Albert Reed spent 25 years trying to get out of a life sentence for drugs.
Then, as he describes it, two attorneys, two "women warriors" he calls them, came into his life and set him free.
On a stormy Chicago morning in July, Reed, now 49 and a free man, smiled in the rain as he met, for the first time, the two women he credits with his freedom, MiAngel Cody and Brittany Barnett.
He embraced them each with giant hugs that lasted for minutes in an emotional scene that captured the enormity of the fact that Reed went to prison as a 24-year-old with a baby on the way and left prison as a 49-year-old man who attended his daughter's baby shower after his release.
Cody and Barnett are used to scenes like this.
Collectively, they say they have helped free or reduce sentences for more than 40 people sentenced to life without parole in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses. The people they have helped have served more than 820 years combined.
"We work behind the curtain so we see that the men and women who America has painted as the most dangerous are really human beings,” said Cody. “Survivorship is at the heart of each one of their stories.”
Nearly 2,000 people were serving life sentences without parole for non-violent drug offenses as of 2016, the most recently available data, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice reform group.
The prisoners' plight has surfaced from time to time but reality TV star-turned entrepreneur-turned law student Kim Kardashian West helped shine a new spotlight on them, taking on the unlikely cause of working to free people from life sentences. She has helped to fund Barnett and Cody’s own efforts and in the process helped to keep criminal justice reform on the map.
In the past two years, other actions have helped raise the profile of people serving life sentences as well, including Congress passing the First Step Act -- the first criminal justice legislation to pass in years -- and politicians from President Donald Trump to Cory Booker featuring criminal justice reform in their campaigns.
“In the 90s, you didn’t want to breathe the word criminal justice anywhere close to an election,” said Nkechi Taifa, a criminal justice reform advocate and founder of The Taifa Group, a Washington, D.C.-based social enterprise firm. “We used to have to hide and shroud our issues under other issues and now we’re shouting it from the rooftops.”
Barnett, 35, and Cody, 39, use the word “survivorship” when they talk about the people they save from life sentences.
It could also be said for these two women who faced drug issues in their own families, who became lawyers even as they had few black female role models and who are now funding themselves to do the painstaking work of freeing people from prison, calling themselves the “best lawyers that money cannot buy.”
"Growing up the closest lawyer we know that looked like us was Clare Huxtable from ‘The Cosby Show,'" said Barnett. "And to know that we are standing in reality and standing in our truth and in our power and to be a representation for the young Brittanys and MiAngels who may be growing up in the rural South like we did, it’s just very inspiring to know that we have this position to make a change."
There are other attorneys and other groups like the Innocence Project across the U.S. who fight for prisoners' release and fight against unjust imprisonment.
What sets Barnett and Cody apart from the rest is their focus on non-violent drug offenders and their very personal connection to the cause. They are both children of parents who were incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.
"One thing that I’ve always personally thought was problematic in the current criminal court system is that it is heavily based on punishment and not restorative justice and restoring families," said Cody, whose father overcame addiction and spent time in jail. "So this work has helped me work to restore my own."
The granddaughter of a sharecropper who was chased out of Arkansas by the Ku Klux Klan, Cody attended Xavier University in Louisiana and had her first visit with a person on death row as a 19-year-old college student.
She went to law school, clerked for two federal judges and then became a commercial litigator, working for clients like the Chicago Bears and Pepsi Co.
It was in Cody’s next career step -- a decade-long role as a federal defender in Chicago -- where she started to work on the clemency petitions that would change her life.
She spent an entire year, 2011, writing a petition for Reynolds Wintersmith, who was sentenced to life in prison at age 17 for dealing crack and cocaine.
"As a young public defender, I just felt that it was really important that if America was going to be throwing people away and burying them alive for the rest of their lives, that we really wrestle with their stories,” Cody said of her commitment to the case.
In 2013, nearly one year after Cody sent her clemency petition to the White House, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of Wintersmith and seven other men and women in prison.
By the end of his two terms in January 2017, Obama had granted commutations -- the executive act of either partially or completely reducing prison sentences -- to more than 1,700 people, a history-making number according to U.S. Justice Department data.
It was during the rush of the Obama era that Cody and Barnett met at a criminal justice event held in Washington, D.C., in 2013, just after Obama granted his first eight clemencies. Cody was invited to give a speech because of her success with Wintersmith.
"I was walking through the halls of this event and feeling very out of place ... then I saw [Brittany] and was like we are very similar," Cody recalled. "She walked up to me and introduced herself and we’ve been sisters ever since."
Barnett was at the time working as a corporate lawyer in Dallas, doing a balancing act of what she describes as "working 12, 14 hours moving billion dollar deals by day and saving lives by night doing my pro bono work."
She grew up in rural East Texas having never even met a lawyer until she was in college. Barnett, a first-generation university graduate, studied accounting in college and then, at age 22, was hit by a life-altering moment.
Her mom, a nurse whom Barnett says at the time was a "functioning drug addict," was sentenced to eight years in prison after failing a series of drug tests while on probation.
"A defining moment of my life can be attributed to a seven-digit number, 1374671, and this number was assigned to my mother when she began serving an eight-year prison sentence," Barnett said. "This number taught me to have a heightened sense of compassion and empathy for a group of people who were often taught to stereotype and ignore, and those are people who are incarcerated."
While her mom was in prison, Barnett became a certified public accountant, worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers, studied for the LSAT at night and then put herself through law school.
In 2008, while Barnett was studying law, her mom was freed from prison.
“She has been clean and sober for over a decade … and our bond is closer than ever,” said Barnett, who now runs a nonprofit with her mom helping girls whose moms are in prison. “[My family] has seen the devastation that mass incarceration causes on families firsthand and we all want to do our part to help make a difference.”
After her mom was freed, Barnett met another woman whose prison sentence would again change her life. In a law school class, she came across the case of Sharanda Jones, a mom who, like Barnett, grew up in rural East Texas.
Jones, 32 at the time and the mom of an 8-year-old daughter, refused a plea deal and went to trial after being arrested for her alleged role in a federal drug conspiracy, her first-ever interaction with the law. She was convicted in 1999 for conspiring to traffic nearly 53 pounds of crack cocaine.
Her conviction would have resulted in a maximum sentence of less than 25 years based on federal sentencing guidelines, but prosecutors argued for sentencing enhancements that resulted in Jones getting a sentence of life without parole.
Barnett met Jones around 2009 and said she spent the next six years trying to free her, describing the journey as "fighting for her life as if it was my own, because in a sense it was."
"I grew up in neighborhoods and surroundings very similar to my clients, close to drug culture, and one mistake, I could have been Sharanda Jones," Barnett said. "I never knew that there was no parole in the federal system and Sharanda’s case just opened up my eyes to what a life sentence in the federal system meant, which is forever."
Barnett, who taught herself criminal law, filed Jones' clemency petition in November 2013. After serving nearly 17 years in prison, Jones received a grant of clemency from President Obama on Dec. 18, 2015, a date Barnett still has etched in her mind.
"The moment my clients walk out of prison gives me emotions and a joy that words cannot even begin to touch," she said. "I know the joy of how it felt when my mom was released after just two-and-a-half years so I can’t imagine their joy."
One year after winning clemency for Jones, in 2016, Barnett left her corporate law job and co-founded with Jones and another client, Corey Jacobs, the Buried Alive Project so she could work full-time to free people from life sentences.
That same year, Cody left her federal defender role in Chicago and launched the Decarceration Collective, also focused on freeing non-violent drug offenders from life sentences and helping them reenter society.
Barnett and Cody don't describe the people they represent as being in prison. They talk about their clients being "locked in human cages" and "buried alive" to show the severity, and reality, of a life sentence.
"Life without parole tells a person that they are unworthy to breathe air as a free person ever again," said Barnett. "It is the second most severe penalty permitted by law in America, short of a death sentence."
"There is absolutely no circumstance where any of the clients we have represented, any of the clients we represent now should die in federal prison for selling drugs," she said.
Earlier this year, Cody and Barnett traveled to courtrooms across the country and successfully fought to free 17 people, including Al Reed, who were serving life sentences for federal non-violent drug offenses.
They did it over the course of just 90 days, giving the project its name, 90 Days of Freedom.
"It speaks to the urgency of getting people out of prison as fast as possible," Cody said of the effort. "That’s sort of the catastrophe of mass incarceration in doing what feels like rapid response work."
When asked whether something of that scale had been accomplished before, particularly by two female, African-American lawyers, Barnett quickly replied, "Hell no. We made history."
“17 people who were set to die in prison are free,” she said. “It was a literally life-saving campaign.”
Barnett and Cody launched 90 Days of Freedom in response to the First Step Act.
Among its many provisions, the law gave people sentenced to life in prison for crack cocaine offenses an opportunity to petition the court to reduce their sentences.
A crack cocaine offense under the "three strikes" federal law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 -- which ordered mandatory life sentences for three or more convictions for serious violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes -- was what landed Reed a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Reed's first strike was at age 19 when he sold $20 worth of crack cocaine. He was sentenced to probation for the charge of criminal sale of controlled substance fourth degree. His second strike came at age 22 when we he was charged in North Carolina with possession of 81 grams of cocaine and sentenced to 24 months in prison.
His third strike came in 1994 when he was 24. Reed said he was stopped in a car and searched by agents in South Carolina, who found 193 grams of crack and two zip-lock bags of marijuna.
With that third strike, he was sentenced to federal prison for the rest of his life.
More than two decades into his sentence, Reed heard from Cody at the end of 2018, right after the passage of the First Step Act.
Cody and Barnett spent the next nearly five months working pro bono on Reed’s case. In May 2019, they told him the three words he had waited 25 years to hear -- "You're going home."
"All the time people always ask me, 'Who are these women warriors that helped get you out of prison?,' and I tell them, ‘MiAngel Cody and Brittany K. Barnett,’” said Reed. "We will always be family.”
To free people like Reed through the First Step Act, Cody and Barnett dug into sentencing transcripts and court records and combed through spreadsheets of cases they've been tracking for years to find the people they could help. They then took off across the country to represent clients for free.
Rachel Barkow, a leading criminal law policy expert and the author of “Prisoners of Politics," described the work done by Cody and Barnett as an "uphill battle."
Almost every one of the 17 cases they won in the 90 Days of Freedom Project was opposed by prosecutors, according to Barnett and Cody.
"Judges are reluctant to want to change sentences that have already been imposed," Barkow told ABC News. "[Cody and Barnett] are facing a system that is generally skeptical of taking another look at sentences."
Cody and Barnett jumped into 90 Days of Freedom headfirst with no idea how they would pay for it until Kim Kardashian West, the reality show star-turned activist, stepped in and helped to fund their work.
"We’re not at the federal defender's office with dozens of lawyers around us and we’re not at big firms with lots of resources and lots of lawyers," said Barnett. "It’s just us."
Barnett first met Kardashian West two years ago when Barnett was part of the legal team seeking clemency for Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year old grandmother who was serving a life sentence on drug charges.
In May of last year, Kardashian West met with President Trump in the Oval Office to talk about prison reform and clemency for Johnson. Shortly after that meeting, the president commuted the grandmother’s sentence.
"[Kardashian West] and I have worked together on other cases that she was interested in and once MiAngel and I got started with the 90 Days of Freedom campaign and I told her what we were doing, she offered her support and it was greatly needed and appreciated," said Barnett, who calls the mom of four "truly dedicated to the issue." "I love working with her and it was an honor and a joy to link arms with her for the 90 Days of Freedom campaign."
While headlines rang out about Kardashian West helping free 17 people from prison, what Cody and Barnett wanted to focus on was the society into which the prisoners were being freed.
"The media sort of erased what is really important and that is that 17 people who were set to die in prison were walking out to what services? To what support system? What do they need?," said Cody.
Cody and Barnett provided the 17 people freed during the 90 Days of Freedom campaign with transportation, a stipend and “freedom gifts” from companies like Apple. Cody and Barnett's clients also walked home with a piece of pop culture that's also a reminder of who supported them, a sweatshirt from the fashion line of Kardashian West's husband, Kanye West.
Cody and Barnett plan to “put a laser focus” on improving reentry for prisoners in 2020. That includes everything from the seemingly mundane -- clothes, a driver’s license, a home -- to the big -- disrupting what Barnett and Cody call the “economic conditions and stifling poverty” that can lead their clients to the world of drugs and then too often greet them again after prison.
Barnett has started a venture capital-like fund, XVI Capital Partners, that raises money to fund the “world-changing ideas” of the people she and Cody free.
“Freedom to me is economic liberation,” she said. “I want to bridge the gap so they’re no longer in the survival mode they found themselves in when they began selling drugs.”
The Third Strike Campaign
Cody and Barnett don’t use the word reform much when they talk about the criminal justice system. To them, laws and policy changes are fine but there won't be real change without more people like themselves out in the field helping people in prison.
"Really what this work is, it’s going into prisons. It’s meeting with someone at varying levels of suffering and sadness and survivorship and telling them you’re going to do your very best to try to get them out of prison," said Cody. "Many times those are hard conversations to have."
They call the bipartisan First Step Act a literal “first step” that should be applauded but not celebrated as the be-all and end-all of criminal justice reform.
Their latest project, the Third Strike Campaign, focuses on telling the human stories impacted by what they see as a glaring omission in the law.
The First Step Act set a new 25-year mandatory sentence for the federal “three strikes” rule that previously mandated a life sentence, but it did not make the 25-year sentence retroactive.
"That means we have people today serving life sentences under yesterday’s laws," said Barnett. "If the law is wrong today, it was wrong yesterday."
The Third Strike Campaign uses the hashtag #LeftBehind to tell the stories of non-violent drug offenders still serving life sentences. Barnett and Cody believe telling the human stories of the men and women “buried alive” is what will lead to true change in the criminal justice system.
“Once America sees the talent and the intellect and the ingenuity and the survivorship that is locked up, that is criminal justice change,” Cody said. “That is the work.'"
The self-described "small but mighty team” of Cody and Barnett hopes to next build a team of lawyers to help dismantle a criminal justice system that they see as racially, economically and ethically unfair.
“The work that we do is truly life-saving because we represent people who are serving life without parole,” added Barnett. “Our clients are literally trusting us with their lives. There aren’t many careers quite frankly where you can literally save a person’s life.”