Last week, President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders. Among them was Patrick Roberts, a 65-year-old African-American man from Detroit who was serving a life sentence for a drug distribution conspiracy involving crack cocaine, among other substances.
"On Monday morning I was in my cell and I heard the CO [correctional officer] calling out my name," Roberts recalled in an exclusive sit-down interview with VICE inside the Federal Correctional Facility in Terre Haute, Indiana. "But there are two of us named Roberts in my cell block (J unit), and I was told it was the other guy."
A short time later, Patrick learned that he was, in fact, the Roberts they were looking for, and was ordered to report to his captain's office. He knew something was out of the ordinary: Generally speaking, when inmates are summoned by the captain on their compound, it's not a good thing—a stay in the hole (a.k.a. solitary) could be in the works. But according to Roberts, he was greeted by Warden Leann LaRiva and a few other staff members.
"'President Obama gave you a pardon,' is what she told me," Roberts said. Initially believing that he was granted immediate release, Roberts thanked her and turned to leave, intending to walk straight out the front door of the prison without giving a single thought about returning to his cell to collect his personal belongings.
But that's not quite how it works.
"The Warden said, 'Wait, wait… not right now.' " Roberts says. "'You're leaving on November 10.'" She proceeded to ask a few questions; namely, did he have any family? What about a place to go? As he made his way back to the unit, Roberts asked himself, Who should I call? Family? My girl? Friends?
"I didn't want the ones I didn't call to say, 'Why you didn't call me first?' and all that," he said. Ultimately, Roberts decided the simplest thing was to tell no one. "I had to go back to the unit, sit down, and think. The truth is you have to take it all in spiritually, breathe in the air, and take it all in. I had 120 days to figure things out, and I didn't tell nobody in the unit nothing when I walked in."
Alone in his cell, Roberts first thanked his Creator.
"I thanked my Maker for 16 years of asking him to be my bail bondsman—to help me get out, to help me with my law work, to help me with my sentence commutation." Next, Roberts thanked God for bringing Barack Obama into existence to change a system that he says may be "more divisive than the system that was here during the time of Noah." After much reflection, Roberts then walked into the J unit TV Room where the inmate computer system is located, logged onto the messaging system—which includes email—and sent everyone on his approved contact list the same message:
Hope that I find everyone doing great in health and spirits. I will see everyone Nov. 10th with love/peace/ best wishes.
For the rest of the day he kept quiet, telling only one other inmate in his unit about his good fortune, before later telling a friend of his who lived in another housing unit. Although LaRiva explained to him that the press would not be releasing any information about "Obama's Lucky 46"—as they have quickly become known within the confines of the federal prison system—a prison reform advocacy group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) released a three-page list of all the names of the federal prisoners who had been granted commutations that same day, and the White House put out its own release, too.
"That's when everyone started to wanna know who Patrick Roberts is," he says. Laughing, he adds, "It's like I was becoming a celebrity or something. A lot of people were saying I'm even more blessed than the Pope is."
Roberts says that he had to stay on board and act like he didn't care—didn't want to get a big head—because if he did he would be putting himself above his Maker. "I guess He got tired of me begging him so he was like, 'Well, OK, here you go!'"
Of course, Roberts also kinda feels like he won the lottery. And although he does feel extremely blessed, he reflects back to 1999, when he entered a guilty plea pursuant to a plea agreement that he was told would land him in federal prison for 15 years.
"There was 17 people in my indictment, and I might have known five of them," Roberts said. "They said I was number two in the conspiracy, but it wasn't no big drug ring or anything like that, just a bunch of different people selling drugs." At Roberts' sentencing hearing, he says, the judge made his decision using the "preponderance of the evidence standard," and calculated Roberts' drug weight using the more severe crack-cocaine drug table—which made his penalty 100 times greater than it would have been had he been charged for the powder cocaine, another drug he was accused of distributing.
"The crack cocaine back then was more serious, you see. So the judge gave me a life sentence," Roberts recalled. It should be noted that Roberts was a repeat drug offender who had four prior convictions. But a review of his pre-sentence report—used by judges to determine the length of prison stays—reveals that, according to the probation officer who prepared it, the "defendant does not meet the criteria set forth in 4B1.1 to be considered a career offender."
That meant he should not have been eligible for the mandatory-minimum life sentence, absent a judge basing his decision on the weight of crack cocaine. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened to Roberts.
"I should have never got no more than 15 years in the first place, and I would have been home about four years ago," Roberts says. "But I ain't mad." He added that this experience has given him the time to heal his mind, body, and soul. "If this sentence wouldn't have happened, I don't know what would have happened to me. I might have went out and done it again, I might be dead, I just don't know."
His future is, of course, wildly uncertain. Although Roberts is scheduled to be transferred into "community placement"—or a halfway house—any day now, he said, "There are so many people that have different agendas for me that I am completely confused. So my next choices will be the best ones to fit my means—which is 15 more years of life, living a life legally!"
When asked if prison officials had prepared him for reentry into society, or offered any guidance or suggestions other than a halfway placement, Roberts replied, "What would be the pre-release preparations? You have to look at my age. I am not in the greatest health, but I am not in the worst of health either. I could probably hold a night watchman job or whatever, but what else am I prepared to do except stay out of the way?"
Roberts concedes that he is a career drug dealer who's never had a real job. But there is no way that he'll ever go back to dealing drugs. "Fifteen more years legally," Roberts repeated. "Fifteen more years legally is all I want."
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