Before she specialized in getting people out of prison, Brittany K. Barnett was a young girl living in a wooden house in Fulbright, Texas. Just over two hours northeast of Dallas, this tiny, pastoral hamlet was home to 150 people who all knew one another. Many of them were family. In Barnett’s words, this was “the doors unlocked, windows wide open” part of Texas. Then, the war on drugs commenced.
Under President Ronald Reagan, the federal government poured more money and resources into prosecuting drug offenders than ever before. New prisons sprang up across Texas and the country. Arrest numbers spiked. Mandatory minimum sentences forced judges to dole out extreme punishments for crack cocaine possession, disproportionately affecting Black Americans. Soon enough, the war on drugs reached that wooden house in Fulbright.
Barnett’s new memoir, A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom, explores how that war shaped her life and career. When Barnett was 22, her mother, a crack cocaine addict, was arrested and sent to prison for eight years. A friend named Keyon got life without parole after being named as an accomplice by alleged dealers arrested in a police raid. As an SMU law student interning in a Houston court, Barnett had a front-row seat to the horrors created by the mandatory minimum laws sending generations of Black Texans to federal prison.
“In case after case, I saw men who resembled my father, my uncles, my friends, stand before the court and plead for their lives,” she writes. “I was witnessing mass incarceration at its height and could not help but be affected.”
Barnett ultimately ditched a career in corporate law to represent nonviolent drug offenders full-time. Her Dallas-based nonprofit, Buried Alive, works to free those who are eligible for release, but have been left in prison under outdated Reagan-era laws. Since 2016, Barnett has earned freedom for 53 incarcerated people. In 2019, Buried Alive nabbed headlines for freeing 17 people in ninety days and receiving vocal support from Kim Kardashian West. From Fulbright to the White House, the beautifully written, often haunting A Knock at Midnight charts how Barnett started her fight against draconian drug sentences—and how her work is only just beginning.
Texas Monthly: What was it like to grow up in East Texas?
Brittany K. Barnett: I love East Texas. Fulbright. Bogota. Commerce. East Texas is my home. But as you see in the book, the war on drugs was hitting us hard, and as a kid, that was hard to see. It seemed like an accepted part of life, like, “This is just the way it is.” It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized how powerful it was. When you’re in it, you don’t see how bad it is. I knew my mom had a drug problem, but I didn’t realize she had a disease. All we had was “Just Say No,” which created this culture of, “If you do drugs, it’s your fault. If you do drugs, you’re a monster.” No one was trying to help, and I didn’t see that until years later. Even with all of that, I still love East Texas. Whenever I think of it, I think of family.
TM: The East Texas you describe is so idyllic, and it’s clear you grew up in one of those tight-knit communities where people looked after one another. How has that part of Texas changed since you were a kid?
BKB: It’s lost some of its innocence. In Bogota, where my grandparents lived, opioids and meth have taken over. It used to be that “doors unlocked, windows wide open” part of Texas I talk about in the book, but I know my dad, for example, is always in fear of having his home broken into. His doors are never unlocked. His windows are never open.
TM: In A Knock at Midnight, you talk about how writing letters to your mother in prison helped you process what you were feeling about her incarceration. What did you learn about yourself as you were writing this book?
BKB: I came to terms with trauma. And it’s not just trauma inflicted on my sister and me because of my mom’s addiction; it was trauma inflicted on my mom because she was criminalized. She didn’t get the help she needed. There are so many forms of trauma I never realized were happening to me, my family and my community. As I was writing, I started to wonder, “Do we ever really process this? Do we ever have the resources to process what it’s like to be kids on the front lines of the war on drugs?”
I was thinking about the opioid epidemic, too, and how it’s being treated as a public health crisis, and rightfully so. But so was the crack epidemic—only crack was criminalized.
TM: In many ways, the book is as much about Texas and Texas families as it is about you. Was that always your intention when you set out to write a memoir?
BKB: Absolutely. I really wanted the South to shine in the book. I wanted it to shine in a way that hasn’t been done. When we think about the crack epidemic or the war on drugs, we think about New York or Oakland, but not the South. And it looks different here. It wasn’t the stereotype you hear about with gang wars and rioting. It’s much more subtle, and even though you don’t hear about it on the news, families are still being destroyed. That’s part of why I wrote the book: to show what it’s like to grow up Black in Texas. I wrote it for the young girls of color growing up in East Texas, and I’m excited that those girls can read the book, see themselves, and, most importantly, see what they can do.
TM: What needs to change in our criminal justice system, and what needs to change about prisons specifically?
BKB: The war on drugs is still in full throttle, and that has to change. The first step for policymakers and decision makers is to acknowledge that it’s been an utter failure. It’s not just a war on drugs; it’s a war on communities of color. Another reason I wrote the book is to tell the truth about that. And I wrote the book to recognize the people. The heartbeat. That’s how we can begin to change hearts and minds. The only thing these decision makers will respond to is stories of mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. As far as prisons go, they have to release people. We can get into ways of making prisons more comfortable, but the most important thing is releasing people. They have to let people go home if they meet the criteria. We haven’t seen enough of that during this pandemic, and that’s incredibly heartbreaking.
TM: On social media, you’ve been candid about the struggles you’ve faced getting funding for your organization, Buried Alive. Has that changed with the great reception you’ve received for this book?
BKB: No, it hasn’t changed. A lot of the pushback we get is we don’t fund direct services. Foundations want to change policy, which is necessary. But you also need to free people while you’re working to change policy, because people can’t wait. The lack of funding has been extremely frustrating, because we’re really trying to save lives, and we’re struggling for funding. But I’m not playing those games anymore. We’ve gotten by without help before, and we can keep doing what we’re doing if the help comes or not.
TM: Out of all the people you’ve helped, what stories affected you the most?
BKB: Every one of them, man. While I was working to free them, they were freeing me, too. And that’s the beautiful part of our journey. They’ve each left their fingerprints on my soul. In the book, you see the positivity of Sharanda Jones (a woman from Terrell). She was going to die in prison. She was set to never breathe free air again, and she was the one encouraging me. There were times when she missed the clemency list, and I couldn’t even get out of bed. But she’d be telling me to get back to work, telling me we could do this, that we could get her free. And we did.
TM: What are you working on right now?
BKB: Right now I’m working on sustainable liberation. We can’t just keep rescuing people from prison and restoring them to poverty. Some of the most brilliant people I’ve met in my life are my clients. I think all the time, “How do I bridge the gap for my clients? How do I get to economic liberation?” I’m proud to say I’m an investor in Sharanda’s food truck, and I’m really excited about helping launch more projects just like that one. Sometimes we can be one-dimensional in how we create change, and I want to be a part of change that isn’t just about capital or policy. We need the laws to change, for sure, but we need change that’s more than that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.