In 1988, my brother, Ronzerra Shipp, 19, was stabbed to death in Chicago, Illinois. His murder cast an indescribable shadow of grief on our family. This was the start of a downward spiral for my brother, Robert Shipp. At the time, Robert was a 16-year-old honor student with a bright future. However, as a teenager his inability to cope with this tragic loss ultimately and regrettably led to his risk taking behavior.
In 1993, at age 20 Robert was indicted and charged in a crack cocaine conspiracy. After going to trial in 1994, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for his 5 months involvement in the crime. The judge expressed his objection to the sentence he was forced to give Robert based on the federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, but the law didn’t allow him to use discretion. Robert takes full responsibility for his participation in the criminality that resulted in his incarceration. However, the sentence was excessive given our brother’s murderer only received a 20-year sentence.
Advocates seeking to reform minimum federal sentencing guidelines passed by Congress, say judges have lost their power to use discretion and wisdom to decide punishment. The result is half the federal prison population is comprised of people locked up for drugs, according to The Sentencing Project. Then add race to the equation: Black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocate for criminal justice reform: “For black men in their 30s, about one in every 12 is in prison or jail on any given day.”
Robert’s sentence sent another wave of grief, shattering our hearts into a million pieces. Reality set in that he had been given a living death sentence. Instead of going to college Robert was now going to prison for the rest of his life, leaving behind a daughter almost 2 years old. We were devastated to say the least. Our father felt he had failed his sons because he wasn’t able to protect them from the violence and crime in their neighborhood.
Several years ago, Robert wrote a letter to me sharing his feelings. He said, “Do you know how it feels to be held captive when you know you have so much to offer? Not just to your family, or community, but to the world? Can you honestly imagine what it feels like to be held back in the prime of your life? I should have been home over a decade ago at least. Yet, here I dwell with a small part of me slowly dying every day…I’m like a tiger without his stripes, a black panther with no claws, but more like a mighty eagle that can no longer soar high above the hills and mountaintops of this world. Yet, I am all of these things, but at the same time so much more.”
These words pierced my soul, and I cried what felt like a river of tears. I obsessively began studying his case, researching mandatory minimums sentencing guidelines, similar cases, and criminal justice reform organizations.
In 2012, our father became extremely ill. As he laid helplessly on his deathbed with weary eyes, I promised him I would continue to fight for freedom and justice for my brother. A few hours later, he passed away. His death remains difficult for all of us and is compounded by what we know was our father’s unending hope to secure his son’s freedom. Robert wasn’t able to attend the funeral, so he asked that I read a letter he’d written entitled, “A Letter to My Dad” on his behalf.
After the funeral, it was time to move from research to action. This was difficult at first because I considered myself a private person, and now I was about to open my life to the world. Also, I knew the stigma and judgment that comes with having a loved one in prison.
I began advocating for freedom and justice for my brother daily making the best of every opportunity. I talked to family, friends, colleagues, criminal justice reform organization leaders, law schools and lawmakers to solicit support. Then, I created petitions, social media campaigns and used media opportunities to broaden the reach. I also traveled to participate in criminal justice reform events with organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and to meet with lawmakers.
I became my brother’s lifeline.
In February 2015, on our deceased brother Ronzerra’s birthday, Robert’s sentenced was reduced to 30 years due to a retroactive amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines. While we were extremely grateful for the reduction, it still was not justice. So, I continued traveling and advocating for him.
In July 2019, Robert was released from the Bureau of Prisons’ custody after serving 25 years, 10 months, 12 days. He received time off his 30-year sentence by earning good time credit, and the First Step Act gave him an additional four months off his sentence. I am grateful to everyone who supported progressive criminal justice reform and my advocacy for him. Robert is now 47 and lives in Chicago. He’s involved in community outreach programs mentoring youth and young adults who are at a crossroad as he once was. Robert and I are advocating for the many deserving people he left behind.
Veda Ajamu is an advocate for criminal justice reform and has been a guest lecturer at Southwest Tennessee Community College and served on the 2018 Review Committee for the Wayfinder Foundation Community Activist Fellowship Program. She has been featured on “NBC Nightly News” and the New York Times, among other outlets.
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