Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that President Obama planned on using his clemency powers to free a large number of nonviolent drug offenders in the weeks ahead. America has over 2 million people behind bars, and nearly 100,000 of them are in federal prison for drug crimes. Obama apparently thinks a healthy chunk of them got the shaft during the "tough on crime" era in the 80s and 90s, when politicians were engaged in a game of oneupmanship over who could be harshest on the bad guys selling your kids dope.
On Monday, Obama at least partially followed through on that promise, announcing clemency for 46 people, most of whom would not be in prison anymore if they committed the same offense under current laws, according to the White House.
Better late than never.
I did 21 years of a 25-year drug sentence for a first-time, nonviolent offense: selling LSD. I'm a free man now, but I would have been a prime candidate for this new commutation initiative, having earned multiple degrees through correspondence courses, started a publishing house and popular website, authored several true crime books, and launched a journalism career—all from prison.
It wasn't easy, but I did what I had to do to secure my future.
I was still inside in April 2014, when the feds first began to make noise about clemency. We got a message on the Trulinks system—the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) email program—that the president wanted to find prisoners who met certain qualifications: first-time, nonviolent offenders, no gangs, no cartels or organized crime connections, good institutional conduct, and at least ten years served. It was a surprise, but we all filled out the forms and applied anyway. Even though I was getting out later that year, I still wanted to taste freedom as quickly as possible.
It was unbelievable to many of us that the White House was even paying attention to the excesses in the War on Drugs. And the 30 people whose sentences the president had already commuted since December probably never thought they were getting out, but they did. So with rumors of major changes in the works, I had to reach out to some old friends from inside to see what they think about the possibility of some kind of mass exodus from the prison-industrial complex.
"We get that the Obama story is big out there," Eduardo, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who has been in for 15 years on a 25-year drug conspiracy sentence, tells me. "It's slow in here. In the public they see things like that and right away they believe that he is making moves, but that thing is moving slower than the oldest turtle."
To the prisoners doing hard time, policy announcements like this one are all hype until they happen. And "happening" to inmates means walking out that front gate. (According to the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums—or FAMM—the men and women whose sentences were commuted Monday will be released on November 10.)
"Some believe him and some don't," Big, an African-American man from Buffalo who's been in almost 20 years on a life sentence for a large-scale drug ring, says about the idea of mass clemency. "Because they keep saying it, and nothing is happening with it at all thus far on a major level, so I would conclude that some believe he will [commute many people's sentences], but many don't believe it until it's verified."
Being powerless is frustrating, but it's a hard fact of prison life. Inside, we spend so many years thinking the laws are going to change or that we're going to catch a break that it's hard to keep hope alive. Too many false promises have never been delivered on.
"Dudes' like me ain't really saying nothing, just working toward freedom through the courts," C-Low, who hails from Miami and has been in for 20 years on a life sentence for drugs, tells me. "But dudes who ain't got no real time and haven't really done nothing, dudes on petty charges, are really hyped up about it, as they should be, because it seems like the only people that really get relief are the people that really didn't need it, meaning they were going home anyway. You feel me? But dudes are happy and looking forward to it. I'm happy for them, because if one of us goes home, some of us goes home. You feel me?"
I never had a life sentence, but it was still tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Twenty-five years seems like a lifetime, especially when you begin that sentence at age 22. But some inmates see that light now.
"Even FAMM said that [Obama] is going to be doing some incredible stuff, bro!" Apache, an East New York native who has been down over 20 years on a three strikes law federal life sentence, tells me. "They are saying that he did something with the three strikes law and that he is going to pardon a sea of people."
Meanwhile, advocates for clemency are pleased by the initiative, even if they think the White House is still moving slowly.
"Clearly, President Obama recognizes that too many people are serving sentences that are far too long in American prisons," Michael Santos, who served 26 years in federal prison while becoming an expert on criminal justice, says. "Yet the bar is too high.... he should commute the sentence of every offender who has earned freedom, every offender for whom continued incarceration no longer serves a useful purpose. By that metric, he would be commuting sentences by the tens of thousands rather than by the dozens."
The president clearly recognizes some of the problems with excessive sentences for drug crimes, but making the gears of the criminal justice system run in the other direction—toward freedom and away from more time behind bars—has been a slog.
"President Obama has been very good at talking the talk of clemency over the last couple of years, but we're still waiting for him to vigorously walk the walk," Douglas A. Berman, professor of criminal justice at Ohio State University, tells me. "He seems to be both genuine and committed to doing more, and I have good reason to believe he is going to start doing more and doing more on a reasonably regular basis—which would be a truly remarkable development and in contrast to any or the recent prior presidents.
"But even if he was able to commute 100 drug sentences a week, that is still less than the drug offenders that are sentenced every week," Berman argues. "It's of greater symbolic importance than substantive importance for the federal prison population."
I've had a lot of firsts after doing 21 years in prison. Watching the fireworks and seeing everyone celebrate on July 4, I realized the power of our national ideals. Despite the time I served, I am still proud to be an American—and so are plenty of the other prisoners serving time in our nation's prison system.
I only hope President Obama follows through and extends clemency—extends forgiveness—to as many prisoners as he can before it's too late. The age of incarceration and the War on Drugs is at a crossroads, and if we're an enlightened society, we have to treat those locked away with compassion. They have rights and liberties, too, and they ought to be restored sooner rather than later.
If America is the land of second chances, it's about time we provide that chance to more of her people.
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