Few aspects of the Obama administration have been uncontroversial. Yet releasing 348 people from prison early provoked remarkably little criticism. To date, President Obama has commuted more sentences than his seven predecessors combined; when the president granted clemency to 46 nonviolent drug offenders last July, many of whom were sentenced under laws that no longer exist, critics mostly complained that he hadn’t let more people go free.
Photo by J. Lawler Duggan
Norman Brown, shown above with his future stepdaughter, sees the world with new eyes after 22 years behind bars.
Jerry Johnson was in prison for 13 years. What he wanted most after getting out was a prime rib dinner.
Kimberly Richardson survived multiple suicide attempts in prison. Now she’s back with her family and finishing school.
Mark Anthony Jones is struggling to get his bearings in a much faster world than the one he used to know.
Everyone from Congress to the Koch brothers seems to have lost their taste for the tough-on-crime policies that dominated the 1990s. In 2001, Americans were evenly divided on the virtues of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes; by 2014, according to a Pew survey, respondents wanted states to move away from them by a margin of nearly two to one. Most people now agree: We have too many people in prison (more than any other nation), and too many of them are there for too long.
Sometimes, though, getting out is the easy part. Behind each of those commuted sentences is a person whose life has been dramatically complicated by prison. The Washington Post wanted to know who those 46 people are and what life is like, in their words, a year after they learned they would go free. More than 40 Post reporters and editors worked to track down the individuals who received clemency last July and record their stories, which we present here in condensed form.
For many of these clemency recipients, coming home from prison meant joyful reunions, meeting grandchildren for the first time, rekindling old romances. A few decades in prison made the mundane seem miraculous: taking a bath, driving a car, eating a pineapple.
But those decades also broke up families. Parents died. Partners left. Some ex-prisoners returned to grown children who were angry with them and to a world that didn’t seem to have a place for them. Work has been scarce. These people were not pardoned; they’re still convicted felons, which has implications for housing and education assistance they might otherwise qualify for. Some of them could not be located by The Post, despite months of searching and help from several nonprofits that work with clemency recipients.
One recipient explained his mixed feelings of gratitude and anger. He knew he deserved to go to prison for his crime, he said, but he also knew the sentence was unjust. How grateful should you be when someone merely corrects a wrong that never should have existed in the first place?
Few disagree that a life sentence for a 23-year-old who dealt drugs but never touched a weapon is unfair. But what we owe that man, now in his 40s with no work history or higher education, is a question that’s harder to answer. Here, we asked former prisoners to answer for themselves.
— Jenny Rogers
Mark Anthony Jones, Pompano Beach, Fla.
“I’ve got four grandkids. They call me Papa. That’s the good part.”
Sentenced in 1999 to life in prison for distribution of crack
I came home to live with my brother, who is my life support. For work, I’ve been helping him renovate and restore homes.
I don’t want a handout, just something to get me going, give me a push start. I didn’t even get that. I was under the impression that I was going to get support. If I didn’t have my family, I’d be in real trouble. My brother and his wife — thank God for them every day.
The government at first granted me $16 a month for three months. After that they just kept denying me. I also can’t get a grant to go back to school. I can’t get nothing. I want to go back to school and take up counseling. I want to get a job counseling youth the way I did in prison and make a living doing that. That’s my passion.
I’m still adjusting. I was out 40-some days when my mother passed. Then I lost a nephew the following week.
I have five children. When I left, the baby was 2 and the oldest was 12. I get out, the baby’s 19. I’ve got a pretty good relationship with him, but we’re still working. I’m a stranger to him. I’ve got four grandkids. They call me Papa. That’s the good part.
I’m working every day, trying to get my feet on the ground, learning the latest technology. When you go to the supermarket or the mall, it’s not like when I left. Everything is just go, go, go. Even the way people drive now. People just walk all over you. They don’t mean no harm. They’re just going. So I kind of close in on myself. Just stay inside and don’t go out much.
You fill out all this paperwork, they just push you out. “Don’t do this, don’t do that, or you’re going back to prison.” That’s all they give you — rules. But I’m still here. One day at a time. That’s my life story.
— As told to Jia Lynn Yang
Jerry Johnson, Los Angeles
“Most of the people who work for the circus are a bunch of misfits. So I fit right in.”
Sentenced in 2003 to 60 months in prison for cultivation of marijuana plants; sentenced in 2004 to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 marijuana plants
When you first get out, people ask what you want to do. And I really wanted a prime rib dinner. A few weeks ago, I finally went up to a well-known place in L.A. that specializes in prime rib. The meal was tasty, but I was a little disappointed. I’d been waiting 13 years, and I thought it should have been a little more tender.
Since I’ve been out, I have acquired a couple of jobs. I was washing dishes in a restaurant in Los Angeles. Now I’m in Atlanta working for Cirque du Soleil, which is a traveling circus. It’s called a hawker position, which is like a hot dog seller in the stands at a baseball game. It’s a really nice job. Most of the people who work for the circus are a bunch of misfits. So I fit right in.
I’m making $11.75 plus commission. If you sell so much, you get a bonus. So I’m making $17 or $18 an hour on an average day. I am saving money. In six months, I have about $7,000 put away. But if I was renting a house in L.A., even if it’s a thousand a month, in six months that would all be gone. I would technically be broke. If it wasn’t for the VA, I would probably be homeless on the street.
It’s hard to really make friends because technically, I live in a shelter. I’m not really allowed to have friends that I made in jail. You’re not allowed to communicate with other felons, even if they’re already released. But if you knew somebody for four or five years, and you get out and they’re out, you want to say hi to them. So, technically, if I made any friends in jail, I can’t tell you about them.
I’ve always liked President Obama, before and after he’s been elected. It does make me smile a little more to know that he helped me personally. I wrote him a letter saying thank you and that I would do my best to make sure that his choice with me was correct.
— As told to Joe Heim
Norman Brown: 'To stay simple with them is to stay connected with them'
Norman Brown, Hyattsville, Md.
“Now I want to do the small things that just mean so much. Like look at trees.”
Sentenced in 1993 to life in prison for possession and distribution of crack, and for aiding and abetting
In prison, I began to read books on history to learn more about who I am, who my people were, more about the United States and how it was established. It was so much to learn. And I had the time to do it. I never found out before that I enjoyed learning.
Carter G. Woodson had a book called “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” And it caught me. The more books I was reading, the more I found out how uneducated I was. I was bigger than a drug dealer. I wanted to find out what was my purpose in my life. I was maybe about 24.
I began teaching self-improvement classes. I became a fitness instructor, and then I began training others. I enjoyed seeing people blossom in an environment where so many people lose their hope. My mother was a schoolteacher. When she found out I enjoyed teaching, she was loving that. She felt like I got that from her, which I believe I did. When she passed away in 2007, she was proud, no matter where I was at.
I applied for clemency in 2000. I never really took it serious. It was like a drowning man reaching for a spider web. I’d forgotten about it until the denial came, in 2004. Filed in 2010. Never heard anything about it again. In 2012, a firm accepted my case on a pro bono basis.
In July 2015, my lawyer called for me at the prison. He says, “I want to inform you that the president of the United States has accepted your application for clemency.”
I say, “What does that mean?” Right now my mind is not processing any of that. In the background, my attorneys are laughing. He says, “What it means is you are going to get out of jail.” I say, “Could you say that again?” He says, “You have been given a release date of November the 10th.” I said, “Of what year?” Fifteen days later, I went to the halfway house.
A lot has changed in the city. My friend has taught me how to commute on the subway. The biggest thing is just learning new streets. But then you have the GPS on the phone. This telephone is another world. I have a computer here. It’s still blowing my mind. Google this, Google that.
One of my lifelong friends is an attorney, and I’m aiding and assisting him clerically part time. I’m kind of a neat freak. I like to have things organized. He did a lot of legal work for me when I was in, as a friend. What better way can I show my appreciation? It also allows me to go after the job of my choice — working with youth, working as a counselor, working with citizens returning from prison. I’m getting more interviews in this arena.
In April, I was able to go to the arboretum. It was magnificent. We went to the cherry blossoms. All of this is in the city. I’m learning how to appreciate the city, which I didn’t know how to do before when I was young and just not there mentally. Now I want to do the small things that just mean so much. Like look at trees. Just smell them, even though the allergies crush me. But I’ll take the punishment. Because I have to enjoy that.
I went to lunch with President Obama and six other commutees. One of them was my co-defendant, who was commuted by President Bush.
President Obama, he wanted to listen. Some of the things the commutees had issues with, that we shared with him and his staff, have been corrected already. Some of our family members are convicted felons, so we can’t go live with them. President Obama did not think that was good. I was elated to hear that that’s in the process of being changed.
I’ve been dating — a person I’ve known my whole life. I’m more comfortable with that. I don’t have to do a lot of explaining to someone who might think I’m a monster because I did so much time. I shared this with the president. I said to him: “Having a home and somewhere to go is very important. Having a job is very important. But once I get a job, once I get a place to live, there’s another side of me, the intimate side, that needs to be nurtured.” I would like to hold a woman’s hand. I would like to have a conversation with her. I would like to have dinner with her. And when I shared that with the president, he looked at me, and he said, “I understand.”
So at the end when we were leaving, after I shared the fact that I went to the cherry blossoms and enjoyed it, he said to me when he shook my hand and hugged me, he whispered in my ear, “You’re not pulling my leg on the romance thing, are you?” I said, “No, Mr. President.” He said: “Man, not too many men go down to the cherry blossoms. You’re picking up where you left off.” He was letting me know: Take your time, do those kind of things, to get in contact with your other side.
That side of me had laid dormant for 24 years. Men don’t like to talk like that. We have this macho-ism. But I miss that. I had to put that asleep. There’s a saying: You don’t miss your water until the well runs dry. I did not understand what I was missing. Just the touch, the conversation. Since I’ve been home, my friend said, “You know, you’re very romantic.” And I say, “Well, I missed it.”
When I was incarcerated I would see movies and read different books, and I would say, I want to try that. Walking on the beach, the walking through the parks. The eating out around a pond, just taking your food with you and watching the ducks. Being right up on a flower and smelling it and breaking it off and maybe giving it to your woman. These things, when I get a chance to do them, I’m going to do them.
I haven’t been swimming in 35 years. I’ve been swimming. I joined a gym. I’m free, and I’m letting myself know I’m free. I’m 48, and I have a lot of life out in front of me. I was around death for so long. And now that I can live? I’m going to find myself living.
— As told to Jenny Rogers
Kimberly Richardson, Columbus, Ohio
“I’ve lived three lives. This one is so much better than the last two.”
Sentenced in 2004 to 180 months in prison for conspiracy to distribute in excess of 50 grams of crack, and for carrying a firearm in relation to a drug-trafficking crime
Life has been busy. I work at a Jimmy John’s during the day and a Dollar Tree at night, then business school three nights a week and a couple hours two days a week. My plan is to graduate March 24, 2017, the day I turn 42.
I’m hoping to open a business helping people like me. I guess you can say I’m kind of a success story. I want to go back inside and say, “You can do it.” When I came out, I was so scared and so worried because of all the negative things they told me. But you can do it — you just have to know how.
My mom, aunt, my two boys and I live in a three-bedroom house. The oldest graduated from technical college to be an electrical engineer. He works at the Dollar Tree. My youngest is the one who got me the job at Jimmy John’s. He’s there and about to go into the military. He tried to join the Navy when he was 8. My mom got a letter back from the Navy telling her about it. She had it laminated. He’s now 20. He told me he was waiting on me coming home to go and says, “Now that you’re home, you’ve got six months with me.” I don’t want him to go, but at the same time, I don’t want him to halt his life.
My boys stayed really close to me. That’s because of my mom and aunt. They raised them, and I’m blessed for that. They were 7 and 11 when I went to prison. There are a lot of people on the inside who don’t know where their kids are, or their kids are mad at them and don’t talk to them.
I find joy every day waking up and knowing I’m here and not there anymore. Inside, it was kind of hard. In 2008 I was going through a really hard time and just didn’t want to live anymore. I had tried to kill myself three times. After the last time, it all clicked for me that I have this awesome family. That’s when things started to fall into place.
When I was inside, I really wanted to help blind people. My mom’s going blind. I learned Braille through the mail. I didn’t want anybody else to take care of her after all the stuff she’d done for me. But getting out here and seeing how difficult it can be — it’s a culture shock from in there to out here. I saw my niece who’s hooked on heroin and in a bad relationship. It hurt me to see her like that, and my experience made me so much stronger to say, “This is what I want you to do.”
I’ve lived three lives. This one is so much better than the last two, and this one will count the most.
— As told to Amy Joyce
James Walton with his daughter at her
middle school graduation. (Photo courtesy of James Walton)
James Nathan Walton, Morgan City, La.
“That’s what prison is — a time machine.”
Sentenced in 2004 to 240 months in prison for possession with intent to distribute crack
I was not in prison 24 hours when I watched a guy get stabbed to death on his bed. That changes a person. I still have my flashbacks. I’m not as social as I used to be. I used to be a people person, and I don’t want to be around people. I didn’t align with anyone because I was always by myself. You have a lion and a sheep. Me, I was no sheep. I went in with the attitude that I wasn’t going to let anyone change me or let me be anyone different, but prison changes a person. You have to do what you have to do to survive.
What I did was read over 5,000 books. Read Edgar Allan Poe, read biographies, read Frederick Douglass. Anything that had to deal with strengthening the mind or making you a better person. Edgar Rice Burroughs, stuff like that. I joined the choir and sang first tenor, which was a blessing. It soothed the soul because it was thirsty. I got a safe food-handling certification from the National Restaurant Association and my business restaurant-management degree. I also constructed military vests.
In prison, I worked as a cook and a maintenance man. I was driving the truck one morning to pick up one of the other guys. The president came on the radio and said something that sent chills up my spine. He was asked what he didn’t like about being president, and he said he didn’t like not being home enough in the evenings. It gave me the idea. I thought: “Why should I write the president? Why not write his wife?” People forget she’s a lawyer, but I didn’t. You think a lot when you’re in prison.
I wrote and explained the situation I was in, and I asked for the opportunity to go home and be with my kids. I told her about the radio station. I sent a picture of my family and sent her a letter saying anything you can do I appreciate it, and please send me the picture back. I never got the picture, but I did get the clemency. How about that?
I went to a halfway house in Baton Rouge for 72 days. It’s not like where you’re used to. You have to deprogram. There are people moving around all the time. It was too much for me. You have to make a conscious decision either to make it or fail. I never rode a bus before. They said: “You have to learn today. We’ll print you out a bus route and tell you where the bus goes.” That was crazy. I got lost three times.
I have a job at Sonic and enjoy being back at work. It’s a relief. Just like I never left the field. I’m the old guy. One of the problems we have at work all the time, instead of working they’re taking that notation all the time — texting. I’m from the old generation where you work and don’t worry about no phone.
I sit in the house and listen to music. I don’t read books anymore. I watch YouTube. Watch drama and action movies. I don’t want to watch anything that makes me feel remorseful or cry or be empathetic. No tear-jerkers. I will get to the point where I start thinking about my family, and I don’t want to do that. I just don’t want to do it.
I can’t trust nobody right now, and they don’t understand that. It don’t take but one mistake. You can’t be around anyone that has a tendency to commit a crime. They get pulled over out of nowhere — because it happens — and the police have a warrant for their arrest and I’m riding with them, who do you think going to jail? If I’m anti-social, then respect that, because I’m not off yet. That’s how it is. Some people don’t understand that.
When you go to prison, you’re stuck in time. That’s what prison is — a time machine. Everything on the outside continues, but for you, everything just stops. You have to reconfigure your life to be able to accept the changes you face when that phone call you make isn’t answered, or the fact that family and friends forget about you. You are just not in their life. You cannot think about what’s going on on the outside. Put God first and hold on to what you have; have faith that what you’re going through now is the groundwork for a better life that He has in store for you.
Everything is different. You come out, and it’s a different world. The judge told me I wouldn’t come out until they had spaceships, and I made it before the spaceships.
— As told to Katie Zezima
Telisha Watkins: 'It's a lose-lose situation'
Telisha Rachette Watkins, Charlotte
“Every day, I worry that I’ll get a phone call saying, ‘We have to let you go — we can’t employ a convicted felon.’”
Sentenced in 2007 to 240 months in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and crack
I had been in prison for nine years when I got word that I had received clemency. But even though my prison term was over, my sentence was not.
After I was released in November, I immediately started looking for a job. I started at Goodwill, which offers computer training and job listings. I signed up and was paired with a program counselor. I told her that I had recently gotten out of prison and was ready to start an honest life. She said she couldn’t help me — the program doesn’t work with convicted felons.
With no money, I went to a social services office to sign up for the federal food assistance program. But there, too, I was rejected. Because I have a felony, I am not eligible to eat. [In North Carolina and several other states, certain felony convictions bar people from receiving food stamps.]
So since my release, I’ve been dependent on others — first living with my sister and now shifting between the homes of my uncle and a friend. I signed up for the YWCA’s Women in Transition program, which helps women find permanent housing. I asked them if my record would be a problem. They said I could enroll in the program, but the felony could repel potential landlords. All I can do is hope and wait.
I did catch one break. The counselor from Goodwill called me one day and said that Bic Corporation was hiring through a temp service. On its job application, Bic asks if you’ve been convicted of a felony in the last seven years. For me, technically the answer was no. I had been convicted in 2007.
I got the position, but it’s temporary, and every day, I worry that I’ll get a phone call from the company saying, “We have to let you go — we can’t employ a convicted felon.”
At every turn, it seems, my old crime remains an obstacle to building a new life. I’m not asking for a handout; I’m just looking for help to get on my feet. But in the United States, a drug conviction can mean you are not entitled to food, low-income housing and many jobs. I will never again resort to criminal activity to survive, but with few ways to get food and shelter, I can see how others would.
— As told to Simone Sebastian
Shauna Barry-Scott, Youngstown, Ohio
“Your body is free, but your mind is still somewhat confined.”
Sentenced in 2005 to 240 months in prison for possession with intent to distribute crack
In prison, I struck a really good balance. I meditated. I prayed. I did low-impact yoga. I was real serene. I was released in September 2015 and, before I could go home, went to a halfway house for eight weeks. Those eight weeks almost wiped out 10 years of serenity. It’s supposed to help you prepare for reentry — but the energy in there was frenetic crazy.
When you first come home, it’s overwhelming — especially because of the tech gap that we experience being separated from society for so long. In the prisons, it's like cave-man style. Now, when you go into the restrooms, the toilets flush themselves. I had to relearn the way you have to get soap or a paper towel. I went to a cafe, and people were ordering food on a screen. I had to stand around and watch for a while, see what they were doing. I felt so stupid for not knowing how to go in and order eggs and bacon and a piece of toast.
Your body is free, but your mind is still somewhat confined. It took me awhile to feel comfortable enough to drive. As a returning citizen, you always feel a sense of trepidation that the police are going to stop you. One little slip-up and you’re back incarcerated. You have to get used to the fact that you’re your own person again, that nobody’s coming to grab you.
I now have 10 years supervised release. But I found out in our area, Youngstown, Ohio, we have something called the STAR reentry program. They help you get your license, get into school and find employment. If I do everything I’m supposed to do, then I get a year of non-reporting probation. If I get through that year without getting into trouble, the rest of my supervised release — eight years — is forgiven. I’m nine months in.
I plan on going back to school to get a degree in urban planning and development. I started getting involved with different community organizations. I’m on a board for the Mahoning County Land Bank, which acquires abandoned properties here in Youngstown. They’re going to have houses rehabbed for returning citizens when they get out of prison.
I’m also working on something called the New Freedom Project, something a group of us started in prison. We formed a brain trust. We had a bent toward criminal justice reform. All of us were really huge book readers. We started developing classes, courses, workshops, seminars, curriculum — everything you need for a top-notch reentry program. We want to start it here and grow it.
— As told to Danielle Paquette
Clarence Callies, San Antonio
“I want to travel all over the world. ... I want to do things that other people do.”
Sentenced in 2002 to 240 months in prison for conspiracy to distribute crack, and for possession with intent to distribute crack
It wasn’t exciting to receive clemency. I only had three more years. I already had plans with what I was going to do with my life. The president wrote me a letter, but I ain’t the kind of person who gets hyped over celebrity. The president’s letter read, in part, “You have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around.” He just said something that’s already been done. It’s already been turned around.
I’m driving for Phillips Distribution, a distributor for restaurant, cleaning and janitorial supplies, and I do logistic work for them. I drive for Penske on Saturday. If you have a license, they’re desperate. Anybody can get a job. People cry on TV about how they can’t find jobs and all that. They don’t want to work physical, that’s all it is. The physicality, I can handle it, because I like to work out. I work out around the corner, CrossFit, exercising. It just comes naturally to me. The pain, I love it.
I’m single, no kids. I’m living with my parents. I eat my meals at my house, and that’s it. I don’t like going out to eat because of germs. I’m practicing investments. I’m trying to save up for a margin account to trade stocks, but I’m $500 short. I studied for eight years, finance. When I get the margin account cranked up, I don’t have to use my money. I can use the bank’s money.
Nothing changed since I went to prison. Just the technology. I adapted to the Windows and all that. I got that down pat, and GPS. I signed up on Twitter, because I need that for my day-trading business online. I get the stock tips.
I want to travel all over the world: China, Brazil. I want to do things that other people do, to study other cultures, eat exotic foods, like on TV. I wanna get out of America. This country’s kind of biased. You see every day the hatred in this country. I ain’t seen no hate, but I hear stuff on the news.
— As told to Maura Judkis
Katina Stuckey Smith, Dublin, Ga.
“He hugged me. No words were spoken. ... And everything was said.”
Sentenced in 2000 to 292 months in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and crack
It was bittersweet when I got clemency because my mother is still in the same prison where I was. It was hard leaving her. She has health issues, and sometimes she wants to give up. I was her strength. Under the rules, I have to wait at least a year before I can go back to see her.
So much has changed. People don’t hardly come out of their houses anymore. Everybody is so consumed with their phones or their computers. I’m kind of old-school. Like, “Hey, how you doing?” People don’t come out and talk in the morning.
Everyone told me about all these organizations that would help me when I got out. But when I went to get help, I was denied. If it wasn’t for God and for my son being in the position he’s in and my sister being able to help me, I could have easily been homeless. It’s been hard to get a job. I went to places, and sometimes they asked if I had been convicted of a crime. Even though their websites said they had jobs, they never called back.
One of the first things I wanted to do when I got out of prison was go to a football game. My son is Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos. I went to prison when he was 12 and had only seen him play basketball in middle school. But I had never seen him play one single football game.
I talked to my probation officer about going to a football game in January. The stipulations were I had to have good conduct and wait 60 days before I was able to travel. When I arrived in Denver, I had to report to the authorities there, which was okay with me. Whatever I needed to do to go to the game.
I was so scared to fly there because I had never flown before. When we had turbulence, I thought the plane was going to go down. When we went into a different time zone, I couldn’t believe the time on my cellphone automatically changed.
Demaryius met us at the door. That first hug felt like, “Oh, I’ve missed you, I’m finally here, I love you.” It just said a whole lot. You can hug in prison visitation, but you can only do it twice: when your family comes and when they get ready to leave. There was a limit of hugs you could get, a limit of affection you could show your family. It was so hard to be away from my kids. Like there was a void inside of me. This hug released a lot of pressure. It was him giving me strength and me giving him strength.
At the game, I was like a child at Christmas. He gave me a custom-made jersey with rhinestones around his number that said “Bay Bay’s Mama” on the back of it. It was like I was a star. Everyone wanted to have autographs and take pictures. We had a reserved box. Everyone was asking me what I thought of his performance. And I said it didn’t matter. I wasn’t really concerned about stats. I finally got a chance to see Demaryius play in person. At the end of the game, Peyton Manning gave Demaryius a ball and said, “Here, give this to your mom.”
Later at Demaryius’s house, everyone had gone to bed. He and I were up. We were watching something on TV, and he started playing a little game on his phone. We were sitting on the sofa together, and I laid my head on his chest. We were just quiet. I don’t know of many grown men who still allow their moms to lay on their shoulder. He hugged me. No words were spoken. But it was like our hearts were communicating with each other. And everything was said.
— As told to Sari Horwitz
Robert Joe Young, Boaz, Ala.
“I’ve put this behind me, and I’m moving forward.”
Sentenced in 2002 to 240 months in prison for conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine, possession with the intent to distribute a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine, use of a firearm during and in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime, possession with the intent to distribute a mixture and substance containing cocaine, carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug-trafficking crime, and endeavoring to influence and impede the administration of justice
I had a college degree, a very successful heating and air business and a business restoring antique cars and building street rods. In 2000, I had a motorcycle accident, and it crushed the left side of my head. After the wreck, I was eating pain pills like they were candy. My head hurt so bad I couldn’t even open my eyes during the day when I was awake. I’m not making any excuses, because what I did was wrong. I had a problem.
When you lock a man up, in my case, they didn’t just lock me up. It’s like they locked my family up, locked my friends up. My daughter was 8 years old when I went into prison. Now she’s expecting her third child in December. My son is the chief of police in Estancia, New Mexico. After 14 years in prison, I’m spending time with children and grandchildren, getting that bond up. I was praying I’d get to visit with my mom and dad as a free man before they passed away. Both of them are still alive, and I’m blessed for that. I try to spend as much time with them as I can.
I work for a good friend of mine in construction. I’m back building old hot rods. I’m working on a 1967 convertible Corvette. It’s a frame-off restoration. It’s got a big motor in it, a factory 427, 435-horse big-block Chevrolet. I’m going to paint it red.
I’m in good shape. I’m healthy. My mind is clear, and I don’t have any demons or skeletons in my closet. I’ve put this behind me, and I’m moving forward.
I’ve talked to some groups and to some children, and I’ve told them: “Look, I ain’t going to sugarcoat it. I’m not coming in here fluffing your pillow up. I’m going to tell you exactly what the deal is. If you continue on this road, you’re going to go where I just came from. And half of you won’t make it.”
I think it’s helped some. It’s made them understand. What you see on TV? That’s nothing. What’s really going on in federal prison? That story has never been told.
— As told to T. Rees Shapiro
Jerry Allen Bailey, Kannapolis, N.C.
“Accomplish one struggle, then here comes two or three more.”
Sentenced in 1996 to 360 months in prison for conspiracy to violate narcotics laws
I don’t have faith in the government. I appreciate Obama and his staff for giving me clemency. But I wasn’t supposed to be in there 20 years. I never murdered nobody, you know what I’m saying? For them to just hang me out to dry because I wasn’t their informant … that just infuriated me.
In prison, I wouldn’t see my family, because when I did, I knew I would want to go home. It would crush me, knowing I had all that time and I couldn’t go home with them. So I requested that they didn’t come see me, and they didn’t. I never had a visit in 20 years from family or friends.
After getting out, I wasn’t doing a lot of jobs. They didn’t really want to pay me a whole lot because of my record. And some of the big jobs, I got denied because of my record. It’s still a struggle. I went to school and got my commercial driver’s license. But I haven’t been able to obtain a truck-driving job because now they want experience. So, it’s just: Accomplish one struggle, then here comes two or three more. It’s not all glamorous as I thought it was going to be.
I’ve been helping my cousin. We’ve been doing little jobs trying to make ends meet. And my girlfriend, she helps out a lot. My dream is to have a nice franchise, a big business established. I wanted to do the dump-trucking thing. You know, drive the dump trucks, potentially buy me a dump truck and then, as soon as you do that, have a little fleet. That’s my vision right there, you know, among other things.
My mother and father are deceased now. It’s pretty much me. All of my siblings, they’re doing their own little thing. They’re kind of struggling too, but they’re making ends meet. I wouldn’t think to ask them for anything anyway. But I’m just thankful that I didn’t die in there. I’m thankful I got to see my father — I was there the night before he died. (My mother died while I was in prison; I wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.) And the little things I took for granted: Just walking down the street freely. Being able to take a shower, a bath, however late you want to. Cooking on the stove. I don’t take anything for granted no more.
— As told to Roman Stubbs
Larry Darnell Belcher, Martinsville, Va.
“Once you go around and shake everybody’s hand, then what?”
Sentenced in 1997 to life in prison for possession with intent to distribute cocaine, and for possession with intent to distribute marijuana
In prison, I lived like I wasn’t there. That’s the only way that I could have made it.
Now, each day that goes by, it’s like breaking the ice a little bit. People think you’ve been out five or six months so you’re all right, but not with me. I feel closed in. Walking through a hospital makes me feel like I’m in prison. I’ve got to be outside driving — where I can just get up and go when I get ready. I’d like to work more, but I can’t stay in one spot for eight hours. I just don’t think I can do that.
I’m lucky because my stepfather lets me stay with him. I lost my mother and my brother. Lost a couple of family members. Lost a lot of material things, and I can get them back, but it’s hard to sit still. I function, but sometimes I feel like someone is running behind me. You’re scared. You’ve been locked up so long in a cage, it sometimes still feels like that.
I’ve seen a lot of people since getting out of prison. They run around and they’re really excited. But once you go around and shake everybody’s hands, then what? What do you think, that the world is going to take care of you? A lot of them run right back because they felt safe.
I see people, I see friends. I’ve been seeing my girl’s granddaughter, Rah-Rah. We just ride around, and I just check on things. I just like playing with her and talking to her. She’s like therapy to me.
I wish they would change those mandatory minimum laws, because a lot of good people should have been finished with their time.
— As told to Jonathan O’Connell
John L. Houston Brower, Carthage, N.C.
“I’m thankful to get out. But sometimes I think I might should’ve stayed.”
Sentenced in 2002 to life in prison for distribution of crack
Since I got out of prison, it’s been terrible, to be honest with you. I’m glad to be out and free, don’t get me wrong. I was in prison for almost 14 years. I was facing a life sentence for 68.8 grams of crack. I’d been fighting it for so long that I’d lost all my administrative appeals — until, like, this happened.
I got out Sept. 10. I had to go to a halfway house for two months. And since then I’ve been staying with my mom in Carthage. The town has changed. It’s grown. Lot of people and traffic. Everything is really expensive.
My mom has Alzheimer’s. She’s 73. Her husband is 83 and still works as a golf caddie. I take care of her during the day when he’s out. I love my mom to death, but she’s always thinking people are trying to come and get her. She’s nailing doors shut and putting stuff up in the windows so you can’t even see out. I’ve got to watch her.
I don’t have a car. I passed my driver’s test, but I couldn’t get my license. I didn’t have $107 to pay for it. I tried to get disability. I’ve been getting my insulin from a free health clinic.
I pictured this to be a little bit better than it has been. I feel I need some help. I thought they’d have some programs for guys like me. If it wasn’t for my daughter and my fiancée, I believe I’d be eating out of a trash can.
I’m thankful to get out. But sometimes I think I might should’ve stayed.
— As told to Todd Frankel
Nathaniel Brown, Orange Park, Fla.
“It’s something I never had — a job.”
Sentenced in 2002 to life in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack, and for distribution of crack
I got an apartment. Me and my girlfriend, we grew up together. We were friends when I got locked up. We used to write each other and call each other. She would tell me I was coming home and stuff like that. I was like, “Yeah, you’re just saying that.”
I have four kids, all teenagers. When I left, they were babies. I saw one of them, the older son, one time when I was locked up — and that was it. I stay in a different county than they do, but I talk to them a lot on the phone. My oldest is with my grandma. The other kids are with their mother’s side of the family. She’s married. I don’t really talk to her much.
I love my job. We recycle tires. Pick up the waste tires and take them back to the yard and shred them. It’s something I never had — a job.
You don’t meet so many people who were pardoned by the president. I can see when I tell people they don’t really believe it. Letting everybody know my appreciation to Obama for what he did, I put it on my voicemail. My entire voicemail just says: “Obama Nation.”
— As told to Zachary Pincus-Roth
Joseph Burgos, Chicago
“I’m one of the fortunate ones, believe me.”
Sentenced in 1993 to 360 months in prison for distribution of cocaine
Being released before your out date is beautiful. But I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t prepared for my release at all. I was lucky to have support from my family. My daughter and son insisted on renting me a small studio. They paid six months in advance for me. When I hit the halfway house a couple of months later, I already had a small space to live when I left. My family got together and got a car for me.
My daughter says: “Look, Father, take a year off. Work on your books. Relax. You’ve been gone a long time, you’re gonna be shocked to come out here.” And she was right. I mean, I couldn't even use a cellphone. I had to teach myself how to use a computer.
Eventually, I ran into an old girlfriend. We kind of hit it off again. She was alone, and of course I’m alone. So we started dating. Eventually I started spending more time at her place. Now, I’m living with her. I pay half her mortgage. I’m working on my books — I’m writing a trilogy. I do a little electrical work on the side for my friend.
It’s tough. I’m one of the fortunate ones, believe me. But it’s really, really tough for some of these guys. President Obama gave clemency to more individuals recently, and a couple of them are from Chicago. I don’t have very much myself, but I’m going to see if I can do something for them to help them out when they come out. I’ll be doing volunteer work with Stanford University’s Justice Advocacy Project, which helps recently released prisoners readjust to their communities.
— As told to Abby Ohlheiser
Anthony Leon Carroll, Tampa
“I haven’t had a bad day since I been out.”
Sentenced in 1999 to 262 months in prison for possession with intent to distribute crack
In prison, I watched the news. I pretty much kept my head in books and magazines, just learning whatever I could. I stayed on the computer my whole tenure in prison, so I wasn’t lagging in technology when I got out. That’s why things happened for me so fast, because when I got out I was pretty much prepared.
I work for a roofing supply company as a delivery driver. In January, I enrolled in college online, and I’m majoring in accounting. I work 50 to 60 hours a week, and when I get home I’m on my laptop just doing classwork.
Besides the criminal thinking, which I no longer have, I’m pretty much the same. I was just using my ideas and my thoughts in the wrong way. I had to refocus and use my creativity on something positive. When I went to prison, I had a girlfriend. I’d just had a newborn son. When I got home, he had his own wife and baby. He’s in the military. I stressed the point for him to not follow in my footsteps.
I’m saving. I’m trying to execute the goals that I set for myself while I was in there. I’m pretty disciplined about achieving my goals.
Every day has been good. I haven’t had a bad day since I been out.
— As told to Bethonie Butler
Cedric Culpepper, Orlando
“I don’t know whether to be happy that I’m free or sad that I have to deal with this.”
Sentenced in 2004 to 188 months in prison for possession with intent to distribute crack, and for possession with intent to distribute five grams or more of crack
I’m trying to get a kidney ASAP. I was on the list for a transplant when I went to prison in 2004. I just got my insurance right. I’m going to start getting prepared and doing my tests for my transplant.
Today, I’m just recovering from being on that dialysis machine. That takes up a lot of my time — 4.5 hours every day. I come home and lay down, and that’s mainly the day gone. If I weren’t on disability, how would I survive? If I didn’t have family, I’d be out on the streets, staying in the shelter.
I’m not a bad person. I’ve got a lot of people who love me and care about me. Without them, I’d be up a creek. You got a felony on your record, no one wants to hire you.
When I went to prison, I was dating a girl, and she was pregnant with my child. She stressed out so much she had a miscarriage. For the first two years, she really stood by me. Then it kind of fell apart. She wanted to be there for me, but it’s hard. Two decades: That’s a long time for a little bitty girl.
We’re still friends right now, today. She calls to check on me, I call to check on her. But we’re not close like before. They really make you lose ties with your loved ones and your family.
People asked me how it felt to be out. I said, “I don’t know!” I’ve been through so much, I’m confused! I don’t know whether to be happy that I’m free or sad that I have to deal with this. How am I going to do this? How am I going to survive?
— As told to Jenny Rogers
Steven D. Donovan, Milwaukee
“The inmates I left behind, they had that sense of hopelessness.”
Sentenced in 1992 to life in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, for interstate travel to promote distribution of cocaine and for possession with intent to distribute cocaine
I did close to 24 years in prison. Physically, it’s not too hard in prison. They provide everything. Mentally, it got tougher. My family was getting older. You just pray and hope that things would change and that one day you will be free again. I stayed busy. I took different educational courses. I did a lot of oil paintings. But once it gets past 20 years, you have to realize that maybe you’re not going to get out.
When I found out the president had given me an executive commutation, I was shocked and elated. The warden came in and shook my hand. There’s nobody that they know of that’s received anything like this ever at the men’s federal prison in Pekin, Illinois. I went back and told the other inmates. They couldn’t believe it either. I was like an instant celebrity.
Thirty days later, I moved out of prison into a halfway house. The inmates I left behind, they had that sense of hopelessness. For me to leave them behind, it didn’t make me feel good at the time. I was the only one in the prison who received a commutation. I felt bad for them. I told them: “Don’t give up. Keep on filing the petitions.” I told them I would try to put a good word in for them.
— As told to Amy Brittain
Romain Dukes, Chicago
“I put in at least 50 applications, and not one called me back.”
Sentenced in 1997 to life in prison for conspiracy to distribute and distribution of crack
I had been locked up for so long that all my friends are now either dead, in jail or working. It’s crazy out there in Chicago. These kids, they have no respect for life. It’s sad the way the black community is now. If I can help in any way, I want to. But first I got to help myself. Once I get a better-paying job, I’d like to speak to the kids.
My son is 27, and when I left, he was 8. He didn’t have a problem with me when I got out. It was my daughter. She’s 18. I got incarcerated two weeks before she was born. When I got out, she wouldn’t talk to me. Her mother said to just give her time, she don’t know you like that. And she’s a teenager now, and you know how teenagers are. Then she came around, and I asked her what did I do, and she basically said, “Well, you got locked up”; she didn’t have a father, and that was hard on her, and it was hard on her mom financially. And she blamed me. But she’s doing well; she’s going to college next year.
Ultimately, my biggest goal is to own my own transportation company. A lot of jobs don’t like to hire felons. I put in at least 50 applications, all kinds of jobs, and not one called me back. That’s why I called the temp agency. The company where I do warehouse work now, they asked me to get hired on. They said I’m a good worker, but I told them no, I can’t do this kind of work because it’s too strenuous on my injured leg. I am trying to be a truck driver.
— As told to Perry Stein
Alex William Jackson, Mineral, Va.
“When a man gives you a second chance, you are duty bound to live up to a higher standard.”
Sentenced in 1999 to 262 months in prison for conspiracy to distribute crack
I had been changing my life before the arrest happened, and I thought I had gotten away from that. I was working in Richmond at a bricklaying company. I was beginning to fix what was wrong. And I thought that I was going forward in a positive way. But sometimes your past will come back and haunt you.
The punishment didn’t seem equal to the crime — and everyone I met in prison who had long sentences for such minor crimes looked exactly like me.
It’s natural to be angry. But when I went to prison and had time to sit down and really reflect and internalize the principles of religion, it had a transforming effect on my life. I didn’t take lightly the blessing and gift that the president gave me in commuting my sentence. I came home and I was immediately able to do the things I envisioned doing when I was incarcerated — being there for my mother, being able to establish myself in the community. I’ve been working steadily since September at a heating and air-conditioning company, making living wages.
I don’t hang around old friends or old associates from the past — I’m not looking to enter anything that would not be productive. When a man gives you a second chance, you are duty bound to live up to a higher standard to show that that faith in you was not misplaced. My main focus was always on reentry into society in a better way, so I worked tirelessly to educate myself, to retrain myself how to think critically and creatively so I knew how to present myself, I knew what to say.
— As told to Rachel Weiner
Douglas M. Lindsay II, Columbia, S.C.
“I can’t get over the cost of fast food, or all the stuff I can do on my phone.”
Sentenced to life in prison in 1996 for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute, and for distribution of, cocaine and crack
I was always a guy with a plan. Using the GI Bill, I started at South Carolina State. I studied counseling and worked with the mentally ill on the side. But even with my job and government support, I could barely make ends meet. So I started selling crack cocaine on the side, just to make a little bit of extra money to help me pay the bills.
I hated dealing, and I hated dealing with addicts. Every couple of months, I’d swear it off. But then I’d need money to fix my car, or pay a security deposit on a new apartment, and I’d start up again. It’s a vicious cycle.
I thought I’d stopped for good in 1996. I had an undergraduate degree and was in the process of getting my master’s. But a colleague of mine got arrested; he told the police I’d been a dealer, too. So they arrested me.
Slowly, though, I adjusted to prison. I know it sounds cliche, but I gave my life to Christ while in prison, and that helped a lot. I started taking classes on finance and economics, so that I could run a small business when I got out. I thought maybe I’d go into real estate. I began crafting a plan for post-prison life. I’d save money and start to build up my credit. Within a year, I’d buy a house and then get a business loan to fix it up and then flip it.
I promised myself that I’d use every opportunity the federal government gave me to better myself. And I trusted that there was no way I’d spend the rest of my life in prison. I started applying for appeals and pardons, and I prayed a lot. Finally, last year, my prayers were answered.
I’ve been lucky, too, to find a job as a driver. I’m saving a lot of money now, though things aren’t as cheap as they used to be. I wanted to buy a used car for $3,000; I went all around Charleston looking for that deal. But I couldn’t find anything that cheap.
That wasn’t part of my plan, but as my brother told me: “Those are 1996 plans. The world has changed.” He’s right. I can’t get over the cost of fast food, or all the stuff I can do on my phone. The world seems more violent now. Still, I feel very hopeful about my future. I want to counsel other young men to stay away from drugs. I want to be a success story. Over the next year, I think things will really blossom for me.
— As told to Amanda Erickson
Marcus H. Richards, Valdosta, Ga.
“I don’t have money, but I’m all right.”
Sentenced in 2005 to 240 months in prison for conspiracy to distribute, and for possession with intent to distribute, more than five kilograms of cocaine and more than 50 grams of crack
For months, God kept showing me the number 13. It would arrive in dreams, including a recurring one where I actually walked out of prison and my brother picked me up on the outside.
It took 22 months for me to get clemency — the news arrived last year on the 13th of July. Suddenly, the dreams made sense. I just started crying. I was amazed.
I've been home about six months now, and life is good. I live with my wife and kids in Valdosta, a small town in southern Georgia. I know how to appreciate things more than before. I don’t have a job just yet, but I’m free. I don’t have money, but I’m all right. I’m hoping to get a job as a custodian.
My daughter was 3 years old when I left, and next year I’ll be able to see her graduate high school. She has a 3.8 GPA, and I’m a proud father. When I think about her, I realize every day that I was behind bars was a waste. My wife says, “Baby, you can’t make up for the past,” and she’s right. I’m here now. My past is my past, and I’m going to leave it there.
President Obama sent me a letter after I got out imploring me to take advantage of my freedom. I keep it in plastic for safekeeping, and every time I pick it up, I ask my wife, “Can you believe that I’m actually here?”
— As told to Peter Holley
Patrick Roberts, Detroit
“Some people leaving jail are angry. That’s exactly what I don’t feel.”
Sentenced in 1999 to life in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances
Detroit has changed. Things have been torn down, things have been rebuilt, things have been revamped. The inner city has changed into the suburbs, and the suburbs have changed to the inner city. Neighborhoods that were 99 percent black are now 75 percent white. It’s like being in Disney World. But I don’t have a problem with change. That’s something I’m doing myself.
When people go to prison, they pick up three books. One is a sex book, one is a law book, and the last one is the Bible. The first one, you can throw that away. Reading the law book, I found out I was skillful as a lawyer — he just used words I didn’t know. But he went to school. Street-wise, I had a lot of sense. But book-wise, I only graduated from high school because my mother made me. I had the basics, but I never really used them.
Since leaving prison, I finished a semester at Wayne Community College, then I’m going back to school in August. I took a computer course because I’m almost computer illiterate. My English course was my best subject. You get stuck with street terminology, but you need to understand what verbs, adverbs are. I took a basic algebra class because I can count very well, and I figured I could pass. I did quite well.
I’m not trying to be a professor. The degree I wouldn’t mind having, but the degree is not my purpose in going to school. A degree is not going to help me. I’m trying to do something, and I need some tools to do it with: to go from street talk to be able to talk to someone intelligently.
Some people leaving jail are angry. That’s exactly what I don’t feel. I’m not the angry black man, for the simple reason that I made a choice. Nobody made the choices for me. If you asked, “Is there anything in life you would change?” my answer would be no. There are some things in life I should have done better. But if I hadn’t did what I did, I wouldn’t be the person I am now. There’s no way I’m not a better person today than I was yesterday. I’m a lot wiser. I’m more patient. I have a much better understanding about life. Which is not a lot left, at 66.
— As told to Jenny Rogers
Bryant Keith Shelton, Kissimmee, Fla.
“I could change. I could be president.”
Sentenced in 2003 to 188 months in prison for distribution of crack
I just tried to get my head together before I went to prison. That was my first time going to prison. You can’t be worrying about nothing on the outside. You have to worry about what’s happening on the inside. So in prison, I took parenting classes on how to be a better father, even though I missed my eldest son’s graduation from high school and college. I learned to drive a forklift.
I had been in five years when Barack Obama was elected president. I watched it on the television with other inmates. I never thought an African American man could be president. It made me feel like the world is changing now. It made me feel like I could be anything I wanted to be. I could change. I could be president.
When I got the news that I would get out early, I went back to my cell and cried tears of joy. Of all the people, Obama picked me. That’s why I have to go and do the right thing.
I saved the letter I got from the president, got it framed and hung it on my bedroom wall. And I sent Obama a letter back. I told him I appreciated the second chance he gave me. I thanked him very much. I’m not going to let him down.
My younger son now lives with my mother and me. I’m trying to learn how to be a father all over again. This is a second chance for me. I can teach him what I couldn’t teach my first son. I don’t want him following in my footsteps.
— As told to Moriah Balingit
Ezekiel Simpson, St. Louis
“Some say ‘like father, like son.’ But he isn’t like me.”
Sentenced in 2005 to 240 months in prison for possession with the intent to distribute crack
Before I was sent to prison 11 years ago, I ran around on the streets with people I’d known for years and thought were my friends. I was real sociable; I gave people the benefit of the doubt.
Then I saw how people cooperate with authorities just to get their time reduced. Tell on another man and bring down his family. Then when I was in prison, the people from home I thought I could count on vanished. If I just wanted a little money for the commissary, or even a photo from home just to look at, they disappointed me. They showed their true colors. When stuff started hitting the fan, and I was in an adverse situation, I realized they had been around just because of what they thought I could do for them.
I notice I’m much more guarded, as far as friends go, since I got out of prison last fall, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s a sign of maturity and wising up. I would say I really don’t have friends now. Now I know who the fakers are, the takers.
The people who were there for me, who now I spend time with, are my mom, my uncle, my two sisters, my kids and their mom. My kids’ mom was very upset with me when I went to prison but understood where I was coming from. She’s very important to me, and we’re co-parenting.
Outside of work, I spend time going to my kids’ schools, checking on them. My daughter is into cheerleading practice, and my son is into boxing. He’s trying to do something great with his life. I tell him not to be lazy, to inspire him. I don’t want him to make the same mistakes I did. But he’d never sell drugs. He don’t hang the streets. Some say, “Like father, like son.” But he isn’t like me.
— As told to Michelle Boorstein
Bart Stover, Ashland, Ohio
“I want to try and make this time up, but it’s hard to do that when you’ve got a leash on you.”
Sentenced in 2005 to 240 months in prison for conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute marijuana and cocaine, for use of a communication facility to facilitate the commission of a drug-trafficking offense, and for aiding and abetting
My mom meant the world to me, and that’s what kind of kept me going in prison. That’s why I filed for clemency — I knew my mom was getting bad, and she needed somebody to take care of her. I hadn’t seen her since 2012, and she didn’t know I was coming home. I was supposed to go straight to the halfway house. I didn’t go straight to the halfway house. I had to see my mom.
When I knocked on the front door, she came and opened the front door and walked away. She thought it was my aunt. So I opened the door and said, “Hey, aren’t you inviting me in?” She turned around and started crying.
Anything my mom needed, I would do for her. Her whole house was a disaster, and I spent two weeks cleaning the property up to make it look nice again like she used to like it. There was five days a month that hospice would come and take her out there for a respite care. She had enjoyed that, they’d take her out there and pamper her.
My mom passed away December 18, and it’s been rough since then. It wasn’t long enough, but the last few months, I hope she had a decent remainder of her life. I just thank President Obama for what he did because I wouldn’t have been able to see her at all.
A lot of people that were friends of mine have passed away. I’m 60 years old. It’s my generation. We’re old people now.
I’m grateful for being free. I’ve got a daughter who lives in Texas, but I can’t go see her because I’m not allowed to leave the state of Ohio. I thought when I got clemency that should have changed a bit, but it didn’t. I want to try and make this time up, but it’s kind of hard to do that when you’ve got a leash on you and you can’t go very far because you’re not allowed. I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize my freedom. I can’t afford that.
— As told to Jonnelle Marte
Donald Vanderhorst, Charleston, S.C.
“I got married 45 days after I walked free.”
Sentenced in 2006 to 240 months in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute, and for distribution of, five kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more of crack
Nothing but joy came inside of me. I called home and I told my mom, I said, “Mama, I’m coming home.” And she said, “Baby, don’t lie to me.” And I said, “I never lied to you before, and I ain’t about to lie to you now.”
A lot of people turn their back on you, thinking, yeah, you did this, you need to be punished for it. But I had a lot of good people in my corner and a loving family. I didn’t have to wonder about where to stay, I didn’t have to wonder about clothes on my back, I didn’t have to worry about food. A lot of people that come out, they have to worry about that kind of thing.
When you’re inside of a confined area — that’s what a prison is, a confined area — you really have a schedule. You get up a certain time, you do everything a certain time. Now you don’t have to do it no more. In prison, you have to call people, they can’t call you. For my mom to call me, it’s very refreshing. She’ll call me every day, and I thank her for that.
I lost two kids right before I came home. My son was killed in 2014. He was gunned down in the street. Before I even came home in November 2015, my stepdaughter — I raised her since she was 3 years old — was killed. She was 21, and she got killed by a car. So me coming home was another chance for me to be with the rest of my kids. For me to be here now and spend that time I can never make up, it’s priceless. Now everything they are involved in, I try to be there. They just want to see me there. Now I can see them when I want to see them.
I got married 45 days after I walked free. For us to be together now is still a blessing. A lot of doors came open for me since I came home. All I can do is be thankful for it. The Lord truly has blessed us. For real.
— As told to Mark Berman
John M. Wyatt, Las Cruces, N.M.
“I need two jobs to pay my legal bills, because my ordeal is not over, even now.”
Sentenced in 2004 to 262 months in prison for possession with intent to distribute marijuana
When I walked out of prison six years early, I was pretty focused on my task at hand. Prison officials had been helpful, but unfortunately, they didn’t provide any guidance for what to do once I was free, and I was quite unprepared for reentry into a world that’s changed a lot from the one I left in 2001. I had been held for almost 14 years, and I was completely destitute due to legal fees.
My girlfriend Karen may have suffered even more than I did: She fell on hard financial times and fought to stay housed and employed. She visited me when we could afford it, wrote letters, answered the phone whenever I called and shared her faraway life. I worked in a prison factory to send her what little amount of money I could to help out, and lots of times, that’s what meant she was able to get by. Now that I am out, we laugh all the time and eat pretty good meals. Without President Obama’s compassion, this nightmare had years to go before we could be living life together again.
My parents have operated a small secondhand store in my home town, Las Cruces, for 34 years, and they assured me they would put me to work once I got out. They had suffered right along with me, and they supported me 100 percent the whole time. Now I work at their store and at a local construction company.
I need two jobs to pay my legal bills, because my ordeal is not over, even now: The trial judge in my case sentenced me as a violent “career offender,” because I had once missed curfew at a halfway house I’d been sent to on an earlier marijuana charge. I was not a violent offender, nor had I ever been one. The result was an extra eight years, at least, on my second marijuana sentence, and I’m still litigating to remove the violent-offender designation from my records.
In this great country, when a court makes a mistake, we like to believe that the system is just and corrections are available, but that’s not always the case. Don’t ever go to prison in this country — stay away from the criminal justice system. It is an industry out of control, with no one willing or able to tackle it and implement true, humane fairness and justice.
— As told to Mike Madden