Hope of Release for a Lifer

Presidential Pardons, Criminal Justice Reform and Going to the Hole at FCI Terre Huate by Robert Rosso

It was Monday night, January 4, just after 7:30pm, and I was standing in front of my locker, pen in hand, working on an article as I was listening to the radio. In my ear was the voice of Mark Levine, the popular conservative commentator best known for his long-winded rants. On this night Levine was unsurprisingly not happy, squawking about how congress had just passed some bill that he obviously didn’t like.

“The Sentence Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 was signed into law by your president -”

I froze.

“Rob! Did just hear that?” said my cell-mate Billy. “Isn’t that the bill you’re waiting on?” He too was listening to Mark Levine.

“Y-Yeah, it is,” I said, feeling uncertain.  “But something isn’t right. Congress isn’t supposed to hear that bill today.”

“But he just said they did. He said the bill just passed the House and Senate.”

My heart was racing with excitement, but I was skeptical, to say the least. The Sentence Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, also known as S. 2123, sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee without a fuss. Likewise, over in the House of Representatives, a companion bill had passed through their judiciary subcommittee as well, but neither chamber had brought the bill to the floor for a full vote. And trust me, I would know.

Among other things, S.2123 would reduce the mandatory minimum sentence for a third time drug offense from life imprisonment without the possibility of release to 25 years, and it may be applied retroactively. In other words, if passed, my mandatory life sentence may be reduced to 25 years.

And Mark Levine just reported that the bill had been passed and singed into law.

“We need to find out if anyone else heard it,” I said to Billy. “Come on.”  The two of us burned out of the cell and asked everyone in ear-shot if they’d heard anything about a criminal justice reform bill being passed. No one had. Next, Billy went and asked the unit officer if he could Google “Sentence Reform and Corrections Act of 2015” to see if there had been any changes.  The officer did, and said nothing appeared to have passed.

I was truly confused. As a long-time listener of Levine, I am well aware that he often stretches the truth to fit his agenda. But Mark Levine was a well respected lawyer who worked in the Justice Department during the Regan Administration, and there was no way I thought he would make such a huge blunder. Praying that he’d bring it up again, I went back in my cell, tuned into WYBQ 1230 on the AM dial and listened in.

A few minutes after 8pm the cell door swung open and in came the unit officer.

“Your celly told me to come in here and shake down the cell,” he said. “Step out.”

I wasn’t quite sure that I heard him correctly. “He what?”

“Let’s go,” he said motioning for me to leave. “Get out of here. I’m shaking down your cell.”

After leaving the cell I learned that Billy had pissed off the officer by disobeying a direct order. Specifically, he ran over to the unit next door on the in-coming only controlled-move in an attempt to see Dan Brown, an inmate who also keeps current on all sentence reform bills. If S. 2123 had passed, Billy assumed, surely Dan would be among the first to know.

The only problem was that our unit officer told Billy three times to get back into the unit, a direct order that he blatantly ignored. As a result, the officer decided to destroy our cell. Which is unauthorized yet standard protocol for disobeying a direct order.

Twenty minutes later the officer exited our cell and left it trashed. A soon as we walked in, Billy immediately noticed that some wires he had stashed inside of his mattress were missing, as was an MP3 charger that he had stashed in the radiator beside the wall. Both were prohibited items.

“Oh shit,” Billy said. “I’m fucked.” It was then he informed me about the missing contraband. And sure enough, moments later, the officer returned to our cell, told us to step out, and locked the door before taking off towards the Lieutenants Office, evidence in hand. About ten minutes later Billy and I were summoned to the same office and informed that we were going to the “SHU” (Special Housing Unit or “the hole”).

“I’m sending you guys across the street tonight,” said a bald-headed Lt. with a reddish goatee. “What concerns me the most is that this thing right here -” he held up a USB A to USB B adopter, approximately 12 inches long. “This can be used for a cell phone charger.”

Billy tried to take the charge, truthfully explaining to the Lt. that the stuff his.

“I don’t care,” He told Billy. “Tonight you’re both going to the SHU, and I’m giving you both a 100 series shot (Incident Report) for Possession of a Hazardous Tool. You’ll both have to see the DHO (Disciplinary Hearing Officer) to get this all straightened out.

Jail-431003Man, was I sick. I have exactly 2 chances of getting of of prison right now: through a sentence commutation that I filed in April of 2014 (also known as Executive Clemency) or a change in the law, such as the passing of Bill S, 2123. Either way, it is imperative that I remain “clear conduct” – disciplinary free.

Although there was no doubt that Billy was going to take the rap for what was his, the fact is we were being charged with the greatest severity offense (100 series, as opposed to a 200, 300 or 400 series, the later being the less series) and the DHO is widely unpredictable. I was really worried about it.

As promised, we were taken across the street and placed in the SHU at the USP, the maximum-security facility within the Terre Haute Prison Complex. The following day we were given our shots, and on Wednesday morning we saw the Unit Disciplinary Committee (UDC), a committee that recommended to the DHO that my shot be expunged and Billy’s be dropped to a lesser offense.

Later that afternoon, around 2 pm, Billy and I were laying on our bunks reading when we heard several staff members come onto the range, knock on someone’s door, and inform them that their sentence commutation had been denied.

“Jesus Christ, Billy. They’re coming here next.”

I was wrong. They knocked on another cell door, and then another, and then another one after that, telling someone in each cell that their sentence commutations had been denied.

My heart was pounding.

Through the window in our cell, we saw an officer look up at our names tags then glance in at us and smile. He asked us if we were doing alright.

“Everything’s good, boss,” I said. “We’re fine in here.”

He nodded his head and walked away; two Executive staff members behind him followed.

I jumped up off the bunk and shouted, ”Yes! I fucking made it, Billy! I made it, bro!”

For weeks I’d had this theory. I believed that right after the holidays, the Pardon Attorney would be sending out notices of denial to thousands of federal inmates who had applied for clemency under the Justice Departments 2014 Clemency Initiative. Because my petition had been pending for well over a year, I theorized that if I wasn’t denied in January, then I would be among one of the lucky inmates that President Obama lets go free.

And until I heard a knock at the door, and looked over to find an Executive staff member looking directly at me, I actually thought I would soon be going home.

“Inmate Ross?” He said to me. I have some news from the Pardon’s Office…”

I already knew what he was going to say; I really didn’t need to hear it.

Once he finished, he handed me a piece of paper through a crack on the door and I took a look at it. It was a memo from the Pardon Attorney, Deborah Leff, to the Complex Warden. It read:

“Please advise ROBERT JOSEPH ROSSO that his application for commutation of sentence was carefully considered in this Department and the White House, and the decision was reached that favorable action is not warranted. The application was therefore denied on January 5, 2015. Under the Constitution, there is no appeal from this decision. As a matter of well-established policy, we do not disclose the reasons for the clemency matter….If ROBERT JOSEPH ROSSO wishes to reapply for commutation, he will become eligible to do so one year from the date on which the President denied the current application.”

After reading the memo I immediate thought of Marta, my stunningly beautiful fiancee. The only reason that our relationship has progressed into what it is today is because I truly believe that I am going to get out. Now, with the denial on my commutation, I only have one chance – S. 2123.

I also thought about my parents, children and grandchildren. Assuming  said bill passes and I do make it out, I am worried that one or both of my parents won’t be around; they aren’t spring chickens anymore. For years now all I have thought about is spending at least one holiday together, and with the denial of my commutations, I’m not sure that will ever happen. I finally just laid down and fell asleep.

On January 14 Billy and I were let out of the SHU and one of the first things that I found out was that Mark Levine had lied – contrary to what he told his audience, the Sentence Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 has not passed, and he never corrected his mistake. Truth in journalism matters, and I can no longer trust Mark Levine.

As it stands, Bill S.2123 does appear that it will pass sometime this year, and all I can do is wait and pray. Even though Obama didn’t let me out, I still have hope for the future and as a lifer that is all I can ask for.

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