President Obama election and newly elected Congress give real hope for prison reform

By · Thursday, November 6th, 2008

Two days have passed since millions of Americans elected Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. For the sixth time, I watched election poll results from inside a federal prison. I sat in one of the television viewing rooms at Taft Prison Camp, cheering when the networks called Pennsylvania for Obama. Then came Ohio, and Virginia, and Florida, and I knew our country had taken a giant step forward.

I first heard of Barack Obama in 2004, when my wife, Carole, sent me a transcript of the speech the young Senator delivered at the Democratic National Convention. As I read of him calling for a more inclusive America, I felt inspired and expressed my wish at that time that a voice like his could lead our country.

Then I read his books. Both revealed a thoughtful, intelligent man. Those on the right side of the political spectrum tried to disparage Obama as being irresponsibly liberal. Yet with courage, character, and conviction, Senator Obama did not run from the liberal label. He embraced the principles of liberalism, and I admired him for his unshakable confidence in the promise of humanity.

Rather than practicing the politics of divisiveness, of us-versus-them, Senator Obama personified leadership. He validated the notion that people could transcend circumstance and reach their highest potential. As a long-term federal prisoner, I watched Senator Obama’s ascent to the national and then global political scene with unbridled optimism.

After Senator Obama won the Iowa Primary last January, I became a true believer in his potential to win the Presidency. Over subsequent months, I watched every newscast and read every article that described his progress. The more I learned about him and his positions, the more I admired his strength, his judgment, his leadership. Every week, my wife and I grew more hopeful of his election.

The President of the United States wields the power for our country. Carole and I know the decisions President Obama makes will have a profound influence on our prison family. We married in a prison visiting room many years ago. Despite proclamations on the importance of family, community, and compassion, the policies of the Bush administration have perpetuated failure inside our nation’s prison system. High recidivism rates validate this observation. Carole and I stand confident that the liberal mandate voters have given President Obama will lead to changes that bring certain improvements to our family.

Americans rightly concern themselves with important national issues such as energy dependence, health care, economic policy, and foreign policy. Yet after more than 21 years of my continuous imprisonment, Carole and I have a deep, vested interest in both prison reform and sentence reform. President Obama and the newly elected Congressional leadership give us an optimism of such magnitude that few others can appreciate.

Within the next 5 months, President Obama will appoint leaders who reflect the new administration’s vision. Among those leaders will be a new Pardon Attorney, and a new Director of the Bureau of Prisons. I expect those new leaders to purge the present policies that extinguish hope, policies that have thwarted my growth since 1987.

President Obama’s team will shed empty platitudes about a kinder, gentler, more compassionate America. Instead, my readings on Obama convince me that both administrative and legislative improvements will come. They will replace the barriers that block progress, instead providing a bridge to lead those of us striving to reconcile with society back into the mainstream of American life.

A Pardon Attorney under Obama will not reserve petitions for clemency for friends of the President, like “Scooter” Libby and Mark Rich. Rather, I expect the new Pardon Attorney will review applications for clemency with earnest. Individuals who have worked for years to atone for their bad decision and redeem themselves through contributions will receive appropriate consideration for relief.

With a new Director in the Bureau of Prisons, we need new policies that encourage more prisoners to earn their way to freedom through merit. We need new programs that help offenders bridge their ties to society. Those programs will replace the Bush-type policies that obliterate all hope for redemption. Opportunities to earn furloughs, work release, and home confinement will replace administrative barriers to personal growth.

Rather than a focus on preserving the sanctity of the prison industrial complex, President Obama will appoint leadership that strives to prepare offenders for successful re-entry to society. We will see an end to limitations on telephone and visitation access. New leadership will rely upon the promise of incentives instead of the threat of further punishment to shape human behavior. Those are American values.

Besides the administrative changes that President Obama will bring, Congressional leadership ought to introduce sentence reforms that encourage offenders to work toward earning freedom. By mid-2009, I expect to see legislation that reintroduces parole and expands opportunities for offenders to earn freedom.

For more than 21 years, I have worked to build a record that would demonstrate my commitment to live as a contributing citizen. With President Obama’s election, and the newly elected Congress, I am more hopeful than ever. This election freed me to believe that I am more than a prisoner. I feel like an American, and I am eager to join my wife, Carole, in the real world.

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