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New Wave of US Prisoner Releases Upcoming


"Draydon, where's your brush?" Barbra Scrivner asks her 5-year-old grandson as she looks to smooth his unruly hair for kindergarten.

Scrivner never thought this day would come and then it came early. About 10 years early. She is now back home in Portland, Oregon in the country's northwest.

"I missed my family, everything about them. Now, everything about my life is different. I wake up nicer. I can stretch in my bed and walk in my kitchen and make my own cup of coffee. It's 100 percent better. I have a real life now," she said.

Scrivner spent 21 years in a federal prison in California for drug conspiracy. She was released this year after President Barack Obama commuted her 30-year sentence, along with those of other non-violent drug offenders.

"I cried like a baby when I found out," says Scrivner. "I didn't believe it."

November releases

Forty-six more prisoners will get early release Tuesday, part of Obama's efforts to reform the U.S. criminal justice system. Obama has now commuted more prison sentences than any president since Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. Scrivner knows the struggles the new group will face. "It is really hard especially if you've been incarcerated for many, many years because everything out here is all changed. You have to learn how to live life in this world."

Barbra Scrivner was released 10 years ahead of schedule. Forty-six more prisoners will get early release November 11. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Barbra Scrivner was released 10 years ahead of schedule. Forty-six more prisoners will get early release November 11. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Scrivner submitted 100 job applications before she landed a part-time cleaning position. "You learn lots of skills in prison. But how do you relay that on paper?" she asks. "And then the perspective employer says, 'Oh, you have a lot of skills! Where did you get these skills?'" She said that enthusiasm evaporates when the interviewer finds out she learned while serving prison time.

Through Obama's commutations and changes in sentencing laws, more than 6,000 will be released before he leaves office. He sends a personally signed letter to all newly released inmates, encouraging them.

It warns that each of them has the potential to turn their lives around. It reads, "It will not be easy and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change... Remember that you have the capacity to make good choices."

Mandatory sentences

Federal Judge Ancer Haggerty sentenced Scrivner to 30 years. He's now retired. Back then, Judge Haggerty couldn't lower her time because of mandatory minimum sentencing rules. He said it was during a time when methamphetamines were an epidemic in Portland, and the country was urging a "get tough stance" for drug criminals.

"The overall consideration was to even out the sentences across the country and that's why they enacted the mandatory minimums, but some of them I always thought were too harsh," he said.

Barbra Scrivner spent 21 years in a federal prison in California for drug conspiracy. She was released this year after President Barack Obama commuted her 30-year sentence. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Barbra Scrivner spent 21 years in a federal prison in California for drug conspiracy. She was released this year after President Barack Obama commuted her 30-year sentence. (C. Presutti/VOA)

Judge Haggerty said he felt Scrivner's sentence was "extremely harsh based on the fact she was a limited participant" in a drug ring, but he could not change the sentence.

Scrivner said her husband was in the county jail on drug charges at the time and, as a new mom, she needed money to pay the bills.

She claims she accepted one bag of methamphetamines and delivered it.

The country needs to get the right people into the jails for the right reason, she said. And for the right amount of time.

As for her future, she's applying to colleges and hopes to become a tattoo artist. But right now, she enjoys raising her grandson.

Her daughter, who grew up with both mom and dad in prison, is going through drug rehabilitation.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

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