MENDOTA, Calif. — At 9:10 a.m. Friday, the intercom blared at the federal prison here as Weldon Angelos walked the track on this sprawling campus of drab gray buildings in California’s Central Valley.
The booming voice of a prison official called an inmate to the main office. About 25 minutes later, the official came on the intercom again, summoning another prisoner.
Angelos knew exactly what was happening. The prisoners had heard a rumor the night before that President Obama might grant early release to certain drug offenders before he left Washington for the holidays. Angelos was excited, anxious. This was it. The lucky inmates on Obama’s list were being called inside to take phone calls from their attorneys, who would tell them the good news.
After the two inmates were called, the minutes ticked past 30, then 45, and the intercom remained silent.
“I felt sick,” said Angelos, 36, who is serving a 55-year sentence for selling about $1,000 worth of marijuana. “It was devastating.”
And for Angelos and his supporters, that is the cruelty of the clemency process set up by the Obama administration to give relief to drug offenders who received harsh sentences over the past couple of decades in the nation’s war on drugs.
The president wants to use his clemency power to undo past injustices, and on Friday, in the largest single-day grant of his presidency, he signed 95 commutations.
They brought joy to families across the country.
“God be the Glory,” said Sharanda Jones, a 48-year-old Texas woman who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a cocaine offense. She was a first-time, nonviolent offender. “I am overjoyed.”
But for thousands of other prisoners, who may also meet the president’s criteria, their exclusion was a hard blow.
“It was a great day for those who won the lottery and one more disappointment for everyone in the pipeline who should be on the list,” said Amy Povah, a former inmate and the founder of the Can-Do Foundation, a clemency advocacy group.
Angelos, the son of a Greek immigrant, is one of the country’s more famous prisoners — a symbol for some criminal justice reform advocates of an irrationally severe system. He was sentenced in 2004 to a mandatory 55 years in prison without the possibility of parole after he was arrested for selling marijuana in three separate transactions with a Salt Lake City police informant, while possessing a firearm. Angelos never used or pulled out the gun, but the informant testified that he saw a gun when he made the buys, and that triggered a statute referred to as “gun stacking,” which forced the judge to give him a long sentence.
Angelos’s case has been widely championed, including by Families Against Mandatory Minimums and conservative billionaire Charles Koch.
Former U.S. District Court judge Paul G. Cassell, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, has called the sentence he imposed on Angelos “unjust, cruel and even irrational.”
Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries, said the failure to commute Angelos’s sentence Friday was “disappointing and devastating for Weldon and his family.”
“Think of anything in your life that you’ve waited for,” Holden said. “Everything else pales in comparison to this.
It is unclear why Angelos failed to get clemency. A Justice Department spokeswoman said that officials do not discuss individual clemency petitions. Another official noted that the department is processing them “as thoroughly and expeditiously as we can.”
Each of the four times that the president has announced his commutations has been difficult for Angelos, but this time cut the deepest. And it’s not because it came around the holidays.
It’s because this group of inmates will be released on April 16.
“If I had been given clemency this time,” Angelos, a father of three, said in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution at Mendota, “I would have been out for my oldest son’s graduation from high school in June.”
When he came in from the track, Angelos called his sister, Lisa. She had heard he wasn’t on the list, and she was crying. While talking to her, he looked up and saw Obama on the prison television set making his official announcement at his end-of-year news conference.
“I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach,” he said.
Similar scenes were playing out in other federal prisons, said Angelos’s lawyer, Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and a co-founder of New York University’s Clemency Resource Center. He represents nine clients who are seeking clemency.
“I dreaded the phone ringing,” Osler said in a blog post he called “Sunday Reflection: The sad call”: “I looked at the screen and it said what I feared it would: ‘Unknown,’ which is how calls from prison always come up. I let it ring once, twice, three times before pressing ‘answer.’ . . . And each time I talked to them about what had happened, how I did not know how they picked the lucky ones. They told me, in heavy voices, what they would miss: a son’s graduation, the last days of a mother in fading health. And each time I hung up and sat in silence.”
White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston said last week that Obama, who has granted 184 clemencies, has already commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past five presidents combined. “We expect that the president will grant more commutations and pardons to deserving individuals in his final year in office,” Eggleston added.
But clemency advocates say that Obama has put himself in a different position than previous presidents. Instead of granting a moment of mercy to an inmate — much like the odds of being struck by lightning — Obama’s Justice Department set out eight specific clemency criteria, including having served at least 10 years, having no significant criminal history prior to conviction and demonstrating good behavior in prison. And he raised the hopes of thousands who believed they could qualify.
“What the president announced was a categorical grant to people who met those eight criteria,” Osler said. “If it’s a categorical grant, we should be seeing consistency.”
A better comparison, he said, would be former president Gerald Ford, who created a special commission, set out specific criteria and granted more than 14,000 clemencies in one year to people who had either deserted the Army or failed to show up for the draft during the Vietnam War.
Angelos, himself, is somewhat of an expert on clemency: He knows all about the intricacies of the process and the names of the key players. He cites the latest comments by Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates and notes the date that U.S. Senate sentencing reform legislation made it out of committee.
He even runs a “clemency clinic” Monday through Friday nights in the prison library to help other inmates prepare their petitions. He advised Alex Contreras, who is in prison on the same drug and gun charges (except it was crack instead of marijuana). Contreras filed for clemency in May. To strengthen his petition, Contreras’s lawyer cited Angelos’s severe sentence and noted that the judge on Angelos’s case called it an injustice.
On Friday, Contreras was on Obama’s list.
They met up that night in the library to say goodbye; Contreras will be moved to a halfway house before going home.
“I was happy for him,” Angelos said, tears filling his eyes.
Angelos’s two sons came to visit him twice this fall. Anthony, now 18, was 6 when his father was sent to prison. Jesse was 4. He hadn’t seen them for eight years because they live near Salt Lake City with their mother and couldn’t afford to travel to California.
In October, Koch Industries’ Holden paid to fly them and Angelos’s sister to see him. It was awkward at first. The little boys Angelos last saw now towered over their father.
“It didn’t feel real,” he said. “It felt like a dream.”
Holden flew them back again a few weeks ago for a holiday visit, and this time the conversation came more easily, and they laughed and joked. Angelos told them to focus on school, to not cheat on their girlfriends — and that maybe this would be the last time they would have to visit him in prison.
“I’m trying to keep my sons positive and hopeful,” Angelos said. His petition has been pending before the Obama administration for four years.
His sons are fascinated by Angelos’s career in the music industry. A former rapper, Angelos produced songs with Snoop Dogg. He is close to the rapper Napoleon, who used to be a member of Tupac Shakur’s group, Outlawz. Napoleon, as well as politicians, scholars, artists and other musicians, signed a 16-page letter of support for Angelos that was sent to Obama.
“Maybe I just need to get Jay Z and then Obama will do it,” Angelos joked in a moment of levity, noting that Jay Z and Beyoncé were at Obama’s inauguration.
As with all federal inmates, Angelos’s sons aren’t allowed to give their father Christmas presents. They can send him cards.
Christmas is a dreary time in prison. No trees with the trimmings are allowed in areas where there are inmates. Prison guards distribute plastic “Christmas bags” filled with little gifts, a corrections officer said.
Angelos got his last week. Inside were “bags of chips, popcorn, candy, beef jerky, Pop Tarts, a Rice Krispie Treat,” Angelos said. “I ate everything in two days.”
Christmas, he said, “used to be tough. But now, sad to say, it’s just like another day.”