What Federal Prisoners Are Saying About the 6,000 Inmates Getting Released This Fall
"Everyone in here is saying that only a black president would do something like this."
In federal prisons across America, inmates are buzzing over word that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) will release 6,000 prisoners by November 2. After doing 21 years of a 25-year sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense, I know firsthand what it's like to do multiple decades and feel like no one on the outside gives a shit. But to those still serving time in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), this many people getting out at once—according to the Washington Post, it will be the largest one-time federal prison release ever—is like a dream come true.
"Everyone in here is saying that only a black president would do something like this," Angel Ocasio, a Bronx native doing time at FCI Danbury for his involvement in a gang that sold drugs and killed people, tells VICE. "The prison system is full of blacks and Latinos that get shortchanged solely because the color of our skin and the neighborhoods that we come from."
A second chance is the only thing most people in prison really want. I spent years looking out from inside the looking glass, fervently hoping that society would wake up and realize that the sentence I was serving was unjust. Which is not to say that people shouldn't be punished if they commit crimes, but that serving sentences of ten and 20 years for being involved in the drug game is not necessarily justice.
Granting these prisoners some relief from their sentences is a tangible step in the right direction, and it's resonating across the prison-industrial complex.
"They say that this is history because it is the first time that America will release so many inmates back into society," Ocasio says. "But from the inside looking out, we are already part of history because we form 25 percent of the world's incarcerated."
As the Post reported, the 6,000 inmates are the first slice of what could be as many as 46,000 people who get out early thanks to a change enacted last year by the US Sentencing Commission.
Of course, not every federal prisoner who deserves a break is catching one.
"This thing they are talking about is called 'Drugs Minus Two,'" Tim Tyler, who's doing life for a nonviolent LSD conspiracy, explains. "It is for the people that have drug crimes, but not mandatory minimums like me." (The "two" here refers to the number of levels on the sentencing scale that some drug offenses have been reduced by.)
Meanwhile, some savvy prisoners like VICE contributor Robert Rosso—who is serving life at FCI Terre Haute in Indiana for meth trafficking—wonder why the official announcement of the release is really a big deal. After all, we've known the release was going down sooner or later since last year.
"There is nothing new to see here," Rosso tells VICE. "This is a story from 2014 that is being rehashed. The question is why? Why has the media jumped on an old story? Why has the DOJ made a big deal of this? Everyone who is being released at the end of the month or first of the year knew they would be going last year, so again I ask: Why is this a news story now? Many are already in halfway houses."
A halfway house is the first step in a long road to reentry for many federal inmates. There, prisoners often struggle to come up with employment opportunities given their records, and have to satisfy prickly probation officers.
"The buzz around this has been going on now for months ever since we first got word that [the sentencing change] went through and that they would actually implement it," Ocasio says. "So the thing in here is that a lot of dudes got their notice in the mail stating that they got their two-point reduction and the amount of time they were getting off. Then they had to wait for their unit team to begin processing their paper work for the halfway house, which sucks because there are thousands that are getting out at the same time now and the paperwork is taking forever and the dudes that should of been getting more than six months [in the] halfway house, because they have been in for 20-25 years, are only getting 30 days."
This is what happens when you have an overcrowded prison system: Reentry programs, which can play a key role in preventing recidivism, are often starved of resources.
Still, as a former prisoner of the war on drugs, I'm happy to see to know these prisoners are seeing the light of day and could soon be reunited with their families. I have been out a little over a year now, and although these changes have come too late to help me—I served almost all of my sentence—I feel nothing but jubilation for the thousands who are getting a taste of freedom.
Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.