A Long-term Prisoner’s Reaction to Bush’s Clemency Orders
As I sat watching the CNN broadcast on Monday evening, November 24, 2008, I read a streaming announcement on the bottom of the screen. President Bush had commuted the sentences of two federal prisoners and granted pardons to fourteen other people. Although that news should have filled me with optimism, I was filled with a wave of disappointment.
I felt surprise at the shift in emotions. My imprisonment began in 1987, more than 21 years ago. I began serving the sentence when I was 23, and I have nearly crossed the fulcrum that would disperse the greater weight of my life in prison than in society. This term has been my only period of confinement and I have no history of violence. For the most part, I have grown numb to the boundaries that surround me, and the stigma of my predicament. Prison has been my life.
From the beginning, I have worked hard and consistently to reconcile with society for the bad decisions I made as a younger man. During the early years of my sentence, I lived with the idealism that I could earn my freedom through merit. With that goal as my beacon, I worked for years to educate myself, to contribute to society, and to prepare in every way so that I could emerge from confinement as a contributing citizen.
When Bill Clinton won the White House, I naively clung to the beam of his campaign. Slightly more than five years had passed since steel gates locked me inside prison walls. By then I had earned an undergraduate degree and was enrolled in graduate school. With dreams that my transformative adjustment would influence a favorable decision, I submitted my first petition for clemency.
In 1995, Hofstra University awarded my Masters Degree and I was beginning a PhD program at the University of Connecticut. I was 31-years-old, and well educated. After more than eight years of prison, I felt as ready as possible to begin living in society as a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. In 1996, however, my prison case manager delivered a terse statement from the Department of Justice. For reasons that did not merit an explanation or review, my petition for clemency had been denied.
With the beginning of my second decade in prison, I resolved myself to the reality that I would serve several more years. The new Congress, led by Newt Gingrich, passed more punitive legislation. The hope for relief that carried me through my first decade vanished. I settled in to the likelihood that I would serve longer than a quarter century in federal prison.
In letting go of dreams that I could somehow influence the advancement of my release date, I had to change my adjustment pattern. I committed to the pursuit of activities that might bring meaning to my life while I served a lengthy prison term. In some way, I hoped my work would contribute to society.
With help from mentors, I worked to develop writing skills. Those efforts comforted me through my solitude. Simultaneously, writing offered opportunities to help others understand prisons, the people they held, and strategies to grow through confinement.
Since that adjustment shift, I have come to accept my imprisonment. I passed through all of the Clinton years, and now we have come to the final days of the Bush years. With so much prison behind me, I believed myself immune to the disease of despondency. Yet when I read that President Bush had commuted the prison terms of two others, I felt a terrific sense of loss.
I called my wife, who has endured nearly 10 years of this journey beside me. She had not yet heard the news of the commutations. I asked her to research the prisoners whose terms had been cut. I wanted to know if they had done more to earn freedom. Carole, as always, expressed her unyielding support. She could sense my sadness and offered her characteristic encouragement to lift my spirits.
“Your release will be much more magnificent,” she said. I didn’t know what my wife meant, but I loved her for helping me through an unanticipated difficult moment. I put an end to the day quite early, stretching out on my steel rack of a bed before 7:00 in the evening. I read for a while, prayed for strength, and drifted into sleep. When I awoke this morning, I felt more in control of my emotions. The Thanksgiving holiday was only two days away. Many years of prison were behind me and more were ahead, but I could still feel gratitude for the blessings in my life.