Slow steps to freedom
A nonviolent drug offender who was granted clemency after 22 years adjusts to life on the outside
The recently released federal prisoner sat down at his sister’s dining room table. He pulled out a legal pad and began the letter he had been turning over in his mind for several months:
“Dear Mr. President, I am writing you today with the utmost gratitude to personally thank you for granting my petition for clemency on March 31, 2015. Your actions have given me a second chance to start living life normally again and mere words can’t express how truly grateful I am for your making this moment possible. The Bible says, ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’ and I vow to make the most of this unique opportunity that I’ve been given.”
UNWINDING THE DRUG WAR:
This story is the fifth in a continuing series about the legacy of the war on drugs and efforts to reduce the nation’s prison population.
Click to read Part I: The painful price of aging in prison
Click to read Part II: Against his better judgment
Click to read Part III: From a first arrest to a life sentence
Click to read Part IV: Unlikely allies push for sentencing reform
Click to read Part VI: In Calif., the unintended effects of leniency
Click to read Part VII: Softening sentences, losing leverage
Click to read Part VIII: Struggling to fix a ‘broken’ system
He went back and crossed out the words, “second chance,” replacing them with “unique opportunity.” He frowned. The change made the letter look sloppy. He tore out the page and started again. After writing the lines in neat print, he paused and took off his reading glasses.
How would he end it, he asked?
“When I read the president’s letter to me, I could hear Obama’s voice,” he said as he wrote the letter last month. “I could just hear him saying those things to me personally, particularly when he said, ‘You’ve been given a unique opportunity.’ He was saying, don’t mess it up for the guys behind you. I took that to heart.”
There is a lot to do. He has to find a permanent place to live. He has to avoid old friends who might have drugs, guns or felony records. He has to build relationships with sons who have only ever known him as a voice on the telephone. And he has to decide if he wants to get back with his wife, the woman who broke his heart.
He picked up the pen again.
“I vow to do many good things with the rest of my life. I realize that I am only one of many whom you have granted clemency to, but I want to assure you that I won’t let you down.
Sincerely, Donel Marcus Clark.”
A 51-year-old who has spent more than two decades behind bars, Clark is one of 22 nonviolent drug offenders whom Obama granted clemency in March in an effort to shorten the harsh mandatory minimum sentences imposed on thousands of mostly African American men during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.
Those ex-convicts, along with 46 others given commutations in July, are making their way from federal prison back into neighborhoods around the country. Separately, 6,000 federal prisoners will be released at the end of the month after retroactive changes in sentencing guidelines.
After receiving Obama’s clemency letter six months ago in the Seagoville federal prison, just southeast of here, Clark was surrounded by guards and inmates who shook his hand and congratulated him.
He was free, they told him. But freedom, he learned, comes step by bureaucratic step.
Inmates granted clemency are first moved to lower-security prisons, then to halfway houses before home-confinement and, finally, probation.
Clark was initially transferred to a minimum-security prison camp at Seagoville, but outside the high razor-wire fence.
“I was like, man, I’m out here outside the fence and it was so weird,” Clark said.
A letter from President Obama granting Donel Marcus Clark's commutation. | A draft of a letter Clark is writing to thank Obama. “When I read the president’s letter to me, I could hear Obama’s voice,” he said.
An inmate who took care of the prison grounds offered him a ride around the area on a four-wheel John Deere that resembled a golf cart.
“I said, ‘Hey, can I do this?’ ” asked Clark, who said he learned to be obedient in prison and worried he was breaking a rule. The prisoner assured him it was okay. Clark felt the unfamiliar sensation of the breeze on his face as the inmate drove down to a pond so they could look at the turtles.
“After 22 years, it was my first taste of freedom,” Clark said.
Three weeks later, at 7:25 a.m. on April 30, Clark was released from Seagoville prison. “Don’t come back,” a guard said. “Don’t worry about that,” Clark replied.
He pushed open the front glass door to a bright, chilly morning. His sister and his niece were waiting in the parking lot.
“My uncle Marc is coming home!” his niece, Kristen, yelled. “A long time coming. Oh my God!”
Clark, dressed in drab gray prison shorts and a T-shirt, tried not to show any emotion as he walked down the long prison sidewalk.
When he reached their car, he broke into laughter and hugged them tight.
Video: A free man, Donel Clark begins life again after clemency
After being sentenced to 35 years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense, Donel Clark was granted clemency by President Obama in March 2015. Now living in Fort Worth, Clark is adjusting to life on the outside. (Nicki DeMarco, Nikki Kahn and Sari Horwitz)
Donel Marcus “Marc” Clark was known as a “square” in the southeast Dallas neighborhood where he grew up.
Raised by his grandmother after his mother died of cancer when he was 13, Clark went to church regularly and worked at a grocery store during high school. He was hired to work full time after graduating and a few years later took on a second job managing a liquor store for a friend. At 24 he married Ceyita Sampson, a neighborhood girl. They had a son and bought a house.
But Clark’s life began unraveling when he got fired after getting into an argument with his manager at the grocery store when he was not paid for doing extra work.
Clark fills out paperwork before meeting with his probation officer hours after being permanently released from the halfway house and out of the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. “Today is my first day of real freedom,” he said.
“I was young and stupid,” Clark said.
About the same time, his friend decided to sell the liquor store and Clark knew he was about to lose that job as well. By then he was supporting three children, including one with an ex-girlfriend and his wife’s son from a previous relationship.
When a former classmate and known drug dealer came into the liquor store, Clark noticed his new truck with new jet skis on the back. Clark asked if there was a role for him in the business.
“He said, ‘This isn’t for you,’ ” Clark recalled. “I wasn’t a street guy. But I told him, ‘I’ve got bills, I’ve got family. I need some help.’ ”
His friend offered him a job packaging the drugs and supervising the “kitchen crew” — which cooked the powdered cocaine into crack. He would get paid $1,000 a week.
“I was like, man, $1,000 a week!” Clark said. He didn’t worry about money for a year and a half. He bought his wife jewelry and a car.
Then in May 1992, he was arrested. Police raided his house, and the recently purchased cars, televisions sets and electronic gear were all seized.
After a three-week trial a year later, Clark, then 29, was convicted of conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine, using the phone to commit a felony and manufacturing cocaine near a school — one member of the group lived within 1,000 feet of one. The judge determined that the group distributed more than 50 kilos of crack.
Clark, who had never been arrested before, was sentenced to 35 years.
Later, the prosecutor in the case said she always believed Clark’s sentence was too severe, but in court the judge said his hands were tied.
Clark was sent about 1,500 miles away from his wife and three sons — then 12, 8 and 4 — to Allenwood prison in Pennsylvania.
“They punished all of us for not pleading out and going to trial by sending us as far away from Texas as they could,” Clark said.
Two years later, Clark’s prison was one of four that erupted in what became known as the crack riots of 1995.
After Congress rejected a proposal by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to undo the huge disparity in sentencing between possession of cocaine powder and crack, uprisings broke out at four federal prisons. Inmates smashed windows, set fire to mattresses and attacked guards. Dozens of prisoners, guards and staff were hurt.
Although Clark was not involved in the rioting, he, like all the other inmates, was confined to his cell in a prison-wide lockdown for weeks afterward. It was during that time that a guard delivered a letter informing him that his appeal had been denied.
Soon after that, Clark’s wife stopped sending the money he needed to make phone calls, buy food at the commissary and send e-mails. “It’s hard out here,” she told him, saying she needed to take care of their sons.
He asked her to stay in touch with letters and photos. The birthday cards kept coming, but eventually the anniversary cards stopped.
“She pretty much faded out,” he said.
Clark got a letter from a friend who told him his wife was seeing someone else. He was deeply wounded.
To survive life behind bars, Clark adopted a three-part strategy: He woke early every morning and ran three miles. Although many inmates chose not to work for the low wages, he went to a prison job in the textile factory every day, sewing pockets on military jackets for $1.24 an hour. And he studied the Bible.
“My faith in Christ is what sustained me,” Clark said. He maintained a perfect disciplinary record.
In 2004, following five years in a Louisiana prison, Clark was finally transferred to Texas and his sister, Barbara McNair, could visit, along with his sons and his wife. Prison rules dictate how long spouses can hug and kiss in the visiting room. But, by that time, it didn’t matter.
“We weren’t in a kissing frame of mind,” Clark said.
When Clark was released from the low-security camp, his sister and niece drove him to a Fort Worth halfway house where he had to report immediately. On the way, he rushed into a Whataburger to pick up fries and a burger to go.
When they arrived at the facility, Clark was told he couldn’t eat. He had to fill out forms and take a drug test. Two hours later, an administrator allowed him to take out his food, now cold. “It was still good,” Clark said, “because it was real food, not prison food.”
Still under the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, Clark was assigned for the next three months to a bunk bed in a room with 18 other men in a squat brick building run by the Volunteers of America.
“You think you’re free, but this was just a different prison with a new set of rules,” Clark said. “You’re looking to get back into society, get back to your family and get back into the world. They give you a taste of freedom but say, ‘We’re not going to give it all to you yet.’ ”
Clark could only leave to look for a job, go to work or attend church. He could only have a basic flip phone with no ability to use the Internet. He had to report in every few hours from a landline.
One day he went to get a driver’s license. After waiting in a long line, Clark realized it was time to call to check in. He walked to the front counter to ask a woman to use the phone. “You need to call YOUR HALFWAY HOUSE?” she said so loudly that everyone in line could hear.
“It was so embarrassing,” Clark said.
After the halfway house, Clark was moved to “home confinement” and was allowed to sleep at his sister’s house. He was subject to random searches and phone calls, including in the middle of the night. A staffer showed up unannounced one time to see if there were drugs or alcohol in the house or if Clark had a smartphone.
Clark finally landed a job, at $13.45 an hour, in the freezer section of a warehouse run by the grocery chain Kroger, which, like a growing number of companies, is willing to give ex-offenders a second chance.
He wakes at 3:30 a.m. and starts work at 5 a.m. after slipping on thick, mustard-colored gloves and liners, and a “cold suit” to pull grocery orders in the 15-degrees-below section of the warehouse. He is working so many hours that it’s hard to find time to spend with his grown sons or the grandchildren he doesn’t know.
Clark’s dream job is driving a truck to haul new cars, work that he’s heard pays good money. But first he’ll need enough money to stop working and take four weeks of classes to get a commercial driver’s license.
With the warehouse job, a place to live temporarily, a vehicle to use and a cellphone, Clark is in better shape than many other ex-offenders. Former prisoners like Clark, who are first-time, non-violent offenders, are less likely than other convicts to commit another crime, according to studies of recidivism rates.
But a recent report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif., found that the impact of incarceration is often economically crippling for former inmates and their families. According to the study, 67 percent of former prisoners surveyed were unemployed or underemployed five years after release.
At 6:05 a.m. on July 28, Clark signed his name on the Justice Department’s “Notice of Release” form at the front counter.
“You’re out,” said Merrill Wells, facility director of the halfway house. “Good luck! Take care.”
Clark had to report to a nearby U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services office where he filled out more forms and was given a new set of restrictions. He was told that he can’t communicate with anyone with a felony conviction or travel beyond a certain area without permission. He took another drug test and is subject to one at any moment over the next four years.
Clark drove to downtown Dallas for a celebratory lunch with his lawyer, Brittany Byrd. In a sleek restaurant in Klyde Warren Park, Clark ordered Atlantic hake fish and chips and looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows, watching children playing and splashing in the park’s water fountain. He bowed his head and prayed.
“Today is my first day of real freedom,” he said.
That night, Clark drove to the apartment of his wife, Ceyita. She had come to visit him in the halfway house and told him that she wanted him back. She said she still loved him and had not gone out with another man in two years.
In her apartment, Clark looked around for signs of another man. He peeked in the medicine cabinet and her closet. No sign.
Ceyita played him a song by Tyrese called “Shame”:
“I need your forgiveness and your mercy, too. I must be all kinda crazy for what I’ve done to you. I hope you understand that my heart is true. . . . This is not an excuse. I’m just telling the truth. Baby, I’m so sorry for hurting you.”
Clark was touched but uncertain. This was a complicated decision. His wife abandoned him, he felt, yet she never divorced him. With his deep religious faith, Clark does not want to violate his marriage vows.
“I don’t know,” Clark said. “I need to take it slow.”
He agreed to date her to see if “the old feeling is there.”
One recent evening, Clark put on a new shirt. His wife picked him up at his sister’s house and they drove to a nearby T.G.I. Friday’s. Over $12 endless appetizers, they laughed about how they first met at a carwash three decades ago. Then Clark pulled out his new smartphone, and they looked at photos of their sons and grandchildren — another step in his struggle to catch up with the past 22 years.
Clark laughs with his wife during a recent dinner date. He agreed to date her to see if “the old feeling is there.”