It was Friday, the 18th of December. Having slept terrible the previous night, I woke a bit later than usual, went about my morning business, then grabbed my radio, headphones and a cup of coffee before exciting the cell. I put my coffee in the microwave as I went over to the television and turned on the news. Today was the day, I knew, as I started flipping through the news channels for confirmation, today was the day that Obama was going to grant hundreds of sentence commutations.
And I was praying that one of them was going to be mine.
I filed for Clemency back in the early part of 2014, and the Office of the Pardon Attorney confirmed that my petition was received in October of the same year. Since that time President Obama has granted clemency on four separate occasions, one of which was back in July of this year, when 46 inmates learned that their sentences had been commuted. Among them was Patrick Roberts, a guy that I interviewed for VICE.com. It was during that interview that Patrick informed me that he received the good news after being summonsed to the Captains’ Office, a place that is not typically inmate-friendly. More pointedly, most inmates who are called to the Captains Office generally end up going to the hole (solitary confinement).
At exactly 9am, my cell-mate Billy Walker and I were sitting in front of our cell drinking coffee when the unit office called out my name.
“Inmate Rosso!” He shouted. “Rosso.!”
When I informed him that I was Rosso, he said that I was wanted in the Captain’s Office.
My heart suddenly dropped.
“Holy shit, Rob!” Billy said to me. “You’re going home, bro! They’re calling you down there because Obama commuted your sentence! Your going home!”
“Oh my God, ” I said, feeling light headed. My mind was racing a million miles an hour, thinking of what I needed to do. Without a question of a doubt, I believe that President Obama had commuted my life sentence.
I got up, walked in the cell and grabbed my tooth brush.
“Look,” I said, as I began brushing my teeth for a second time in less than an hour. I don’t have any phone minutes left. So when I come back in, I’m going to need you to call Marta (my fiancee) and my mom.”
“Rosso! Hurry up!” The Unit officer, called out. “They want you now.”
“I coming!” I said. Then, without further to do, I headed out of the unit, heart pumping.
“What’s the deal,” the unit officer asked me as I walked passed him. “You in some kind of trouble.”
“I think Obama just commuted my sentence,” I said earnestly, feeling like I was walking on air. “Today’s the day he leaves for Christmas vacation – last year he signed some commutation on the same day. Everyone’s been kind of expecting him to do a bunch of commutations today.”
Suddenly, and I have no idea why, I stopped, turned back towards the officer and said: “Or maybe I really am in some kind of trouble.”
From that point on it just didn’t feel right. I knew that I hadn’t done anything that would warrant a trip to the hole or even a “shot (disciplinary) for a minor infraction, but neither did I feel like my sentence was about to be commuted. For one thing, in this prison alone, there are dozens if not hundreds of guys who also have Clemency Petitions pending, and I figured that I would be one of many who were granted commutations, that the sole prisoner at the FCI Terre Haute. And the halfway was empty – not a single person standing in front of the Captains Office, where I now was.
Reluctantly, I knocked on the door.
A lady that I have never seen before came storming out the door and order me to follow her to the Lieutenants Office. For a brief second I allowed myself to wonder that maybe – just maybe – the Warden, the Captain, and all of the other staff members who are suppose to be there when an inmate receive a sentence commutation were waiting inside the Lieutenants office for me, but that fantasy was soon laid to rest when I was told to enter, the door behind me slammed, and the lady who I didn’t know began screaming at me, a profanity-fuled tirade that honestly didn’t fully register in the first few seconds because I was still riding that high – the high of falsely believing that my sentence had been commuted.
Needless to say, I eventually figured out that I was not there to because of a commutation, but rather, because I sent an inmate-to-staff email to the wrong department twice, the second time of which caused the-lady-I -didn’t-know to responded rudely, and apparently she felt that my response to her response was disrespectful, although I do beg to differ. Whatever the case, I apologized and went back to my unit with the same life sentence that I left there with, only a few minutes ago.
Still believing that Obama was going to grant clemency to hundreds of federal prisoners, me and about two dozen other guys stood in front of the television waiting for Obama’s end-of-the-year speech. If he didn’t mention anything about commutations during the speech, I believed, then perhaps I was way off base.
In fact, I was not.
News that Precedent Obama had granted clemency to a number of inmates came when a CNN White House correspondent reported that Obama had commuted the sentences of “about a hundred inmates.” Moments later, the President himself stepped up to the podium and among many things, mentioned that he had commuted the sentences of “95” inmates. Because I expected the number to be a lot higher, I was still pretty sure that I was not among the fortunate 95, but I still didn’t know.
Then, shortly after 2:30, word spread among the inmate population that Amador Rodriguez and Eric Orington, two guys up in G Block, had been informed that they were among the lucky 95. And on the 3 o’clock move, Eric himself had come to my unit to tell me.
The truth is many of the inmates who received commutations thus far have been model prisoners, and I have not. During the first ten years of my incarceration I received many disciplinary’s, and this, I do know, will most likely hurt me. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that Congress will pass “The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a Bill that Obama praised during his speech on Friday, and would reduce my life sentence to 25-years. If that’s the case, I will have about 3 years left.
In the meantime, until I receive a letter from the Pardons Office informing me that my Clemency Petition has officially been denied, I just hope to God that no one calls me down to the Captains Office for any reason …talk about cruel and unusual punshiment . Wow!
If you like this check out Robert’s other pieces on Gorilla Convict.
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