Barbara Scrivner, 48, was called into the warden’s office Wednesday morning in a federal prison in Northern California and given life-changing news.
Twenty years into her three-decade sentence for selling small amounts of meth, President Barack Obama had decided to let her out of prison, her lawyer told her in a brief and emotional phone call. She started to cry.
The warden said that she’d be transferred to a halfway house close to where her daughter lives in Fresno, Calif., as soon as possible, to await her June 12 release date.
“I’m actually real excited,” Scrivner, who was 27 when she started serving her sentence, said Thursday.
Scrivner had petitioned for presidential clemency twice before and was rejected, by both President George W. Bush and Obama. She had started to give up hope on her third try, even though the judge who sentenced her and the U.S. attorney’s office that prosecuted her publicly supported her release. Scrivner was sent to prison for 30 years after she refused to testify against her drug dealer husband and his friends. Mandatory minimum laws at the time required the lengthy sentence for Scrivner’s small, nonviolent role in the meth ring.
Obama, who has commuted the sentences of only 18 people since 2009, plans to offer presidential mercy to more drug offenders in his last two years in office as part of his overall goal to make the criminal justice system more fair. In April, the Justice Department took the highly unusual step of soliciting clemency petitions from federal inmates who have already served more than 10 years for a nonviolent drug crime that would have been prosecuted more leniently today, due to changes in mandatory minimums and other drug laws. Nearly 25,500 of them applied, and a group of legal advocates and pro-bono attorneys called “Clemency Project 2014” is currently going through them and choosing which ones to send to the Justice Department for review. The idea is to clear correctional facilities of nonviolent inmates who were incarcerated for decades because of outdated laws that swelled the nation’s prison population to record levels.
Scrivner did not apply for relief through Clemency Project 2014 — her clemency petition was already pending when it began — but advocates say thousands of federal inmates have similar stories to hers and should qualify for shortened sentences. On Wednesday, Obama also shortened the sentences of seven other drug offenders who met the criteria the clemency project is looking for, and an administration official said more would be on the way.
When Scrivner is released in June, she plans to spend time with her daughter, Alannah, who was just 2 years old when she was sent to prison. (Alannah’s father, Scrivner’s ex-husband, has been in prison for her entire life.) Alannah has her own little boy now, and Scrivner is also looking forward to being a grandma.
Scrivner got a taste of freedom last August, when she was given a three-day furlough to visit her dying father in Oregon. (He has since died.) Before August, she had never seen or touched a cellphone — and she found modern technology confusing on her brief visit.
“A lot of things have changed,” she said. “We went into a Burger King and now everything is, like, different.” Scrivner watched the customers pay with credit cards — cashiers furiously swiping them on the sides of their lit-up screens. Then the cashier handed her a cup, telling her to fill up her own soda from a self-serve station. “They used to get it all ready and give it to you,” she said.
When her daughter left the room and her cellphone rang, Scrivner was baffled. “I didn’t know how to answer it,” she said. “I’m picking it up and pushing all these buttons.”
As perplexing as Scrivner’s new world will be for her, there are far weightier issues that she will processing for years to come. When Yahoo News profiled Scrivner last April, she said she was angry at Obama and the criminal justice system for locking her up for so many decades for a nonviolent crime she had long since paid for. But now that Obama has granted her clemency, Scrivner joked that “he’s my favorite person in the whole wide world.”
But the reality is more complicated for her.
“I think it’s too bad that it took all this pushing and prodding and everything for him to finally see the injustice of everything that’s been going on,” she said. “Better late than never.”