Thursday, March 8, 2018

Hope and Loss in North Carolina (part two): Ramona's world


On Saturday, March 3rd, I traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina. I was going to the funeral for Ramona Brant, which was scheduled for the following day at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, in Charlotte. Today, I am sharing Ramona's story.

When I was serving a few short sentences in the federal prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut, more than ten years ago, I knew that, down the hill, in the big prison (the federal correctional institution), there were women who were serving life sentences. I couldn't understand how a life sentence without the possibility of parole (and there has been no parole in the federal system since 1987) could be given to someone who had not killed other people. Although I was learning that the war on drugs was truly a war on American families, I could not even imagine that anyone could receive a life sentence for CONSPIRACY to sell drugs.

Ramona Brant's smile (image
courtesy of Ivy Woolf Turk)
Yet, that is exactly what happened to Ramona. She was involved in the illegal drug business, not out of choice, but because she was in an abusive relationship with a man, who turned out to be the kingpin of a large conspiracy that involved the sale of crack cocaine. 

When he first met her, he swept her off her feet. He seemed almost too good to be true. In other words, he showed all of the signs of being an abuser. Usually people who become abuse victims will not recognize those signs. Here is something that I wrote about abusers and their victims after Mary Travers Murphy, executive director of Western New York's Family Justice Center, spoke at the first Lenten luncheon. Her talk was titled "Justice for Victims of Domestic Violence": Domestic abusers are manipulative people who brainwash their victims into believing that they are those romantic folks who conducted a whirlwind courtship. Once it is obvious that they are violent abusers, they brainwash their victims into believing that they are responsible for their own abuse. Oftentimes, Mary said, "they can't pinpoint the moment of the first kick or hit. They are traumatized and their brains have been rewired."

Ramona had two sons with the abusive boyfriend. Her sons were the only good things to come from a bad relationship. 

The boyfriend forced her to accompany him on his drug runs and he made her make phone calls on his behalf. He told her that she and the boys would die if she didn't do what he said. Eventually, he and his cohorts were caught and they began naming names. She was arrested when she was in court, trying to get an order of protection.  I read an article on line that quoted the boyfriend as saying, after he refused a plea deal that would spare her any prison time, something to the effect of "if I can't have her, then no one can." She and her boyfriend and probably others were sentenced to life in federal prison. She was never caught with any drugs at all. She had no prior criminal convictions. In a conspiracy case, each person arrested for that conspiracy is charged with the total amount of drugs connected with that case. They do not have to be caught with drugs or even to have any knowledge of the extent of the conspiracy.

Ramona and friends
at FCI Danbury (image
courtesy of Debra Horton) 
Nkechi Taifi, Esq. of the Open Society Foundation: (Ramona served) 21 years of unjust and unnecessary incarceration. The drug conspiracy laws are injustice. Who will be the voice that will fight that injustice? Use the ballot box. Long live the spirit of Ramona Brant.

Elisa Chinn-Gary of Race Matters for Juvenile Justice: On August 4th, 2016, I entered Ramona's world. We had an immediate spiritual connection. She was a woman of faith, purpose drive, a social justice champion, and a black queen warrior. She spoke about racism and domestic violence. She used her vision and her voice, her platform and her life to speak for people who were not heard. Justice cannot flow where there is racism.

Ramona was a mentor, friend, and
spiritual advisor to many at
FCI Danbury.
I love the law. I am a critical lover of the justice system. We must right the wrongs. The flaws of injustice rain terror on people of color and people living in poverty. Ramona's punishment did not fit her crime. She suffered a grave injustice. It did not break her spirit or shatter her hope. She did not surrender.

Pastor Mitchel Blue of the Uncommon Church in Charlotte, N.C.: What do we do with this gift that Ramona gave us? I can't sit on the sidelines. She left us with a great vision. We cannot do her legacy justice if we stay in complete complacency or say 'that's not my issue.'

In prison, Ramona stayed busy, doing such things as mentoring other women, taking classes, and directing the church choir. She made many friends in prison, who admired her deep faith and her optimistic belief that she would eventually go home. 

Beatrice Codianni (editor, Reentry Central): I spent several years in prison with Ramona. She was known for her deep sense of faith, which helped her get through her time in prison. Talking with her, I could not believe that such a gentle, religious, and caring person could be given such a harsh sentence. In my mind's eye, I see her scurrying to and from choir practice, and I hear her teaching other women to lift up their voices to the Lord in song.

Women who serve time in prison become sisters forever. Here are some of Ramona's sisters.
Denise McCreary said, after learning that Ramona had passed away: I can barely wrap my mind around the fact that God has called my sister Ramona Brant home to gain her wings and to truly be free. While on this earth, she worked to improve and make differences in the lives of our sisters who are still incarcerated and to improve the quality and dignity in the lives of our sisters who are returning home...

Heaven has gained yet another freedom fighter......

Amy Povah: She said, 'If you're passionate about something would you please act on it?' Help Ramona touch more lives.

Andrea James, executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls: We are Ramona's sisters.

Pastor Mitchel Blue: She joined the church two years ago. She compared her life to that of Joseph in the book of Genesis. She was a nurturer in prison. We were touched by the gift that Ramona had. She said, "My faith said that I will not serve this life sentence in prison. I will go home to my children and my family."

Topeka K. Sam has opened a house
in Bronx, N.Y., for women
returning home from
prison sentences.
A campaign was put into place by such organizations as CAN-DO, which advocates for long-term prisoners to receive executive clemency, and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, to grant Ramona Brant clemency. She was featured by Brandon Stanton in his "Humans of New York" series shortly before she was released from prison early in 2016, after being granted executive clemency by President Obama. A video was made of her freedom day. According to Amy Povah, executive director of CAN-DO, "the video went viral. It catapulted her to rock star status." A few months later, she met President Obama at a White House symposium for people who had received clemency.  "She pitched the idea to Obama to have a clemency summit," Amy said. Amy was able to give Ramona the news: "'Guess what? You're going to the White House.' She wanted her sons at the White House."

Friends of Ramona are determined to continue Ramona's vision and to share it with the rest of the country and the world. They are Foxxy and Tray and Tray's son Ty.
Ramona went home to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she was determined to continue to help people in prison and people released from prison. From her personal experiences, she knew what it was like to be the victim  of a broken and racist justice system. While she was in the artificial world of federal prison, the world had changed. She had to adjust to a world in which her young sons had become adults and had made her a grandmother. She had to adjust to new technology. 

She needed housing and she needed a job. She had told her job counselor that she needed to hold out for a job that would offer her the flexible hours that she needed so she could speak out for the Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. The job counselor, Melissa Murmeth, who spoke at the funeral, asked her if that was a realistic goal. "Ramona assured me that it was possible." She managed to obtain a job with the City of Charlotte, helping formerly incarcerated persons obtain employment. Her boss, Antione Ensley, who hired her after seeing her in a television interview, gave her those flexible hours so she could speak.

She finally met a good man and was married last March. With a job, the opportunity to speak, and a good marriage, Ramona was able to pursue her dream. Ramona's dream was to open a house for people to come to after being released from prison. Housing and employment are big obstacles facing formerly incarcerated people. "She was so close to having it. She knew which house she wanted. She always called it her house. She spoke about it as often as possible and she did a lot of public speaking", Melissa Murmeth said.

Ramona died on February 25th, a week shy of her 55th birthday.

Many condolences came, from people in prison, as well as from President Obama. 

Amy Povah: A man serving a life sentence said, 'She sent me a birthday card with her picture.' A woman said, 'She used to harass me to go to choir.'

 At her funeral, it was announced that a house for returning prisoners would be dedicated and would be named Ramona's House.

Melissa Murmeth: Ramona's vision was a huge building welcoming people home from prison with safe and affordable housing and a living wage job. She said, 'Thank you, God, for my building.' 

Pastor Mitchel Blue: On Monday, we had the incredible privilege and honor of incorporating Ramona's House.

Melissa Murmeth: Thank you, God, for Ramona's place.

Despite the injustice that she experienced, Ramona was never anything but a kind and generous person, who loved her community, her family, her friends, and her church.  

Pastor Mitchel Blue: Ramona lived her life selflessly with a consideration of others first in a way that honored God. I have no question on where Ramona is. She has been welcomed into the arms of God.


I love you, Ramona. Fly free.

6 comments:

Cerebrations.biz said...

It's always sad when we lose someone. It's a tragedy when that person was one of the people making a difference in this world.


I didn't see it in your piece, so I am adding how we can help Ramona's House ourselves...

https://www.gofundme.com/ramonas-home-going-service

Parul said...

That is so tragic. First the relationship and the pain and then the sentence for no real fault. Sad story!

Alana said...

I read Ramona's obituary article in the Charlotte Observer, in addition to your blog post. What a terrible story. The best purpose of a life is to change your world for the better and to be an inspiration to others. Ramona accomplished both. What a life Ramona built for herself and others, despite all that happened to her.

mahathi ramya A said...

Ramona's story is very inspiring. Even after going through an abusive relationship and jailed, she didnt give up but helped many people. Thanks for sharing this Alice.

Esha M Dutta said...

It is very hard to lose someone. I can feel for your loss. At the same time, I'm glad you shared her inspiring story with us. She had to endure so much in her lifetime. I hope and pray she finds peace at last.

Lady In Read said...

Alice, thank you so much for sharing Ramona's story. She was truly inspirational and will continue to be even after her death. The unfairness of the system is truly mind-boggling...
Thank you Roy for sharing the gofundme page..