In the final year of his presidency, Obama began commuting the sentences of hundreds of federal inmates at a time, most of them serving mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. However, the election of Donald Trump has left criminal justice activists and family members of inmates with pending clemency petitions fearing that the door is about to slam shut on Jan. 20, when Obama leaves office.
On the campaign trail, Trump called Obama’s clemency recipients “bad dudes” and said, “These are people who are out, they’re walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”
All this week, the criminal justice advocacy group #cut50 has been holding rallies in Washington, D.C. urging the Obama administration to step up its clemency efforts before time runs out. On Monday night, family members of federal inmates with pending clemency petitions, as well as several former inmates whose sentences were commuted, gathered outside the White House for a candlelight vigil.
Here are three people at Monday night’s vigil, in their own words.
I’m a 33-year old disability case manager for Etna. I’m here on behalf of my mother, who’s been incarcerated for the past 22 years for a nonviolent crime. She’s been in prison since I was 11 years old. She had an aneurysm about two years ago, and she’s been fighting through recovery. She was convicted of one count of drug conspiracy. She was also a drug abuser.
Tonight we’re here to ask President Obama to take a better look at the clemency and commutations, look at the women particularly, and let those people go free who are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes. Not only that, but, if needed, give them a lesser sentence so they can come home to their families. Because that’s what this is all about, giving second chances. If we gave a second chance to Donald Trump, then we can definitely give these women a second chance. Not just mine but everybody’s, because when one comes home, everyone comes home. There’s a young man walking around here who got commuted by President Obama. Some would have tears in their eyes because their family members aren’t home, but that gives me hope that my momma can still come home. Some people may be negative about Trump. I didn’t vote for Trump, but when you think negative you get negative results. Even if you ain’t got no hope in it, just have hope in your family member coming home.
We’ve applied for clemency, and we’ve been working with the president’s 2014 clemency initiative. Everything’s on hold. You just call and keep calling, and they won’t give you information. That was the same thing that happened to my mother when she was on life support. I couldn’t even get information on my mom while she was sitting up in the hospital in the ICU for 31 days. Some people will say ‘Oh, they’re criminals, they need to be there.’ I’m not the same person I was 15 years ago, so I know my momma’s not the same person that she was 22 years ago. We’ve recently been given the opportunity to have video visits. Her grandkids met her for the first time through a computer.
I’m the fiancé of David Barron. I’m a special ed school teacher for Pittsburgh public schools. I teach emotional support, so this is an extension of what I do professionally and what I do personally. My fiancé has been incarcerated eight-and-a-half years. He’s serving life plus twenty years for one count of drug conspiracy and 52 counts of money laundering.
We need him home. He had never been to prison before. He has no holds to any cartel. We have applied for clemency. We’re just waiting for Obama to hopefully grant him clemency to come home to his children, his mother, his father. They visit every weekend at Hazelton Prison. They’re 80 and 81, respectively. Time is always running out. When I start school in September it’s always a race to the state exams, and when I look at this with David, it’s a race to him being granted freedom.
When Trump was elected president, it was a pit in my stomach. In fact, it was a very somber moment in my classroom. Pretty much my whole building knows what’s going on, and they are rallying around Dave. When they found out Trump was going to be president, everyone was just like, wow, this might not happen.
Jason Hernandez, 39. Granted clemency on Dec. 19, 2013
To me it feel like a last battle cry. President Obama, if he wants to leave his legacy as far as clemency, he has fewer than 60, 70 days to do that because everyone feels that the door will close as soon as he leaves office.
I did nearly 18 years from 1998 to 2015 for drug conspiracy, crack cocaine. The person who supplied me ended up getting 12 years. I got life because I converted it to crack cocaine. I deserved to go to jail. I deserved to go to jail for a long time, but I didn’t deserve to die in there. Luckily, the president thought the same. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was just a kid who made bad decisions, which is the same for a lot of the people with families here. They’re not bad people, and they shouldn’t die in there for what they’ve done.
It took approximately two years for my clemency petition to go through. I filed it in 2011, and right before Christmas in 2013, I was granted clemency. I had life without parole plus about 300 years. President Obama gave me an even 20, and of that I served 17.6 years. It’s not like what you always assume it will be like when that day comes, where you’re jumping up and down and doing flips. It was more like how I feel right now. Wow, it’s over, but then again, I lost nearly two decades of my life. I can’t get that back. But you know, since I’ve been released, I haven’t had a bad day. I’m just trying to do what I can to put a face to the statistics and show that these are human lives, not just numbers, that you’re dealing with.