Stephanie Shepard's father died while she was serving 10 years for conspiracy to distribute marijuana. "I was so desperate to get out and see my father before he passed away," Shepard said. Her father died the same day she got approval to visit him in the hospital. "That was the hardest day of my incarceration," she said.
Now out of prison and on probation, Shepard is rebuilding her life with help from Last Prisoner Project (LPP), a nonprofit organization fighting criminal injustice and reimagining drug policy. More than 40,000 people in the U.S. are incarcerated for cannabis-related charges; until recently, Shepard was one of them.
Meanwhile, medical and recreational cannabis is a multibillion dollar business in the United States. At House of Wise, we believe that no one should be in jail for cannabis, which is why we have partnered with LPP and why we want to help tell Stephanie Shepard's story.
The Double Standards of Cannabis
Shepard went to prison in 2010 and was released in 2019. "As a first time, nonviolent offender who came from a two-parent, suburban household, I thought going to prison could never happen to me," Shepard said. "It took me about five years to gain the humility to realize that it was not a mistake, that no one would be coming to save me, and that I was not special or different from the other women whose lives had been turned upside down by incarceration."
Shepard was originally sent to prison in New York with a mandatory minimum of 10 years. Over the course of a decade in the federal prison system, she was transferred from Connecticut to Minnesota and finally to California. While she was incarcerated in California, recreational marijuana was legalized in that state.
"I did all that time, and for what?" she said. "When I got out two years ago, I saw billboards for delivery services and dispensaries that look like an Apple Store. And I'm still on five years of probation."
Shepard recalls a poignant moment in prison, when she and fellow LPP alum Evelyn LaChapelle were watching TV together, and a news report came on about how California's cannabis industry was booming.
"Evelyn and I look at each other, and I'm like 'so you're doing 8 years and I'm doing 10 years, and here's this lady on TV saying business is booming.'" The injustice of the situation rightfully angers Shepard.
"People are creating generational wealth for their own families," Shepard said. "But Evelyn had to leave her daughter at 3 years old and come back when she was 10 years old."
The Cruel Ironies of Being a Prisoner
Shepard was able to get one year knocked off her sentence by completing a drug treatment program she didn't need. As she put it, "You get nothing for not being a drug addict, but if you say you are an addict, they lure you in with a year off [your sentence]. They force you to call yourself a drug addict."
While Shepard had resisted enrolling in the program, she reconsidered when her dad got sick. As someone who sold cannabis but did not have a drug problem, Shepard felt disingenuous. "We're not being fair to [addicts] by getting up there and pretending that we can feel their struggle," she said.
The irony, Shepard says, is that she wasn't allowed to leave prison in time to visit her dying father, but she was allowed to fly by herself to Arizona to complete the drug program. She also flew alone on a commercial flight, when she transferred from a prison in Minnesota to a camp in Victorville, CA. On route to California from Minnesota, Shepard wore a gray sweatsuit and carried a mesh bag with a prison ID and $14.
"I felt so out of place," Shepard said. "Everyone is dressed nicely, and I'm in sweats. Everyone is on their phone, and I don't have a phone. The people at the airport knew I was a prisoner. That's how I I know PTSD is real, because I felt so uncomfortable in the real world I wanted to get back to prison. I wanted to get back to my captors."
Rebuilding a Life Interrupted
When Shepard was released in 2019, she was awarded a grant from LPP, which allowed her to open a bank account. She moved in with her sister in California, but she still encountered challenges.
"I had no credit, which is worse than having bad credit," Shepard said. "I'd gotten probably a couple sizes bigger [in prison] and none of my clothes fit. I didn't have a car. I didn't have anything."
Finding a job as a felon is hard. Shepard interviewed for a job at Starbucks, where she had to disclose that she had served time. "Obviously, I had to tell them that I was a felon. They were glad that I was open and honest, but they couldn't promise I'd get the job," Shepard said. Fortunately, she did get the job, where she worked for two years, until this month, when she accepted a full-time position with Last Prisoner Project.
Via LPP, Shepard also got a scholarship to attend Oaksterdam University, and ultimately, she would love to get back into the cannabis industry. "My skills that made me successful and that had the Feds after me are the skills I put toward any position," she said. "My desire to sell cannabis is less; my desire to normalize cannabis is greater." However, because of her felony conviction — for cannabis — she is still ineligible to work in the cannabis industry.
So, what can the rest of us do to help women like Stephanie Shepard? "Prevent the unjust consequences of cannabis criminalization by lending support to organizations like LPP, voting on cannabis laws, and normalizing cannabis for adult use and medicinal purposes," she said. "LPP has given me a voice and sense of purpose and normalcy."
To donate to Last Prisoner Project and learn more about its efforts, visit lastprisonerproject.org.