The Human Toll: Evelyn LaChapelle
Parts 2 & 3 of The Human Toll: How the War on Cannabis Targeted Black America are live on Vanity Fair, where we hear personal stories of how punitive systems often have lifelong consequences. Evelyn LaChapelle is one of those voices, and her story offers a powerful testimony of the impact of collateral consequences and the harsh realities of re-entry into society.
An Oakland native, Evelyn was convicted in 2013 on three charges related to a minor role in a marijuana distribution operation, alongside co-defendant Corvain Cooper. She was sentenced to 87 months in prison with no prior record and no indicators that she was a repeat offender. On February 1, 2019, Evelyn was released from federal custody and began a 4 year probation. She immediately found employment as a sales and catering coordinator; however, after a co-worker searched her name and found her convictions, she was fired. Since then, she’s been passionate about providing support to those who have recently been incarcerated—understanding what it's like to serve your time and still come home to an environment that would deny you employment because of your past. The Second Chance Act, a program designed to support reentry and reduce recidivism, ultimately failed her. So she has made it her goal to create a real second chance for men and women being released from prison.
Incarceration has far-reaching consequences beyond just the sentence itself. Tell us about the impact on you and your loved ones?
I lost my stepmother to her battle with cancer my second year into my 87 month sentence. The amount of grief and shame that came with the news of her death while in prison was, and remains to be, devastating. The judge did not just sentence me to 87 months in prison, he sentenced my daughter to life without her mother, he sentenced my mother to becoming a full time parent again to a toddler, and he sentenced my stepmother to taking her last breath on this Earth still worried about me in prison. And for me, I will always regret that I was not at her bedside. Because I was not home to lay her to rest, I still have this uneasy feeling that she's still here. It's like I'm still waiting for her to come home.
Why do you think it’s important to share your story now?
For two reasons. First, I wholeheartedly believe that so many people still sit in prison for cannabis because the majority of the population is unaware. It’s my responsibility to help make them aware. I also carried guilt and shame into prison with me — feelings of being a failed parent, daughter, sister; guilt from sitting in prison for commiting what must have been “a serious crime” for the judge to give me 87 months in prison. The entire process had me believing for a long time that I was a terrible person. Then, I was released and asked to share my story for the first time. Slowly but surely, the weight of that guilt has started to lift, because for the first time since the jury said “guilty,” people were listening and acknowledging that my time in prison was unfair and unjust. The feeling of being heard is so therapeutic.
We’re increasingly seeing how fraught with inequity our justice system is. What was most surprising to you about your experience?
The number of women in prison is rising rapidly — almost twice as fast as that of men. Unrelated to cannabis incarceration, I was surprised to see the number of young Mexican women in prison. I had a bunkie that was 19 and barely spoke English, and she represented the majority of the population. I just always thought that there must be a better way to meet the needs of these young women. I was never comfortable with seeing these young girls in prison, mostly for crossing the border illegally, or transporting drugs for their boyfriends.
What was the most powerful driver for you to get involved with LPP and other organizations aimed at cannabis reform?
I was first introduced to Last Prisoner Project through Corvain, and it was extremely important for me to get involved with whoever was advocating for his release. Last Prisoner Project, along with many other opportunities, gave me a platform to publicly advocate for my co-defendant serving life in prison for pot. Now that Corvain is home, it's important to keep the message and mission of LPP alive. 40,000 Inmates remain in prison for this plant, Parker Coleman, currently serving a 60-year sentence for a nonviolent marijuana offense, is one of them.
What’s next for you?
Eighty Seven, my cannabis essentials brand, is next for me. Eighty Seven, the number of months I was sentenced to federal prison, was established to provide quality consumption to consumers while amplifying the voice of the women who served time in prison for cannabis. It’s a story of defeat and victory. We will offer a broad array of cannabis essentials geared at making cannabis consumption an experience worthy of premium flower. I believe that consumption should be done in style and with ease. The products will launch in time for the holidays, but in the meantime please follow us on IG: @eightyseven_months or check out the website and subscribe to the newsletter at 87months.com
Tune in to Part 2: Collateral Consequences and Part 3: Getting Out to learn more about Evelyn’s story and how you can get involved with organizations on the ground.