Ramona Brant, who emerged from two decades in federal prison to become a voice for other former prisoners returning to their communities, has died two years after former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.
Brant, 54, died Sunday at her home, a family spokesman said. She had worked as an office assistant in human resources for the city of Charlotte since 2016.
Despite being a first-time offender, Brant had been sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1995 for her role in what federal prosecutors said was a conspiracy that brought millions of dollars in crack and cocaine into Charlotte. Brant and her boyfriend were sentenced as police blamed drug-fueled violence for sending the city’s crime rate soaring.
In December 2015, Obama commuted Brant’s sentence, and she was released the following February. A month later, Brant was among seven former prisoners whose sentences had been shortened who had lunch with the president.
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“If you wanted to sentence me because I was in a relationship with someone who dealt drugs, and I knew about it, that I was present – OK, I am guilty of those things,” Brant told CNN after the meeting. “A life sentence is not warranted for the minor role that I played in this conspiracy.”
“It takes someone with compassion like the president to see the injustice and right the (wrong) that was committed to so many of us,” she said. “And there are so many more that are in the prison system – we want to reach back and pull them out.”
Renee Little, an assistant clerk for Mecklenburg County’s Clerk of Superior Court, got to know Brant during preparations last year for a conference hosted by Race Matters for Juvenile Justice, which was created by juvenile-court judges to reduce judicial disparities for children of color. Brant was the keynote speaker for the October conference.
Little called her friend, who spoke to audiences nationwide, a purposeful woman of vision and faith. Brant talked not only about the challenges former prisoners face in reentering society, she said, but also about healthcare, housing and employment issues.
“She was determined to really help people who were in similar circumstances, and to help people not get into that circumstance,” Little said. Despite Brant’s years in prison, she said, “this was a person who was not beaten down by her life sentence. She didn’t talk ill of the system; she talked of it being broken.”
Changed Choices, a Charlotte nonprofit that supports women during incarceration and after their release, said in a Facebook post Sunday that it was “utterly heartbroken” to learn of the death of its former client.
“While rebuilding her own life and reconnecting with her beloved family, Ramona immediately began advocating for increased opportunities for people returning from prison,” the post said. “Ramona, in many speaking engagements in Charlotte and nationally, called us to recognize especially the need for housing for returning citizens. She cast a vision for us that every person coming home to Charlotte from prison would have a safe home, livable wage employment and a welcoming community. Amidst all of our grief at her sudden death, we honor her vision and dedicate ourselves to it.”
Mujtaba Mohammed, a Mecklenburg County assistant public defender and state Senate candidate, said in a Facebook post that Brant had supported other inmates while in prison and, following her release, “continued her fight for a second chance not only for herself but for many former disaffected inmates returning to the community.
“Although Ms. Brant was a victim of the injustices of our criminal justice system, she was not bitter and instead placed her energy and efforts towards reforming our criminal justice system and helping former inmates become productive members of our society,” Mohammed wrote.
In November, Brant was still speaking out for imprisoned people. In an interview with the Observer, she described video-only visits with Mecklenburg County Jail inmates, a policy adopted in 2016, as “dehumanizing.”
During her years in federal prison, Brant said, “the only thing you had to look forward to was to look into the eyes of your parent, look in the eyes of your child.”