The Netflix film argues that the United States prison system is legalized slavery; a scary assertion when you consider the U.S. has the highest rate of mass incarceration in the world. 13th is especially relevant during this political season, as it depicts how both parties instituted policies that unfairly targeted people of color — one such policy being mandatory minimums. REVOLT is honored to present an essay by Trenton Copeland, whose life is forever changed by mandatory sentencing.
I am Trenton Copeland. I am 33 years old and serving a life sentence in federal prison for a nonviolent drug offense. With no parole in the federal system, I have been fundamentally condemned to die in prison.
Though it’s a memory I do not enjoy revisiting, I will never forget the day I was sentenced. I was 27 years old and to hear the judge tell me I was being committed to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for the rest of my life was unreal. The life sentence I received for a nonviolent drug offense screamed that I was beyond redemption and unfit to breathe air as a free man ever again. Words cannot even begin to touch the feelings I had. I was only 27. Locked up for the rest of my life? I couldn’t really process it. And I still can’t, to be honest.
Trenton Copeland and cousin
In the beginning of my incarceration, mentally things were really hard for me. I would wake up every day feeling like I didn't have a purpose or anything to live for. The feeling of having a LIFE SENTENCE with no chance of parole is equivalent to the feeling of being buried alive. Just the thought that I am set to die in prison became suffocating. I soon realized that in order for me to overcome that feeling, I had to change my way of thinking and use my time in prison constructively.
So I focused my energy and effort on bettering myself and remaining positive. My first step was to understand why I was in prison. I realized it was my actions and my decisions that put me in here. It was me trying to take shortcuts and circumvent the proper protocol to obtain things through working hard and patience. I accept full responsibility for my actions and know that I am solely to blame for my current predicament in life. I also decided to educate myself. Since I came to prison, I’ve completed several courses to enhance my education. I read my Bible and attend church here to keep my spirit and heart in the right place and stay grounded. I also exercise daily and read a lot of books to take my mind away from the craziness of this place. And I maintain constant contact with my family, who always give me positive energy.
Steve Harvey once said on his talk show that "When faced with adversity, there is always a lesson and a blessing that comes out of it.” I truly believe that applies to me. So I began to plan what I wanted to do with my life if I was ever released. I figured I didn't deserve a second chance if I didn't have a plan and wasn't prepared. If given a second chance at life, I want to become a youth counselor and work with troubled youth. My goal is to prevent every young kid I can from taking the wrong path that I did. I am truly remorseful for all the harm my unwise actions to become involved in dealing drugs caused to all those affected. I dream of being an asset and positively giving back to the community my involvement in drugs took so much from.
In these five years of my incarceration I have matured as a man and found a new appreciation for life. I recognize how much I took life for granted when I was younger. I've been able to see a lot of errors in the lifestyle I lived. While I do feel a prison sentence was warranted for the crime I engaged in, I do not believe I deserve to spend the rest of my life in prison. I just believe God has a bigger plan for my life than just to die in a prison cell.
Trent Copeland and mother
I hope for a second chance at life — a chance to right my wrongs and for once, give my mom something to be proud of me for. Nothing hurts more than thinking of all of the memories I am missing out on with my family. The impact of mass incarceration affects the entire family. My entire family is serving a life sentence with me. The most painful part of this entire ordeal is knowing how much my bad choices hurt my mom.
Even though today I face the grim reality of dying in prison, I have faith and remain hopeful that I will one day be released. I wake up every day with a positive mindset to make sure I am ready to re-enter society as a law-abiding, productive citizen. Unfortunately, I will not get that opportunity without clemency from President Obama or some major changes in our criminal justice system.