Opinion
(c) Hans Neleman

This American life (without parole)

Why Obama should pardon these three nonviolent offenders — and thousands more like them

May 11, 2014 1:00AM ET

There’s a whiff of clemency in the springtime air: New federal commutation guidelines announced two weeks ago may provide an exit for hundreds, maybe thousands of federal prisoners in for nonviolent “low level” offenses if they’ve already served 10 years with “good conduct.” If you’re wondering who these rules will affect, and why they’re so necessary, consider these three Americans currently set to rot away in prison for nonviolent crimes committed years ago.

Meet Euka Wadlington

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Euka Wadlington,(center, not in a cap and gown) with several of his students who earned GEDs under his tutelage.
Courtesy of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Born on the North Side of Chicago but raised on the South Side, Euka Wadlington has worked many a job since early adolescence: window and bike repair, deli delivery, DJ’ing, running a car wash, construction, to name just a few. In 1998 he found himself managing a nightclub catering to a mostly black clientele in Clinton, Iowa. According to Wadlington, both he and the club were from the start made to feel unwelcome by local law enforcement — a random raid that turned up nothing, a traffic stop without a citation. A police informant working with federal prosecutors badgered Wadlington for months into taking part in a drug conspiracy. He finally relented.

At his trial, Wadlington (who had declined the authorities’ offer to help set up others in exchange for leniency) was made out to be the longtime corrupter of Clinton despite the absence of drugs in his car, home or business or any trace of unexplained wealth. (Wadlington’s story is recast in Ethan Brown’s "Snitch," a book with a wide readership in America’s prisons.) Thanks to federal mandatory minimums, Wadlington was given two life sentences with zero chance of parole. No other wealthy, democratic country in the world condemns people to life without parole for nonviolent crimes, and fewer and fewer countries impose the penalty even for violent offenses. Wadlington has already served 15 years.

I met Wadlington through my wife, who last year wrote a blockbuster ACLU report on the over 3,200 Americans who are doing life without parole for nonviolent offenses. Thanks to federal mandatory minimums for drug crimes, judges have no discretion in setting a sentence, even for first-time offenders peripheral to the transaction. Due to many states’ repeat offender laws, there are people in our country doing life for stealing tools from a shed or shoplifting three belts from a department store.  

In prison, Wadlington has gotten into behavioral psychology, a specialist language he now speaks and writes with great fluency. At the federal prison in Greenville, he runs a lifestyle-intervention course that is immensely popular with the inmates — you can read the testimonials yourself. He is eager to put his new skills to use on the South Side of Chicago or, really, anywhere outside of FCI (Federal Correctional Institution) Greenville, by steering young men beguiled by dreams of the gangster lifestyle toward education and marketable skills. 

Meet Larry Duke

Larry Duke
Larry Duke with his daughter and grandson.
Courtesy of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

My wife also introduced me to Larry Duke. A 67-year-old Vietnam vet and grandfather, Duke is an unstoppable tinkerer, carpenter and inventor. From FCI Jesup in Georgia, where he’s been locked up for the past 24 years, Duke managed to put a federal patent on a water filtration device he designed, thinking it would save the U.S. military a bundle in bottled water at overseas deployments. (He told me that Halliburton already had the potable water contract locked up, so nothing doing there this time.)

Duke would love to pursue his engineering ideas more, but he is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole. His nonviolent offense was taking part in a deal to bring a couple of tons of marijuana into the country, a deal set up by undercover officers and an informant cooperating because of a previous arrest. Given that even the last three presidents have admitted to smoking pot, his draconian punishment is beyond hypocritical.

For someone who’s been in prison for two dozen years, Duke is remarkably plugged in to the civic and economic life of the nation that locked him up, even if he is barred from voting. He envisions a system of high-speed rail that could stimulate what’s left of our manufacturing sector and help bring us closer to full employment. If only more people in the U.S. engaged in macroeconomic policy at this level of sophistication.

Meet Alice Marie Johnson

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Alice Marie Johnson
Courtesy of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

I spoke with Alice Marie Johnson on Easter Monday, just after she had directed a three-show run of her musical passion play, “The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ,” an extravaganza whose cast and crew (costumers, stagehands, choreographers) numbered more than 100 people. The seats were packed all three nights, with audiences bused in from FMC (Federal Medical Center) Carswell in Texas, where Johnson spent her first 15 years of incarceration. (She transferred to the federal prison in Aliceville, Alabama, last year to be closer to her family.) Apart from her annual Easter play, Johnson has also scripted and staged her own original sequels to “Sister Act” and “Madea Comes to Carswell,” which she schedules on holidays such as Mother’s Day, Juneteenth and the Fourth of July.

Johnson has refined Southern manners that make me self-conscious talking to her on the phone. She turns 59 this year and has been locked up for 16 years, serving a life sentence without chance of parole for a minor part in a cocaine conspiracy. Some of her co-conspirators who turned over evidence got much lighter sentences or no prison time at all. She is a mother of five children and grandmother of four.

Clemency for the happy few

Euka Wadlington, Larry Duke and Alice Marie Johnson are just a few of the thousands of nonviolent offenders serving life or other brutally long sentences. Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman estimates that some 5,000 federal prisoners might be eligible for commutation — but so much will depend on how the Department of Justice interprets the language. A lawyer’s secret: How elastic this category turns out to be will be determined by political pressure, in both directions.  

This ray of mercy is a good thing, but federal clemency — with which President Barack Obama has been, until now, exceedingly stingy — is only a tiny step in making the United States less of a penal colony. The stats are damning: Our overall incarceration rate is more than double the peak rate of the old East Germany and approaches the Soviet rate when the country had gulags. Our incarceration rate for black men is higher than that of apartheid South Africa. 

The federal government doesn’t have quite as much to do with this punitive overkill as you might expect. For one thing, the federal system locks up only about 6 percent of the country’s prisoners. As penal reformer Keith Humphreys of Stanford University writes, “What states like Texas, California and Florida do regarding prisons will affect our country much more than what happens in Washington D.C.”

Real reform?

We’re likely to see some pushback against even the mild step of mercy commutations. After all, “the law is the law,” as we freedom-loving Americans somehow love to sternly say. But the funny thing is, the law is not the law, at least much of the time. The law sure wasn’t the law for Goldman Sachs or any of the other financiers who tanked our economy, and not for CIA torturers either. The law is the law, but only for some. 

Attorney General Eric Holder knows a little something about the law’s wonderful suppleness when it comes to the well-connected and the rich. In fact, he helped secure a pardon for Mr. Rich himself — billionaire Marc Rich, that is. In the autumn of 2000, Holder was one of the lawyers in the Clinton Department of Justice to give the legal all-clear for the pardon of the felonious crude-oil trader whose wife had raised millions for the Democratic Party. Guys like Marc Rich get pardons.

But if you’re a poor nonviolent offender without connections, like Euka Wadlington or Larry Duke or Alice Marie Johnson, the law is the law for as long as you draw breath.  

If Eric Holder came up with a legal rationale for pardoning Marc Rich, he can certainly see the logic in delivering clemency to Euka, Larry, Alice Marie and the thousands of others like them. The question is whether Holder and the president have the will and the spine.

Chase Madar is an attorney in New York and the author of “The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story Behind the WikiLeaks Whistleblower” (Verso, 2013).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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