Out of prison after 23 years, thanks to his mother and a documentary

Kevin Ott released after getting a life sentence under Oklahomas three strikes law for non-violent drug-related convictions, which was partially repealed

Its a Tuesday morning in August, but Betty Chism wraps 23 Christmas presents on her day off. Her son, Kevin Ott, is set to be released from the Oklahoma prison system this week, though no one has told her exactly when. Still, Chism, 75, wants to be prepared before she makes the two-and-a-half-hour drive to pick up her son from his prison.

Ott, 56, has been in prison since 1996 and sentenced to life without parole the following year under Oklahomas three strikes law for non-violent drug-related convictions. Like many others caught in the net of Americas prison system, and in his case in the state known as the worlds prison capital, he has a history of offenses ranging from a failure to display a tax stamp on controlled dangerous substances to two felonies related to drug possession.

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His final conviction for drug-trafficking three and a half ounces of methamphetamines led to his life in prison sentence.

Oklahoma is the worst. It is just absolutely the worst, his mother said at her home in Norman, Oklahoma. My son broke the law, yes, I never denied that. Do I think he deserved to be put in prison? No, I dont. Because he needed help. When we asked for help for his addiction, they denied it.

He might have languished in prison for the rest of his life if not for a fateful encounter with the film-maker Eugene Jarecki.

In 2008, Jarecki began filming The House I Live In, a documentary examining the United States governments 40-year-old war on drugs policy. As he visited a prison in Oklahoma, he says Chism buttonholed him that is, came up to him and told him about her son, insisting he needed to speak to him.

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I will be here until I die, Ott tells Jarecki in the documentary. Thats a death sentence, in my opinion. Ott says he started selling methamphetamines for extra cash because he was laid off, and started using it so he kept selling it.

The development of the system of industrial mass incarceration that America has engaged in using drug laws is such a kind of shady instrument targeting black Americans, but ultimately poor Americans of all shades, Jarecki said.

When you make a film about social justice matters, the work isnt over and in many ways, argues Jarecki, the work is just beginning. In Otts case, the film served as ammunition for causes championed by NGOs, activists and legislators.

It also captured the attention of the now former Oklahoma department of corrections director Justin Jones, who served in that capacity from 2005 to 2013. [It] was more the anecdotal public statement on the war on drugs. Legislators get tough on crime and he became the poster child.

Its just a look-what-we-can-do law, Jones says. Even to this day, he adds, they still dont address the elephant in the room: state officials havedone a lot of progressive reform to lower-level crime but not to the draconian, lengthy sentences for everything else.

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In 2015, Oklahoma partially repealed their three strikes law in regards to drug possession. Unfortunately for Ott, the law was not retroactive and did not apply to him. It wasnt until 2018 that the then governor, Mary Fallin, commuted his sentence after the states pardon and parole board recommended commuting his sentence to 30 years.

I remember when people were bragging about what they did to him. He was the poster child for the DAs. Now, hes become the poster child for sentencing reform, Jones said.

The final day of his sentence was 29 July. Prison officials rang at 7am the following Monday, and told him he should be on the list for release this week. Chism called again three hours later. Yes, the kind woman told her on the phone, hes on the list, for this week, but she didnt know when.

Wednesday morning, Otts mother still hadnt heard from him, but Matthew Elliott, the department of corrections public information officer, said that Ott was paroled out of prison that very morning. Shes waiting for his phone call.

It has been so hard to fight year after year to try and get someone to listen to us, to please pay attention to us, she says, fighting back tears. I couldnt give up as a mother watching her son unjustly sentenced.

On the way home, she has promised him a steak. She also has the rest of their summer planned: season tickets to Oklahoma University football games. Each year, for nearly 23 years, theyve made plans, optimistic Ott might walk out past the prison walls. This year, she says, he will.

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