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When it was announced on Friday that President Obama will be visiting the El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma this week—an occasion that will be filmed for a VICE HBO special on criminal justice—I couldn't help thinking of the time I spent in that very same facility more than 20 years ago.
It was 1993, and El Reno—a medium-security prison—was being used as a transit hub for inmates being shipped around the country. I can't even fathom how a presidential visit might have been received back then, when the war on drugs was in full swing and no one with any power seemed to care all that much about people behind bars. But interviews with inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Terre Haute, Indiana—another medium-security prison—suggest the planned visit is already making waves.
"I am not gonna lie; I went up to my room and cried," Steven Tyrone Johnson, a nonviolent crack cocaine offender serving life without parole, said about hearing the news. "I feel that after twenty years in these prisons, the good Lord brought us Barack Obama to set things right."
The mandatory-minimum sentencing scheme is what put Johnson in this lifelong fix, and he believes once US Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff receives his clemency petition, it's only a matter of time before he gets out.
"I've done everything right: worked in the prison factory, remained clear conduct, stayed close to my lord and savior, Jesus Christ," Johnson says. "I believe this is almost over." With President Obama having already announced 46 commutations on Monday—and with rumors of more to come—Johnson isn't exactly delusional.
Louis Younger, another prisoner serving life without the possibility of release for a nonviolent drug crime, says he can't believe the president is going into the belly of the beast himself.
"Ever since Obama has taken office I've been waiting for this day to come," Younger tells VICE. "I swear I knew that he would end up visiting a prison; I just didn't know which one. I only wish he would have came here, so I could talk to him."
If Younger could say just one thing to Obama, it would be, "Please sir, please: There are less than 3,500 guys in federal prison serving life sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Can't you please just do one blanket commutation and reduce all of our sentences to 20 years? Just think of how many guys might be stuck in prison for the rest of our lives with drug offenses if you pick and chose."
Strong forces are at play when it comes to sentencing and clemency reform. The tide and mood of the country is changing—Americans are sick of being incarceration nation, and President Obama is taking a new course of action. Yet it's hard to fathom that this is the first time a sitting president will actually visit a federal prison. When I was in, I saw the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) director, judges, congressmen, regional directors, and law enforcement officials, but never a president.
For those incarcerated, Obama's historic gesture offers tremendous hope.
"I would like to compliment president Obama's on his unprecedented visit to El Reno, to obtain an up-close and in-depth view of life inside prison," George DeLuca, a 74-year-old former NYPD officer convicted in 1995 of nonviolent drug conspiracy and sentenced to life without the chance of parole, tells VICE. "This comes at a time when this country needs such honesty and compassion. Because in the past, presidents and members of Congress have never stepped up and taken responsibility for past poor decisions, such as the implementation of mandatory minimums that have had such devastating results not just on inmates but on their families and loved ones as well."
DeLuca adds that he hopes President Obama will seriously consider commuting the sentences of everyone serving life without parole in one sweeping executive order.
"This way he can concentrate on helping correct the unjust [sentences handed] to so many others, specifically the gun offenders," the former cop argues. "The feds came down hard on gun offenders when they enacted the mandatory minimums. The sentences have been outrageous."
Charles Scott knows that all too well. A first-time offender serving 51 and a half years for multiple gun crimes, he hopes President Obama will not just look at helping nonviolent offenders, but also at first-time criminals who were painted as murderers, terrorists, and career maniacs.
"My belief is that laws are made to reform and rehabilitate and enhance our societies. Stacking gun crimes does just the opposite," Scott tells VICE.
Then there's people like Nathan Mikulak, who's tagged in the federal system as an Armed Career Criminal (ACC). He thinks his kind deserve a fresh look, too.
"The Supreme Court just ruled that a section of the ACC is unconstitutional," Mikulak tells VICE. "The problem is the decision is not retroactive, which means that it won't affect thousands of guys like me. I know Obama can't fix everything, but I really hope his sole focus isn't just on helping drug offenders."
Another federal prisoner named Kenneth Choice says he's simply overjoyed that our first African-American president is coming to federal prison. As a black man serving a life sentence for a first-time drug offense, he believes that once Obama actually sees all of the African americans behind bars, he will step up the commutation process.
"Obama once said that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin," Choice says. "Well, there's a whole lotta peoples in here who look like Trayvon, his uncle, his daddy and all his relatives. We are your people Obama—we all look like Trayvon. I just hope you take after your hero Abraham Lincoln and free us like the slaves that the mandatory minimum laws have made us."
No matter what happens, prisoners like Steven Johnson believe President Obama's visit will expedite the change that so many federal inmates have been clamoring for.
"I ain't never see so many happy prisoners in the 20 years that I've been in here," Johnson says. "Thank you President Obama. Thank you for all that you are doing for your country, our people, and this criminal justice system. Before you came, along many of us was ready to call it quits."
Inside the belly of the beast, prisoners are experiencing a flurry of emotion right now: optimism to be sure, but also some anger, jealousy, and resentment at those catching a break.
"You got to be a damn near saint to get the pardon," says a prisoner we'll call Dre from Chester, Pennsylvania, who's doing life for drug crimes and murder at the high-security US Penitentiary, Hazelton in West Virginia. "Catching [a] write-up is so easy because most of the time the officer lied and fabricated things on people for whatever reason."
Still, I suspect the buzz on most compounds right now is simply magical, as prisoners make plans and celebrate with their families and loved ones at the very thought that they might come home early. Only 46 people got an accelerated release date Monday, but where there were 46, there can be more.
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