During the 21 years I served in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent marijuana and LSD conspiracy, I was always up on the criminal justice reform bills making their way through Congress. The FAMM-gram, as we called it—from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the reform advocacy group—was my lifeline to a world of hope. When you’re trapped inside the belly of the beast, all you really want is for people to wake the fuck up and realize the obscene amount of time prisoners are serving, sometimes solely for selling drugs.
In recent days, with all the hype over on-again, off-again momentum around the First Step Act—the Trump-backed bill that promises to rein in federal mandatory-minimum and three-strikes laws, and apply Obama-era crack/cocaine sentencing reforms retroactively—I reached out to men doing time in the federal Bureau of Prisons to gauge their hopes, fears, and frustrations. While reform was welcomed, many inmates were demoralized both by the specifics of the proposed law and the process undergirding it.
Some of them—especially those implicated in violent crimes that don't tend to win sympathy in Washington—seemed to hate what was going on in DC as much as everyone else in America.
"The bill still doesn’t consider relief that would give many old-timers who’ve been languishing in prison for years, who don’t have serious criminal history, or for that matter, who've been programming and have exemplary conduct while in prison,” 52-year-old Dennis Crosby, who's doing 25 years for racketeering and murder charges at FCI Otisville in New York, told VICE via email.
Among other things, the proposed law would cut sentences for some federal three-strikes crimes from life to 25 years, which is a great idea and would at least begin to claw back draconian punishments for nonviolent drug offenses. There's a reason advocacy groups on the right and left—including FAMM—are on board. But even in clear-cut cases of drug war overreach, the way it’s written now, the time cut for severe, automatic mandatory-minimum sentences, for instance—from 20 years down to 15—wouldn't be retroactive. Which is to say thousands of people sentenced in the past still might face the rest of their existence in a cell.
What’s the point of fixing a broken law if you don't fix it for those who’ve suffered its injustice already?
Besides their gripes with the specifics of the proposed reforms, prisoners also found keeping track of the progress of the bill to be extremely frustrating—and emotionally draining—in its own right. For the last several months, some said, they'd been receiving emails from prison advocates and organizations getting their hopes up about the First Step Act. They heard Republican US Senator Chuck Grassley expressing optimism a bill would pass, and saw reports that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was going to bring it up for a vote during this "lame duck session" (before the new Congress is seated).
Then they learned McConnell told Donald Trump during a private meeting earlier this month that he wouldn’t have time to bring it up for a vote until next year.
"They give us hope and they take it away," 56-year-old Israel Mendez, doing 30 years over three kilos of cocaine at FCI Terre Haute in Indiana, told VICE. “And by us, I mean prisoners and our families. Imagine watching the news and hearing that your mother or father has the opportunity of coming home years early if we work hard at it, only to have a handful of senators kill our dreams. It's wrong. Getting 20 or 30 years or even a life sentence for non-violent drug offenses is wrong. This can be fixed, but we seem to be caught in a political nightmare.”
Indeed, a back and forth on Capitol Hill that barely rippled in the mainstream press had been heartbreaking for some inmates.
"What started out as a good bill—that seemed like it would help a lot of people—seems to get watered down more and more every day," 42-year-old Ronald Coleman, who got 22.5 years for a marijuana conspiracy at FCI Terre Haute, told VICE.
The lack of retroactivity seemed to be the biggest issue among prisoners I talked to, and rightly so. Anybody doing decades or life just wants a second chance. I couldn’t imagine having a sentence like that and facing the reality I would never get out. Even with a 25-year bid, thanks to my youth, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Still, it reflected the basic hunger for reform of any kind that even with prospects looking grim, some inmates were intent on holding out for action. And a few of the changes in the proposed law, like crediting prisoners more quickly for time served and providing more help with re-entry, were almost universally welcomed.
“There's a shitload of talk about it as you can imagine and people are excited,” 25-year-old Ralph Sergo, who’s doing ten years for LSD at FCI Coleman in Florida, said in an email. “I've heard that most of the more important things won't be retroactive, but mainly what I'm hoping for is for the 54-day increase [the maximum credit inmates can claim per year of good behavior] so we do 85 percent instead of the 87.5 percent [of maximum sentences] we currently serve."
"Shortening the mandatory sentences would be great, as well as a wider scope for the safety valve [allowing judges to decline to impose minimum sentences]," he added. "Even though it's not retro, it will help those coming in."
Robert Rosso contributed reporting to this story.
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