While the U.S. watched the presidential election unfold Tuesday, the fate of one group of Americans literally hung in the balance: federal prisoners serving lengthy mandatory sentences for minor crimes.
Prison inmates are not allowed to vote, but those hoping for clemency from President Obama saw Republican Donald Trump’s win as a blow to their prospects. Trump ran as a tough-on-crime, law-and-order candidate, and he’s on the record criticizing the current administration’s reform efforts, including Obama’s clemency initiative, which has commuted 944 sentences since 2014. More than half of the inmates in federal prisons are there for minor crimes, and the majority of those are black.
“Some of these people are bad dudes,” Trump said at an August rally in Florida about people released from prison. “These are people out walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”
Jason Hernandez, from McKinney, Texas, got out last year. He was sentenced to life for crack-dealing at the age of 21. Obama reduced his sentence, and he was released after 15 years behind bars.
Hernandez, now 36, advocates for clemency for other inmates, including his friend and co-defendant Michael Holmes, 44, who is still in prison for the same drug crime.
“My only shot is clemency,” Holmes said. “I don’t know what’s left in the tank for Obama to do before he leaves office.”
Holmes stayed up until 2 a.m. listening to the election results on the radio in his cell at Forrest City prison in Arkansas. As the lead cook for the prison’s warden, he has to be out of bed at 4 a.m., but the news kept him up all night.
“Whatever we thought we had coming to see the daylight at the end of the tunnel closed back up again,” he said about the results.
Hernandez and Holmes’ brother will travel to Washington, D.C., next week for rallies and vigils organized by the Cut 50 campaign to try to push Obama to grant more clemency petitions before he leaves office.
Only about 2,000 of the roughly 200,000 total federal inmates qualify for relief under the strict criteria outlined by the Obama administration. They must be serving time for nonviolent offenses, have already served 10 years of their sentence, and have exhausted direct appeal options.
Kevin Ring, vice president of FAMM, a criminal justice reform organization, said the group is moving at breakneck speed to get as many petitions as they can in front of the Obama administration before January.
“I think the lift got a little heavier on the federal side,” Ring said. “What Trump has said is not encouraging.”
Chris Young, 28, from Clarksville, Tennessee, snuck out of his cell at a federal prison in Kentucky around midnight Tuesday to check election results on the TV monitor with Steven Walker, 34, from Baltimore, and three other inmates. The five men, all minorities, watched in disbelief. When they saw that Hillary Clinton had only about 209 points by that time, they knew it was probably going to be a Trump victory.
“We didn’t have too much to say,” said Walker, a father of five who is serving 24 years for felony possession of a handgun. “I was a little too upset. I was just sitting there, I couldn’t believe it.”
Somber vibes filled the prison Wednesday, said Young, who is serving a life sentence for drug crimes (there is no parole in the federal system). Older inmates who usually say hello to him in the halls were staring at the floor. Both Young and Walker are in the process of preparing clemency petitions, despite not meeting the criteria: Young’s case is still pending on appeal and Walker has served only two years so far.
“A lot of guys said they don’t want to give up, but if Obama doesn’t grant a big package [of clemencies] in the next month or so, the probability is close to none,” Young said.
Alice Johnson, a 61-year-old grandmother from Olive Branch, Mississippi, listened to the results on the radio in her cell after 10 p.m. lockdown at an Alabama prison. She’d hoped Clinton would win because of her criminal justice platform. She said the mood in the prison Wednesday was depressing. “Everyone wondered what this would mean for us and criminal justice reform,” she said.
Johnson has served 20 years of a life sentence for drug crimes. Her clemency petition is one of 11,355 pending with the Justice Department.
Chad Marks, 38, from Rochester, New York, watched the election results on the community-TV monitor from inside his cell. When he woke up Wednesday morning, he wrote a letter to President Obama. It read:
“Last night at about 3:00 am I cried for the first time since I was sentenced to 40 years in prison…When Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania with that my hope for criminal justice reform was diminished. When I walked out of my cell this morning, and seen the faces of the other prisoners I knew that my tears were not just for me, but for each of these men that deserve a second chance to reclaim their lives that might not get one.”
His clemency petition has been pending for 26 months. He is 13 years into his sentence for a drug crime.
“I didn’t realize, I thought I was feeling sorry for myself,” Marks said. “But I saw the guys crying first thing in the morning saying, ‘I don’t know if we’re ever going to get out of here.’”
Some reformers are keeping an open mind. Norman Reimer is the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which, together with Clemency Project 2014, has worked on nearly half of all the cases that have been granted clemency under Obama. He said he will be the most vocal advocate for the next president to expand the clemency program beyond just nonviolent drug offenders.
“We always have concerns,” Reimer said, “but we are determined that we will press on to make the system more rational and humane.”