Barbra Scrivner thought winning clemency was the hard part. Then she got out.

Barbra Scrivner thought winning clemency was the hard part. Then she got out.

On a sunny day just a few months after she was released from federal prison, Barbra Scrivner drove three blocks from her ranch-style home on a quiet street in Fresno, Calif., to the Walgreens on the corner, tottering on her wedge heels as she got out of the car. After sending out her résumé to dozens of nearby businesses, she had finally landed a job interview, to be a sales associate at the store.

Scrivner clutched her résumé, but she also brought what she considered a secret weapon of sorts: a letter sent by President Barack Obama after he set her free last December. The single sheet was hand-signed — Scrivner moved her fingertips over the signature to check that it wasn’t a copy — and was full of encouragement from the president. She planned to show her interviewer at Walgreens the letter, so he would know she wasn’t just like any other ex-felon fresh out of prison.


Barbra Scrivner wipes away tears thinking of the years she couldn’t be there for her daughter Alannah while in prison. (Renée C. Byer/ZumaPress for Yahoo News)

But once the interview began, it moved so fast that Scrivner never felt like there was a good time to bring up the letter. The manager scanned her résumé quickly — and asked her what “DCI Dublin,” her former employer, was.

“I’ve never heard of that company,” he told her.

“Well, it’s because it’s a prison,” Scrivner answered nervously.

The manager assured her he wouldn’t judge her for that, that he’d give her a “fair shake,” just like any other applicant. Scrivner had heard that before, as employer after employer turned her down. Just a month earlier, she had been escorted from the premises of a call center company after her interviewer learned she was a felon. The Walgreens manager asked her how she had handled various customer service conundrums in the past, such as a dissatisfied, difficult customer. Scrivner paused to think about it and then said that when she worked in the prison kitchen and laundry, fellow inmates were often angry and rude to her, and she always managed to deescalate the situation.


When she left the interview, she felt panicked. She should have shown him Obama’s letter, but now it was too late. She opened it up and read it again in the parking lot.

“I am granting your [clemency] application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama wrote to Scrivner. “It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change.”

“I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong,” the president said.

That’s exactly what Scrivner wants to do — prove the doubters wrong. And as it turns out, an important piece of Obama’s legacy rests on Scrivner and hundreds of prisoners like her doing just that — beating the odds and staying out of trouble. In his most ambitious criminal justice initiative, the president plans to release hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of federal prisoners who have served 10 years or more on a nonviolent drug charge, and his Justice Department has tasked a team of private lawyers to sift through the thousands of applications that have poured in since the unprecedented program was announced last year. The outside lawyers, called Clemency Project 2014, will send the strongest petitions to the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Justice Department, whose lawyers will decide which petitions to send on to the president. Prisoners can also apply for clemency directly with the pardon attorney, skipping the Clemency Project. (The Obama administration has said there is no estimated number of clemency petitions the president will eventually grant.) His unusual letter to Scrivner and the handful of other prisoners he’s let out so far shows that he wants the beneficiaries of the program to defy the trend of high recidivism among the nation’s ex-convicts. History will judge him based on their success.

Freeing prisoners is a test of political will; finding ways for them to successfully reintegrate into society is a test of smart policy and governance. The Obama administration has supported programs that help prisoners succeed in life outside, and now, more than ever, they’ll find out if those programs work.


Scrivner’s own trajectory from the euphoria of freedom after 21 years in prison to the grinding, daily realities of job discrimination and family troubles shows how difficult it is for prisoners to succeed once they’re free — even with a letter from the president in their pockets.

‘I had a better life in prison’

More than 20 years ago, when Scrivner was a 27-year-old new mother, federal agents busted her husband on drug charges. Scrivner fell behind on the bills and called him in prison to ask for help. She was worried that she and their baby were going to get kicked out of their apartment. Her husband sent some of his friends with a few ounces of meth, which she delivered to pay the bills. Less than a year later, when the whole drug ring was rounded up and arrested by the feds, Scrivner was slapped with 30 years in prison after she refused to testify against her husband and his friends.

SLIDESHOW: Motherhood behind bars >>

Though she was addicted to meth and knew her husband dealt drugs, she had almost no involvement in his business except for the month she transported meth when he was in prison. She couldn’t believe she was now serving a 30-year sentence, as if she were a kingpin. Scrivner tried to appeal her case several times but lost. After the reality sank in, she passed the long years making intricate needlepoint pillows and tapestries and looking forward to visits from her daughter, who was only 2 years old when she was locked up, and her father, who raised her baby for her. In 2005, Scrivner applied for a presidential commutation, with the support of the judge who sentenced her. The judge said he would have given her 10 years, not 30, if he could have, but that mandatory minimum drug laws had tied his hands.

Still, Scrivner’s applications were rejected — first by President George W. Bush and then by Obama. Scrivner, who was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder in prison, attempted suicide several times, driven into despair by her petitions’ failures. Then, she got a break. Nearly a year after the Justice Department announced Obama’s new clemency push, Scrivner’s commutation request was finally approved.


The ashes of Scrivner’s late father, Bruce Lamssies, sit on the fireplace among family photos. (Renée C. Byer/ZumaPress for Yahoo News)

After more than two decades behind bars, Scrivner got off a bus in Fresno, Calif., in January a free woman. But she was five months too late to see her father, who died of lung disease in August. With her 23-year-old daughter, Alannah, Scrivner lives in the house her father owned for more than 40 years. She cries every time she talks about her dad, a somewhat stern builder and welder who raised her daughter for her when she was sent to prison. “You just need to hold on, it’s only a couple more months,” she told him. She said she was sure that this time she would get clemency. “I think he was excited about it, but I think he also felt that he would not make it,” Scrivner said, sitting at her dad’s kitchen table and wiping the tears from her eyes.

With her father’s death, Scrivner became the adult of her new household, even though after 21 years in prison, she lacked many basic skills. She found grocery stores and dollar stores confusing. She lost a résumé she painstakingly created on the computer, a constant source of frustration. Shortly after she came home from prison, Scrivner realized that her daughter, Alannah, had relapsed into her own meth addiction and had stopped checking in with her parole officer. Scrivner desperately did not want to be sucked back into her old world of petty crime and addiction, even as she also felt obligated to take care of her daughter.

A few years earlier, Alannah was arrested for possession of meth and temporarily lost custody of her son, Draydon, who is now 4 years old. Shortly after her mom came home, Alannah left Draydon with Scrivner for about a month, signing over custody to her. She went to live with friends because she was worried the police would come to the house to arrest her for absconding from parole, which could get her mom in trouble. Scrivner was happy to see her grandson, but she felt overwhelmed and uncertain about the future. She wanted to get a job and get established as quickly as possible, but instead she stayed home babysitting her grandson and wondering how the bills would get paid.


Scrivner tickles her grandson Draydon in her bedroom in Fresno, Calif. (Renée C. Byer/ZumaPress for Yahoo News)

“Pretty much every day I would cry,” Scrivner said, choking up at the memory. “Because it’s not what I wanted to get out for. There were a couple of times where I was like, ‘I had a better life in prison.’”

And while she had cleaned her father’s house from top to bottom, clearing the cobwebs and removing the scent of cigarette smoke, she also knew that she probably wouldn’t be able to stay there. Her father had taken out a reverse mortgage on the place seven years earlier, and the home was in foreclosure. Though she hoped her older brother could get a loan to help them save the place, it seemed unlikely, especially since she still hadn’t been able to find a job.

Scrivner spent most days watching cartoons with Draydon, and hiding her tears when she began to feel hopeless and afraid for their future.

At one point, she texted her brother, who lives in Portland, that she felt like she was drowning.

“Go in the backyard, take a deep breath, watch the sunrise,” he wrote back. Scrivner answered that the sunrise wasn’t going to get her a job. “I understand that, sis, but you also need to enjoy that you are out,” he told her.


A friend sent Scrivner clothing when she left prison; she picks out an outfit to wear to work. (Renée C. Byer/ZumaPress for Yahoo News)

Constructing a whole life

Criminal justice experts call the process of getting out of prison and then reintegrating back into society “reentry,” and it’s universally recognized as an incredibly challenging — and for some, impossible — task.

“Reentry is all about constructing a whole life,” said Ann L. Jacobs, the director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College in New York City. “You have to figure out every aspect of it.”

The best predictor of whether a person leaving prison will be able to reenter society with success is how supportive and helpful the individual’s family is when he or she gets out.

“Family support is critical in successful reentry,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the nonprofit Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. “All manner of support, moral support and tangible support.”

In the federal system, inmates are moved from prisons to halfway houses or home confinement to provide a structured environment before their full release. Scrivner is on home confinement until mid-June and must call and check in with authorities at the local halfway house several times a day. The staff there asks her to look for work, and tells her she must volunteer if she doesn’t get a job within a couple of months. After her home confinement is over, she is under supervised release for as long as five years. She will check in with a court officer periodically and undergo drug testing. Any missteps could land her back in prison.

According to criminal justice experts, people who have served longer sentences tend to recidivate at a lower rate than those who have served shorter ones because they have typically aged out of the peak offending years by the time they’re let out of prison. Obama’s clemency program is aimed at prisoners who have served at least 10 years, which will likely mean a lower recidivism rate for these ex-prisoners than average.


Attempting to clear a pending transaction, Scrivner tries to unfreeze her debit card after a gas station rejects it. (Renée C. Byer/ZumaPress for Yahoo News)

The Obama administration has attempted to tackle recidivism. Former Attorney General Eric Holder created the Reentry Council in 2011 — a group of employees from 20 federal agencies who propose rules and laws that help prisoners reintegrate into society. Recently the group proposed changing child support rules, so that child support debt doesn’t keep accruing for parents who are incarcerated, often leaving them tens of thousands of dollars in debt once they’re released. The president also supports legislation to increase education opportunities for prisoners still incarcerated.

But the average recidivism rate for the more than half a million people who have been let out of state and federal prisons every year since 1990 remains high. One 2005 study found that 75 percent of released state offenders were arrested again within five years of getting out, and half of them were back in jail. The rate for federal ex-cons is closer to 40 percent, according to a different 2005 study. Many of these people were imprisoned for parole violations.

Scrivner has to pass drug tests and check in with the government for five more years or she could end up back in prison, all while attempting to care for her daughter, who has had her own run-ins with the law.


Scrivner watches over her grandson Draydon as he brushes his teeth. (Renée C. Byer/ZumaPress for Yahoo News)

‘I need to look out for myself’

After Scrivner spent a lonely month with her grandson, Alannah turned herself into her parole officer, served four days in the county jail for her earlier failure to report to him, and then came back home with her girlfriend, Marissa. The three women and Draydon now live in the two-bedroom house together in relative peace, though they are all concerned about losing the house this summer, when the bank is expected to finally sell it off.

“I can’t necessarily say that we’re so much on the point of being mother-daughter yet, but we’re getting there,” Alannah said. “I’ve been waiting for this day since forever. And I kind of took advantage of it at first.”

Alannah called her father, who still has more than 10 years left in federal prison, to ask for his advice about how to live with her mom. “My dad was like, ‘Just get over it. You’ll see how she is. She’s awesome, she’s a wonderful lady,’” she said, recounting his guidance.


Alannah says her dad wondered about how Scrivner would readjust to the world outside. (Scrivner has not spoken to her ex-husband in years, and is angry with him for his role in her conviction.) “Oh my goodness, she must be so amazed,” he told Alannah. “I can only image what she’s going through — all the new things, all the cars, and she has a cellphone — that’s so cool, that’s so rad.”

“It made me cry because he was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can only imagine,’” Alannah said.


Scrivner, right, high-fives her daughter Alannah after getting a job. (Renée C. Byer/ZumaPress for Yahoo News)

The two are getting along better now than when Scrivner first came home, though Scrivner said she still feels left out at times. Recently, her daughter went with her girlfriend to see a movie and assumed Scrivner would stay and watch Draydon. Scrivner still hasn’t seen a movie since she got out.


She’s trying to look out for herself so she doesn’t repeat the past — when her concern for her husband landed her in prison for half of a lifetime.

“I feel like as much as I’m here for you as support, you need to do that back for me,” Scrivner said of her daughter. “I’m her mom and I wasn’t there for her, so I should be here for her. But I also know that I need to look out for myself, too. I did that once before by looking out for others, and I spent all this time in prison. I never put myself first, ever. And I need to learn how to do that.”

She begins to cry and says, “I need to make sure that I’m OK and then go from there.”


Scrivner landed a cleaning job after submitting more than 100 applications: “I’m just so happy someone is giving me a second chance.” (Renée C. Byer/ZumaPress for Yahoo News)

Earlier this month, Scrivner’s hard work paid off. She got a job at a cleaning company washing windows. No one at the company asked her about her criminal record. She says she alternated between beaming and crying when she filled out the W-2 form for the job. And she’s also planning to write a book about her experience in prison.

She’s one step closer to being “established” — her dream for herself and her family. And she’s had moments when she’s actually been able to enjoy her freedom. Like when she drove to an auto parts store with her daughter, just running errands. The windows were rolled down, and they merged onto the freeway.

“That actually made me feel like, yeah, this is freedom,” Scrivner said. “This is what I had before.”


Scrivner heads off for an outing with her family. She is likely to lose her home because she can’t get a loan to pay off her father’s reverse mortgage. (Renée C. Byer/ZumaPress for Yahoo News)