and he was exciting he was new different, I thought he was handsome. I told my family about him and everybody just fell in love with him and they thought that he was just the best. When I was pregnant with our first son he hit me. I wasn’t used to that I was like, “Oh my god what’s going on.” So I called my mom I said he hit me and so I returned to New York.
He came up up there and he begged, he pleaded with me, he begged, he pleaded with my mom, he begged, he pleaded with my dad and he promised that that was not gonna happen again and so a month before my son was born I went back to Charlotte and everything was fine and dandy until again when I was pregnant with my second child uhm he became abusive again. I found out he was doing drugs, dealing, uhm from the appearance it was small quantities it wasn’t nothing major.
The abuse got out of hand and I left and when I left this is when I kinda found out what his position was in the drug world. He had his goons go in and uhm beat up my brother in front of his wife and children. They hurt him pretty bad. The threat was that if I didn’t come back the next thing they were going to do is go after my mom. And so of course I came back and that when I was introduced fully to what he does or what he did, his whole world. So when he got arrested I thought I was free, and I remember thanking God for releasing me from my prison that I had been in for so many years. They wanted to know who would take trips with him and he told them I did. Did I? Yes I did. Sometimes I didn’t wanna go. We would fight. We would battle back and forth. I accept the guilt, but not for a lifetime. Not for the amount of drugs that you’re tryna put on me. First of all I wasn’t the dealer. You want me to be responsible for knowing? I’m guilty. I knew, I knew. But I didn’t know how much was passed around, between. I didn’t but I was held accountable for all of it.
RAMONA BRANT: At first I came out and thought I need a job I need a job and then I realised I need to learn just how to exist after 21 years and it was a little overwhelming at first but I slowed my pace. Now I’m trying to learn modern technology. I took a test for the internet and I failed it miserably and I came back and I played around on the computer and I got 71 and after the class 100 and I was so proud of myself that I was able to accomplish that goal in such a short amount of time.
RAMONA BRANT: We’re gonna go see my case manager her name is Meagan.
RAMONA BRANT: Hellooo. Hi Meagan. Thank you. This is our weekly meeting that we’re having.
MEAGAN: Yes. And now since you’ve been here six weeks we’ll start doing case notes every other week.
RAMONA BRANT: Really? Aaaah!
MEAGAN: You can still see me every week. You just don’t have to do paper work.
RAMONA BRANT: [laughs] Okay.
MEAGAN: Alright so you were able to get your ID?
RAMONA BRANT: I was able to get my ID finally.
MEAGAN: It’s in the mail?
RAMONA BRANT: I have a softcopy the hard copy is in the mail yeah.
MEAGAN: Alrighty. So when’s your next meeting with Goodwill?
RAMONA BRANT: Tomorrow. I’ll be doing career development.
MEAGAN: Is it a class?
RAMONA BRANT: Yes and I should have been taking the micro word one tomorrow also but I’ll do the career development and hopefully they’ll let me do micro 2 on Thursday and then on Friday I have resume writing
MEAGAN: Oh Wow so you have a lot going on this week. Good.
RAMONA BRANT: Yeah busy. I have a question.
RAMONA BRANT: Am I leaving on the 15th of April or the 16th of April?
MEAGAN: I believe the 15th. The 16th is a saturday so you’ll be out on the 15th.
RAMONA BRANT: Yaaay!
MEAGAN: We’re down to a month now. 30 days.
RAMONA BRANT: Yes! Wooow.
RAMONA BRANT: Huh! I’m gonna have another granddaughter my son just texted me his girlfriend is pregnant so they’re gonna have another girl so I had two girls and no girls so now I’m having all my granddaughters. [laughs] And I’m gonna be home when she’s born this time I won’t be incarcerated so this is great.
SHANDUKANI: Can you tell me why you’re crying?
RAMONA BRANT: [laughs] Cause I’m excited. I’m excited I… this time last year I was in prison and that was so hurtful cause I wasn’t here for my children, I wasn’t here when they were having their children and I didn’t know when I was gonna have the opportunity to be there. I missed their whole lives and I didn’t want that for my grandchildren at all and now I’m here and I’m able to be a part of their life and uhm… it’s a wonderful moment.
RAMONA BRANT: I was invited to The White House. There’s a summit for clemency recipients and I will be one of the speakers on the panel and I will be discussing reentry. The do’s and don’ts. The ups and downs. It is such an honour to be recognised and invited.
When they told me that I was granted permission to go the White House I went to the bathroom and I broke down and I cried and… I wish my mom was here. Even more now, not just the fact of getting the clemency but of knowing that I was going to the white house it’s like, “Oh, Ma. Can you believe this? From the prison to the palace, can you believe that?” You know and I was like what better way to honour her? Before she died, she told me she was proud of me. And I couldn’ t understand that being incarcerated and how she could be proud of me. So she heard something, she saw something she felt something and knew something that I guess that I would make it… I was gonna make it out of there one day so… I just wish she was here for this…
SHANDUKANI: For Life of the Law, Shandukani Mulaudzi.
Clemency was reported by Shandukani Mulaudzi and edited by Ann Cooper. Special thanks to Kerry Donahue, coordinator of the audio program at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Amy Povah of Can-Do Clemency for her support, and Romana Brant for sharing her story.
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