Prison Stories

Federal Inmates React to Obama’s End-of-Year Speech by Robert Rosso

It was almost 2pm and nearly two dozen inmates in E unit at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana stood in front of the television waiting to hear President Obama give his final speech of 2015. Last year before Obama left for Christmas vacation in Hawaii, he commuted the sentences of 11 inmates. For weeks now the general consensus amongst the inmates in the prison has been that Obama was going to do “something big” for federal prisoners before he left for the holidays, and many felt that he would announce exactly what it was during his end-of-year speech.

HAZ_lrg“Without a doubt, he’s about to say that he commuted the sentences of at least a thousands people,” Eric Lederer said to no one in particular. “He put way too much time and effort into this clemency thing, and too many people support it not to let a bunch of people go. Just watch what I tell you.”

In April of 2014 the Justice Department laid out a criteria for clemency eligibility, encouraging people who have served at least 10 years behind bars, who have demonstrated good conduct while in prison, and who don’t have a significant history of violence to file for a sentence commutation. The “clemency initiative,” as its come to be known, has strong bipartisan support and very little opposition. As the editor of the “Pardon Blog” stated in an article in the USA TODAY Kock urges action on clemency cases, “President Obama has a real, golden opportunity to exercise clemency without facing hyper law-and-order backlash.”

Marty Crossly agreed with Lederer. “I think you’re right. He’s made too big of deal out of criminal justice reform this year to waste a chance to let a lot of people go, and in the big scheme of things, a few thousand isn’t even that much.”

Tuned into CNN, the station cut to a White House Correspondent who announced that Obama was about to take the podium. In the meantime, the correspondent mentioned that the White House just did a “news dump,” and in it, he reported that earlier in the day, President Obama had commuted the sentences of “about a hundred” inmates.

A collective sigh could be heard in the unit

“Man, is you serious?” Said Yousef. “This nigga’ fakin’.”

“What the hell is a hundred people in a prison system of two-hundred-thousand?” said Billy Walker. “I think everyone’s got their hopes up for nothing.”

Little E remained optimistic. For months, he has believed that Obama was going to sign one sweeping Executive Order, reducing the sentences of most non-violent drug offenders by half. He came to this conclusion after Obama publicly stated that he wanted a Criminal Justice Reform Bill on his desk by the end of the year, and the Republican-led Congress failed to meet his demands.

“Even the White House Press secretary said if the Republicans didn’t come up with a Bill for us by the end of the year, Obama would do something himself,” Little E said. “Just wait and see what Obama say; we can’t listen to what the reporter say.”

When Obama did take the podium you could have heard a pin drop, a rare occurrence in the prison. He started off by going over a list of his Administration accomplishments, talked about ISIS and terrorism, and took a victory lap about the Spending Bill, all of which no one seemed to care about. All anyone was interested in hearing about was commutations and criminal justice reform, both of which Obama did mention.

96163dee-fa04-47e4-b356-47c7ee12b713.grid-6x2According to Obama, earlier in the day he commuted the sentences of 95 prisoners, a number far greater than any President with the exception of Lyndon Johnson, but a number not nearly enough to the reported 30,000 federal prisoners who currently have Clemency petitions pending in the office of the Pardon Attorney.

James Holt said he wasn’t surprised. “I tried to tell you all,” he said. ” He’s not gonna risk letting so many people go with an election year coming up. Just wait until next year, you’ll see what he does. He really is going to let thousands of people go.”

As for Criminal Justice reform, there was no mention of one sweeping Executive Order like Little E predicted. Instead, the President praised a Criminal Justice Reform Bill that is currently pending before the Senate, a Bill that does have strong bipartisan support and will likely pass early next year, but is also a bill that won’t effect nearly as many prisoners as people are lead to believe.

“Aint this about a bitch,” Little E said when Obama ended his speech. “This fool really ain’t gonna do all he said was. You know what he did? He did what he did in Syria: he drew a red line and it was crossed. Only this time, he drew a red line when he told the Republicans to have a criminal justice reform bill on his desk by the end of the year, and they didn’t do it. Instead, there’s some Bill that will half-ass do a few things for a few prisoners, but ain’t gonna do shit for the most of us. They played Obama.”

Troy Hockenberry is a gun offender who has no expectations of an early release, but also an inmate who watches the news daily. Like Little E, he believed that Obama was going to take Executive action when the Republicans failed to pass a criminal justice reform bill, but has a very different view about why Obama did not take Executive action.

“What happened earlier in the day?” Troy said to a room full of disappointed prisoners. “The Republicans passed a spending Bill that gave Obama way more than he wanted. If they hadn’t passed that Bill, there’s no question that Obama would have lashed out and signed an Executive Order doing crazy stuff like cutting all of our sentences in half, and reducing all life sentences to 20 years. He didn’t do it because of politics, plain and simple.”

If you like this article check out Bureau of Prison’s National Menu by Robert Rosso

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