An interview with attorney Sarah Gersten
January 28, 2021, Non-violent Cannabis offender Michael Thompson at the age of 69, was released from prison after 23 years behind bars even though recreational cannabis use has been legal more than two years in Michigan. Before he was granted clemency, his first opportunity for release would have been at the age of 87.
Sarah Gersten, Executive Director and General Counsel of Last Prisoner Project and founding member of Michigan Cannabis Freedom Coalition, said, “Today marks a momentous occasion for Michael Thompson, his family, and his countless supporters throughout Michigan and across the country. Unfortunately, it also serves as a stark and somber reminder of the thousands of cannabis prisoners who remain behind bars while others profit off of a now legal industry.”
The Texas Hemp Reporter had the chance to catch up with Sarah a week later:
This is pretty exciting right?
SG: Very exciting, it’s been an incredibly exciting month and even more exciting week.
How often does this happen?
SG: The release? We have two distinct release programs, one is the clemency commutation side of it, and then compassionate release. Those are the more frequent, more standard; you go through the judiciary. With the clemency campaigns it’s about crafting a compelling narrative of why someone deserves release, so to do that effectively you have to really get to know their family. With Michael Thompson over the past year I have gotten to know him on a personal level so well. We pushed this really robust campaign for him, and he became sort of a national symbol of this issue. For this to happen with someone that has become as high profile as Michael for me personally to be so involved to get to know him, his family it was once in a lifetime really.
That’s so amazing it’s giving me goosebumps. Do you think this is perhaps a benchmark for prisoners in this similar situation?
SG: It’s tricky because we are absolutely pushing these types of campaigns, but the bigger effort that we’re pushing both nationally and on a state level is for broader policy reform that enables the release of anyone still incarcerated for non-violent cannabis offenses. That work is not as personally satisfying because you don’t get to know the prisoners and the families as you do when you’re crafting a clemency campaign, but it will lead to broad systemic reform and impact thousands of individuals.
I was reading about this and he seems like a salt of the earth, pillar of the community kind of guy and it’s so tragic, but what is his plan now for the future?
SG: Before he was incarcerated Michael worked within his community; he had received awards from the NAACP for his work doing violence reduction in Flint MI, where he’s from, and working with teens involved in gang violence. He really continued that kind of work when he was incarcerated. He served as a mentor to individuals serving with him and people often thought of him as a father or grandfather. He should be retiring now, he loves to garden and be outside, but instead he wants to dedicate himself to criminal justice reform and prison reform.
Wow. Did you get to be there when he was released?
I was! I was actually the one to drive him home! I think because I’m from New Hampshire and it was snowing in MI and a lot of the team was from the west coast. It was awesome.
Do you think this could cause a floodgate of releases?
I do. Through Michael’s case we’ve also been identifying other prisoners in MI that are there for cannabis offenses, that we can submit their clemency petitions for, and through Michaels campaign and advocacy around his case we’ve gotten buy in to reform this issue from the attorney general, to the lieutenant governor, several progressive prosecutors in MI, state law makers. So, through Michael, we’re already pushing this really broad campaign and doing the groundwork to get more individuals in MI out.
What is your goal with the federal work that you’re doing?
SG: It’s similar federally in that we had spent months advocating with the white house, with the Trump administration for clemency for our federal constituents and three weeks ago he granted clemency to several of our constituents, and I absolutely think that is going to be a symbol of the type of reform that needs to be enacted. What we saw is that the process is fundamentally broken, we need an effective, transparent process and especially for marijuana offenders. There is so much bi-partisan support to provide retroactive relief for those still incarcerated federally. And that was before this most recent signal from majority leader Schumer and other senators to legalize federally.
Great! Do you see a timeline? Could this happen in the next year or two?
SG: If you had asked me that a week ago, I would have been on the fence, but with Senator Schumer coming out and wanting to make this an issue, within this congress, this year, I absolutely think it could happen.
Fantastic! What has been your biggest hinderance to your goals with the Last Prisoner Project?
SG: I would say stigma. There is still such a stigma attached to cannabis, even in criminal justice circles we often get push back because of our narrow focus. People don’t perceive this as the monumental problem that it is, and the other stigma is just around the idea of what we’re doing. There are so many people in this country, elected officials, that believe if you committed a crime, even if it’s now legal, even though the majority of Americans believe it shouldn’t be a crime, that you should remain incarcerated and that you don’t deserve a second chance. That is why it is so important to raise up the stories of people like Michael. For the people that have that mindset, so they can get his story, and that he deserves a second chance, and that he never deserved to be incarcerated in the first place.
Indeed. How can regular people on the street help? I see on the website you have a call to action to write letters, emails and calls, was that the biggest push for it his release? Was that how it eventually happened? Through the voices of the people?
SG: Yes, I think Michael’s case is a shining example of the power of grassroots organizing and advocacy. Without having hundreds of thousands of people write letters and make calls to the governor and the parole board he would still be incarcerated. People in this moment and climate are really jaded and think what I do won’t have an impact. Michael’s case should show everybody that it absolutely does make an impact and those calls were heard. We really harnessed the collective power of so many people to advocate for Michael.
I will look out for him in the news. He is such a figurehead for this community. It’s an honor to speak with you and I appreciate your time today.
SG: Thank you for telling the story.
For more information about the Last Prisoner Project and to get involved check out their website: https://www.lastprisonerproject.org/
Giacobazzi Yanez / Last Prisoner Project
- Michael Thompson and family pre-incarceration
2.Release day from left to right: Last Prisoner Project Constituent Donte West, Michael Thompson, Sarah Gersten, and Last Prisoner Project Board Member Erik Murray.