The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The First Step Act released them from prison. Then the government tried to lock them back up.

From left to right: Ronald Mack, Jesse Opher, Eric Mack, Rodney Mack and Hassan Hawkins pictured in D.C. in 2019. Ronald and Rodney Mack, Opher and Hawkins were all released from prison under the First Step Act. (Courtesy of Families Against Mandatory Minimums)
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In December 2019, a group of former federal inmates gathered on Capitol Hill to meet congressional leaders and White House officials. The men had been released early from prison under the First Step Act, a sweeping bipartisan bill that allowed federal prisoners with qualifying drug offenses to apply for release.

Ronald Mack and his younger brother, Rodney — found guilty of conspiracy to sell more than five kilograms of cocaine and more than 50 grams of crack cocaine — were among dozens of former inmates who attended the reception in the Rayburn House Office Building. Natives of Plainfield, N.J., they had been released from prison a month earlier.

But as the men settled in for a panel discussion on government oversight, their phones rang. Their lawyers were notifying them that the U.S. attorney’s office of New Jersey had appealed their release. They could be sent back to prison.

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More than 18 months later, the Department of Justice dropped its appeal, ending the limbo the Mack brothers faced, feeling “half-incarcerated, half-free,” said Ronald Mack, 58. Now that it’s over, “it feels like the whole world is off my back,” he added.

More than 3,000 federal inmates have been released from prison under the First Step Act since it was signed by President Donald Trump in 2018. But prosecutors have sought to re-incarcerate a handful of offenders, arguing they did not actually qualify for release.

Ronald and Rodney Mack were among the offenders faced with the prospect of returning to prison. The brothers were sentenced to life in prison in 2002, convicted of selling $16 million worth of cocaine and crack between 1994 and 1999. They were not convicted of violent crimes. (The brothers deny ever selling drugs.)

Ronald Mack said hearing the judge say “life in prison” changed him. “I knew I had to stay focused, stay positive, enter into the prison programs and work,” he said.

In prison, he earned his GED, as well as degrees for workplace safety and quality control measures, and learned how to draw and interpret blueprints. But he said his greatest achievement occurred in the prison law library, where he researched similar conspiracy drug cases involving crack.

“I knew the answers were in the law library because that’s where the attorneys and judges and prosecutors got the answers,” Mack said.

Mack exhaustively researched his case, identifying possible routes for appeal.

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Mack’s lawyer, Christopher Adams, said he feels like he’s sitting next to a peer in court, not a client. “He’s the greatest paralegal I’ve ever come in contact with,” Adams said. “He has his finger on the pulse of cases: new ones, ones developing in other circuits, district court cases.”

Rodney Mack said he didn’t expect his older brother to acquire legal skills, but he was glad he did. “When you spend all your time in the law library, other people come to you for help, and he was able to help a lot of guys with their cases,” Rodney Mack said.

When Ronald Mack began writing legal motions, he was permitted to hold conference calls with his younger brother to talk about their case. Imprisoned at separate federal penitentiaries, the conference calls gave the men an opportunity to keep in touch beyond email.

In November 2019, the Mack brothers were ordered to be released by a federal judge.

“We’re the example of why this bill was written,” said Hassan Hawkins, who was convicted with the Mack brothers. “I put the effort in to change. I was 27 when I went in. I wasn’t a kid, but my thinking wasn’t correct. And now I’m renewed spiritually and mentally.”

But in February 2020, the solicitor general approved the U.S. attorney’s office of New Jersey’s motion to appeal the decision. With the appeal, the Mack brothers faced the prospect of returning to prison for another decade.

The First Step Act aimed to correct the disparities in sentencing of defendants convicted of crack offenses, who were mostly Black, compared to powder cocaine. It contains six provisions that address reducing recidivism, incentivizing rehabilitation, improving where an inmate is confined in relation to their primary residence, correctional reforms such as prohibiting the use of restraints on pregnant inmates, government oversight and sentencing reforms.

Holly Harris, a conservative activist and leader of the Justice Action Network who worked with Congress and the Trump administration to pass the First Step Act, said the DOJ is flouting the intention behind the law with appeals like the one in the Mack case.

“They have prosecutorial discretion and part of the discretion is a determination as to what sends the right message about public safety and the benefits of rehabilitation,” Harris said. “This is prosecutors doubling down on what doesn’t work, and it’s deeply disappointing.”

Along with the usual — and daunting — challenges ex-offenders are dealt when leaving prison, the Mack brothers experienced stress and anxiety about their future.

“I went to bed every night worrying if I was going back to prison the next day,” Rodney Mack said.

While the appeal process played out, Rodney and Ronald Mack spoke every day by phone and — as they did in prison — encouraged each other to stay positive and focus on their new jobs.

Rodney Mack works as a delivery driver for a WalMart in Pennsylvania, and his brother does construction in North Carolina. Their father died while they were in prison, and Ronald Mack helps take care of their mother. He said reconnecting with loved ones and concentrating on construction has helped him get through the past several months.

Last week, the DOJ announced it was dropping its appeal. A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment on the department’s policy for appealing decisions that free offenders under the First Step Act, or on why it had decided to drop the appeal.

Ronald Mack compared his approach to reentering society with the appeal hanging over them to rehabilitating himself in prison.

“Like then, the blinders were on,” he said. “Action was the only thing that could make it go by.”

Kevin Ring, who runs Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said he became emotional when he learned the DOJ had dropped the appeal. “It’s been so hard on their families, and for them to just never have been free even though they’re home,” Ring said.

Ronald Mack said if he could start his life over again, he would become an attorney. But now that the case is finally over, he plans to continue directing his attention on work and loved ones.

“I still have my blinders on,” he said.