More than most people at Benedict College on Friday, Tanesha Bannister of Columbia knew how much the First Step Act that President Donald Trump celebrated in his speech had helped her and other federal prison inmates.
“If it wasn’t for you, Mr. President, I would still be serving five years in prison,” Bannister, 45, told Trump and a nationwide television audience, echoing statements she made earlier in the week with her lawyer, federal public defender Katherine Evatt, in an exclusive interview with The State newspaper.
“I’m determined not to let my past define my future,” she said, standing by Trump.
On Friday, Trump appeared to delight in Bannister’s speech, gave her a hug, asked her if he could borrow some of her lines for his future speeches and told the audience with a smile, “That was delivered from the heart.”
Although she knows Trump can be “unpredictable,” Bannister had earlier told The State, “I can’t thank him enough. He gave me a new lease on life.”
Trump signed the First Step Act last December after the bill was passed by overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate. Its passage had been held up since just after Trump’s inauguration by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch supporter of stiff sentences for drug offenders. It wasn’t until last November after Sessions left office that Congress passed the Act and Trump signed it into law.
And under the new law, Bannister was released in May after serving 16 years in prison.
She had never expected to go free. She had been sentenced to life in prison in 2004 as one of 18 people convicted in a major cocaine smuggling trial in Columbia. Her appeals were rejected all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2010, her life sentence was reduced to 23 years.
But thanks to her lawyer, Evatt, a 22-year federal public defender who since 2012 has sought first clemency and then release under the First Step Act, Bannister is back in Columbia living outside prison.
Evatt had been impressed by Bannister’s commitment and actions in prison to better herself and others. “I’ve never seen a defendant take so many courses and start so many programs in the prison system,” Evatt said in an interview.
Escaping a ‘vicious cycle’
Earlier this year, Evatt wrote a short but impassioned memo to U.S. Judge Cameron McGowan Currie, who had presided over Bannister’s trial. The memo described Bannister’s early life and transformation since Currie sentenced her to life in prison on Feb. 3, 2004.
“She was a very different young woman,” wrote Evatt, who has fought to get Bannister released since 2012.
When sentenced to prison in 2004, Bannister ”was 29, a mother of two and her story is one all too common in federal drug cases. Ms. Bannister was born to a single mother, who was incapable of raising children due to her own drug and alcohol addictions,” Evatt wrote.
Bannister was removed from her home at the age of 10, later dropped out of Eau Claire High School in the 10th grade and began a life of drugs and alcohol, “thereby completing a vicious cycle,” Evatt wrote in her petition to Currie.
But in the last 10 years, Bannister has transformed herself, Evatt stressed.
In a May 1 order that freed Bannister from a Texas federal prison, Currie noted that she has been a model prisoner and had an exceptional record for self-improvement and helping others.
“She is considered a leader and mentor for the At Risk Program through the Education Department and has completed her GED (high school equivalent degree), college courses, over 100 courses and become a certified cosmetologist,” Currie wrote. “In addition, she has maintained three jobs and participates in community service projects.”
Nationwide, the First Step Act has resulted in sentence reductions for more than 1,600 federal inmates, including 112 in South Carolina, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Hundreds, such as Bannister, have been freed.
A major goal of the law was to address sentencing disparities between whites and blacks charged with the same kinds of drug offenses. Studies showed that African American offenders received far harsher sentences than whites in those drug offenses. Those harsh sentences were the result of anti-crime bills passed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Trump is expected to herald the First Step Act as a major bipartisan triumph in the upcoming presidential campaign. The president is aware that the African American vote is a key Democratic constituency, and his supporters hope to erode that support somewhat by pointing to the First Step Act and showcasing former inmates such as Bannister.
Inmates eligible under the First Step Act are those like Bannister, who had an unduly long sentence, no discipline issues and are deemed to be low risk if freed. As such, the law gives inmates an incentive to behave and get into programs that demonstrate they will have a positive life once they leave prison.
‘Everything happens for a reason’
Bannister said being sent to prison for drug trafficking was a blessing because it resulted in her realizing she had to make a change in her life.
In her 16 years in prison, the more than 100 courses she took included “every psychology and education course that was available to me,” Bannister said.
Bannister also taught physical fitness programs to help inmates fight obesity, sessions on re-entering society after prison and helped new young female inmates with adjusting to prison life.
Currently, Bannister is working three jobs — including care-giving for an elderly person — and is exploring starting a prison ministry. The degree she earned as a cosmetologist while in prison isn’t valid in South Carolina, and she has to take the South Carolina licensing test, which costs $300, she said.
When she went to prison, her children were eight and 10. When she got out, they were 25 and 26, she said. One of the things she is doing is part-time care-giving for her older son, who is paralyzed from a shooting incident.
“I’m a firm believer in everything happens for a reason,” Bannister said. “The First Step Act has given me the chance to become the person I was destined to be.”
Religion and fitness programs helped her survive prison, said Bannister, whose Christian cross on a necklace was visible during Friday’s appearance with the president. Bannister said her favorite Bible verse, from Psalm 91 is, “He who dwells in the secret place of the most high shall abide in the shadow of the Almighty.”
In reflecting on her life, she said, “Sometimes we’re a product of our environment, and we never have a chance from the beginning. I only did what I was taught to do, but I turned it around and made the worst situation of my life the best thing that ever happened to me.”