VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
Their calls are recorded and often cut off. Their emails are monitored, the word count limited. But there's a tangible light at the end of the tunnel now for Douglas Lindsay and Telisha Watkins, two of the 46 federal prisoners whose sentences for nonviolent crimes were commuted by President Barack Obama in July.
Reached by telephone and email, Lindsay and Watkins, incarcerated at federal prisons in Georgia and Minnesota, respectively, were ticking off the days until their freedom. Both are serving time for drug crimes—massive sentences of the sort that have been the subject of intense scrutiny as the excesses of the war on drugs have been laid bare over the past two decades.
But these two don't spend much time reflecting on their role in some historic sea change in American criminal justice policy.
They just want to be free.
Lindsay was serving a life sentence and Watkins 20 years until they got the good news. On October 8, Lindsay will be admitted to a halfway house prior to his return home, and Watkins, saying that she needs simply to decompress after nearly a decade behind bars, is going home to a family that has withered while she was away—her mother has died and she's grown estranged from her relatives and friends.
When reached by VICE, the two seemed equal parts excited and nervous about emerging from the prison-industrial complex. Technology and slang may have changed while they were inside, but their goals and expectations for life are timeless. Hopes and dreams, even behind bars, do not diminish.
"It was a blessing for me," said Alcindor Lindsay, Douglas's brother. "It's been a long time since he's been incarcerated. It's something we've been praying on for a long time, and God finally answered our prayers."
In 1995, Alcindor was in prison facing a drug sentence of 25 years for possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute. He would only serve seven years and nine months before being paroled, but his brother Doug got sentenced to life a year later.
Along with 15 others, according to an indictment unsealed in 1996, Lindsay was arrested and charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of cocaine and cocaine base. Lindsay had no prior criminal charges, though he'd spent time dealing crack small-time in his suburban South Carolina hometown.
"I turned myself in that Monday, then I was let right out," Lindsay told VICE. "As much as that sounds good, that was the worst thing that happened to me."
While inside, his codefendants received a crash course on what a federal charge meant at the height of America's drug war. According to Lindsay, they were persuaded to slap a litany of their own charges onto him.
Shortly after turning himself in, Lindsay spent several months on bond.
"It was terrible. When I was out, I was worried to death, I was fearful," he said.
In December 1996, Lindsay—a graduate of Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina, who spent four years in the US Army as a combat signaler—was sentenced to life.
"Honestly, to have them say that, I didn't have any idea I could probably get that, it still didn't register to me. I was in a state of shock. I didn't believe it," Lindsay tells VICE. "My mind registered it as some kind of mistake. It settled in after I got into the federal prison. If you get a life sentence, there's a possibility you could die in prison."
Check out the moment President Obama meets with federal prison inmates as part of our upcoming HBO special on the criminal justice system.
Seventeen years later, he will walk out a free man. There is awfully little chance of of relapsing, of finding himself back in the throes of drug dealing, Lindsay says. While inside, he never believed he'd serve out his sentence. Instead, he prepared for the day when he'd be released, studying real estate and the stock market with inmates who'd navigated those systems on the outside. "Because I believed I would one day get out," he says, "I wanted to be emotionally, mentally, and spiritually prepared for when I get out. I never gave up, I never gave in." Telisha Watkins, who will be freed in mid-November after being sentenced to 20 years in 2007 for charges of cocaine and marijuana possession, declined relocation to a halfway house, instead opting to be released to her older sister who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Having not been raised together, Watkins doesn't know her sister well, but is hoping to spend that time reacquainting herself with what little family she still has.
"I don't honestly know what direction my life will take and I want to be able to feel that out without any pressure," she told VICE in an email. "I want more than anything to be successful and support myself. I know that in order to do that I may have to start at the bottom, but I welcome the challenge."
In the federal prison in Minnesota where she would have served out her sentence, Watkins had become somewhat of a mentor to other inmates, or what is called an inmate companion. Often she'd spend time sitting with suicidal or otherwise mentally-ill inmates who needed a bit of encouragement, a maternal support that came natural to her. On the day she heard that President Obama was poised to commute sentences for non-violent criminals, Watkins joked with other inmates that she couldn't wait for her release. The joke was only that for so long. She heard she'd been chosen as one of 46, and that she'd be going home soon, and for good. (So far, Obama has commuted the sentences of 89 criminals, 76 of which are for nonviolent crimes.)
"At this point, I just feel exceedingly blessed," Watkins says. "I am so humbled by the whole experience. To go from knowing that I wasn't going home until 2023, to going home before the end of the year, it's surreal."
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