Sentencing Act cuts prison time

Derek Grant and Inessa Bryan embrace for the first time since Bryan visited Grant in prison on July 4. Grant was released early.

Derek Grant was given nearly 10 years in prison for dealing crack cocaine -- a sentence that Congress later conceded was extensive and unfair.

Last week, he walked away from prison a free man, hugging his girlfriend in their first close embrace in more than eight years.

"I'm just glad it's over," he said outside his public defender's office on Meeting Street where he pulled girlfriend Inessa Bryan into his arms.

Grant, 36, is one of the thousands of inmates given early release last week under Congress' 2010 effort that more equalized sentencing guidelines for crack and powdered cocaine. Previously, during the heights of the violent 1980s crack epidemic, the ratio covering crack cocaine prison terms versus powdered cocaine convictions ran as high as 100-to-1 for similar amounts. The ratio is now in the 18-to-1 range, officials say.

Grant, who was convicted for dealing around Beaufort, is the first federal inmate to be released back into the Charleston area since the change took affect across the nation last Tuesday. At least eight more inmates with local convictions are expected to follow in the short term (if they haven't been released and returned already), with many more coming up for review in the weeks and months to come.

"Prison is like always looking over your shoulder," Grant said of his time behind bars while waiting for Bryan to pick him up. "You can never really be comfortable."

The change in the federal crack sentencing policy closes a disparity civil rights groups have widely criticized as unfair and racially discriminatory because crack prison sentences disproportionately affected blacks. Congress responded in 2010 by passing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. It was the second of two alterations of the cocaine sentencing ranges in recent years.

As a result, as many as 12,000 prisoners are expected to get early release nationwide, with the average inmate seeing up to three years scaled from his term.

Grant was seen as a regular player around Beaufort. By his own admission, he was dealing, on the low end, as little as 9 ounces of cocaine a week, pulling in about $7,000 every seven days or so.

"That was easy to do," he said.

In 2003 when he was arrested for dealing both crack and powered cocaine, Grant said he didn't think much about going to prison, estimating that the five-year state prison sentence he expected to be handed down would, in reality, translate to no more than about 18 months behind bars.

But prosecution of Grant's case went federal. He pleaded guilty in 2006. "My daddy's never coming home," he remembers his daughter saying at the moment of his arrest.

The disparity in cocaine sentencing between blacks and whites was common talk behind the prison wire, Grant said. He was held at the federal lockup in Jesup, Ga., which is the same location former state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was sent for his 10-month cocaine conspiracy sentence. While the two men were at Jesup during the same time frame, Grant said they were housed in separate areas and never met.

Behind bars, Grant said he took classes and learned to do heating and air-conditioning repairs. But he also said he developed high blood pressure and stress from being in the prison atmosphere constantly. After his release last week, he said he never wants to be near the drug trade again.

"You can never make any decisions on your own," he said of his time in prison.

Grant's public defender said she hopes the outcome means lessons have been learned.

"I'm just hopeful he will go on to lead a very productive and happy life," said assistant federal public defender Ann Briks Walsh.