Last week, The New York Times reported that President Obama plans to use clemency to free a multitude of nonviolent drug offenders. Everything is pointing to Obama using his clemency powers to free dozens of federal drug offenders, if not more. This will be a historic moment and a new foray into righting the wrongs of the drug war by Obama. He has been working steadily at correcting the draconian drug laws of the past but for many of those in prison it has been too little and too late. His track record in this forum has been spotty to say the least.
The question is, will President Obama give the other 3,200-plus federal prisoners serving life sentences for drugs the same opportunity?
During his first term in office President Obama declined to use his executive clemency powers, instead waiting until the end of his fifth year in office to grant just eight commutations and 13 pardons. In an interview with the Huffington Post, the President blamed the Office of the Pardon Attorney for his dismal clemency record, claiming that those who were overseeing the process—former Bush Administration employees—were only sending him "small-time crimes from long ago," meaning those seeking pardons for sentences already served. Also in the interview, Obama said that he had "revamped" the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and promised to be "more aggressive" with his clemency powers.
But memos from the White House obtained by USA TODAY revealed a different story. President Obama would "very rarely, if ever grant pardons for major drug offenses and guns crimes," said one memo, and during his first 18-months in office, the President knowingly and deliberately allowed the Bush Administration's clemency policies to remain in effect.
It wasn't until July of 2010 that Obama finally sent the Pardon Attorney his own set of guidelines, making only a few minor changes from those of former President George W. Bush. One notable difference was the softening of the former president's stance on drug crimes; Obama is now making clemency eligibility (for drug offenders) "rare only for large-scale drug trafficking offenses in which the applicant had a significant role." (USA TODAY May 1, 2015, "Obama Pardon Policy Revealed")
In April 2014, the Justice Department announced a new initiative to fast-track the clemency process, drafting an eight-point criteria that explains which inmates may be eligible for a sentence commutation. Specifically, inmates must currently be serving a sentence that would be lower today (there has been a series of changes in federal law dating back to 2001 that would substantially lower the sentences of thousands of prisoners currently behind bars); be a nonviolent offender; have no significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations or gangs; have served at least 10 years; does not have a significant criminal history; has demonstrated good conduct in prison; and has no history of violence prior to or during incarceration.
Although the criteria seems clear on its surface, the fact of the matter is, President Obama has already granted clemency to inmates who don't meet the criteria.
To date, President Obama has denied more than 9,000 clemency applications and granted just 38, all of whom were drug offenders. The names and offenses of these individuals can be located here, and a review of LexisNexis, a legal directory and research site, reveals that 18 of the 38 were serving life sentences, two were convicted of separate gun offenses, two were convicted of selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, and 12 were career offenders, serving mandatory minimum life sentences for having "three or more" drug convictions.
And then there was Reynolds Allen Wintersmith, Jr., a.k.a Bezel. A known member of the Gangster Disciples (G.D.), Bezel was convicted in a large-scale drug conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment for being part of "The Mob," the top five gang leaders of a 20-person conspiracy. According to one inmate who did time with Bezel at the United States Penitentiary in Hazelton, Virginia, but wishes to remain anonymous for fear of gang retribution, "Bezel was on G.D. time," meaning that while incarcerated he was still involved in gang activity. "He used to hustle and do what he had to do to represent his people. He didn't have no clear conduct—he wasn't no 'model inmate.' How’d he get out if they telling us we can't have no gang ties, and we need clear conduct, and can't be no part of no big conspiracy?"
Reynolds Allen Wintersmith Jr., the reputed gang member, has been out of prison for over a year now and has done several interviews. While it's true that there are media reports which suggest that Mr. Wintersmith may have had some political connection that helped his commutation application to find its way into the hands of President Obama, the fact is that Wintersmith free, has turned his life around, and is working with disadvantaged children.
The Clemency Project, a group of experienced criminal defense and non-profit lawyers have teamed up with the Justice Department to expedite the clemency process. Acting as gatekeepers for the Office of the Pardon Attorney by helping those who they believe have a legitimate chance of being granted clemency, and refusing those that don't, but many inmates who appear to meet the criteria are being turned away.
One such inmate was Dennis Hearron, a 75-year-old who has been in prison over 23 years, has no ties to gangs or criminal organizations, was not the kingpin of his conspiracy, and has an exemplary prison record. According to Hearron, the Clemency Project representative who handled his case said that his request for seeking help in preparing a clemency application had been denied but that the decision was not unanimous, implying that there is a panel of sorts who determine which inmate will move ahead in the process.
"The Clemency Project and this criteria of whose petition gets to Obama seems like a big lottery to me," said William Walker, an inmate currently housed at the Federal Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana, who is serving a 15-year sentence for guns and drugs. "They talk about Obama wanting people with clear conduct—people who were told they were never getting out or who had to do years and years in prison with no chance of parole all because we sold some drugs, and [are] supposed to behave, not be mad, and obey the rules. And if we didn't, or if we have prior drug convictions, then the Clemency Project turns us down and Obama won't let us out unless we have inside connections or millions of dollars to spend on a lawyer. It just don't seem right."
Another inmate who is also serving time at Terre Haute for drugs was recently denied by the Clemency Project based on his institutional behavior and criminal history, having three prior drug offenses. "My lawyer told me I was doing 30 years when I plead guilty, and I wouldn't be getting out anytime sooner than 25 years. I was 25-years-old at the time. Of course, I got into fights, and got drunk and got high back then—but that was years ago."
He also said that after being denied by the Clemency Project, he received a notice from FAMM saying to be patient and someone from the Clemency Project would contact him. "I don't think the Clemency Project is very organized,” he said. "But I think their intentions were good." He wished to remain anonymous because he is still hopeful that his clemency application will make its way into the hands of President Obama. "I have a co-defendant who was convicted in the same conspiracy as me, has the same criminal history as me, and has the same institutional record as me but the Clemency Project accepted him and denied me. Then I went and looked up all of the cases of those people Obama released and realized that some were big players—I was just a little guy. That's when I decided to file for clemency by myself."
Shortly after the Department of Justice implemented the new criteria for clemency applicants in 2014, the Federal Bureau of Prisons posted a questionnaire on the inmate electronic messaging system, encouraging all convicted drug offenders who feel they might be eligible for clemency under the new criteria to complete all of the questions. If an inmate wanted an attorney, the questionnaire informed, simply check the box and in due time someone from the Clemency Project would be contacting them.
Needless to say, the Clemency Project received more than 30,000 requests and was completely overwhelmed.
Margaret Love, the former U.S. Pardon Attorney for the Justice Department who served under former Presidents George H. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton, recognizes that more needs to be done. "I know that President Obama is committed to redressing some of the wrongs of federal sentencing, but I think he is going to need to put a system in place for handling hundreds as opposed to dozens of cases that deserve a sentence reduction." (April 1, Huffington Post).
Kenneth Choice, a first-time nonviolent drug offender serving a life sentence feels pretty good about his chances of being released. Not only does he fit the new criteria perfectly, but a lawyer from the Clemency Project has already contacted him and will soon be working on his case. Yet still, he wonders why Obama won't act alone.
"If you read the Commutation Policy it says two reasons why we can apply is severity of sentence and no chance of parole—it doesn't say a thing about clear conduct or prior convictions or nothing else. Then when you watch the news and see everything Obama is doing without Congress—Cuba, letting Gitmo detainees go, letting five million illegal immigrants stay, and so on and so forth, then you stop and think about how there's only less than 4,000 people in here with life sentences for drugs, you have to wonder why Obama just can't do it by himself? What would be so hard [about] reducing everybody's life sentence to 20 years if we haven't hurt no kids, or killed nobody, or ran a major cartel? Obama already said he thinks these kind of life sentences are wrong, so why put everyone through this—why put the Clemency Project lawyers through this when they can be doing something else—and just go take care of it yourself? I don't think it's asking too much to correct an injustice."
The question is, will President Obama give the other 3,200-plus federal prisoners serving life sentences for drugs the same opportunity? Or will he let Congress, an old White House policy, the Justice Department criteria and an over-burdened Clemency Project stand in his way? That remains to be seen. Hopefully, this new initiative by Obama can start righting the tremendous wrongs done by the drug war, a war on America’s people.
These 15 people got life for non-violent drug charges. Because of their life sentences, they are typically denied access to drug treatment, educational opportunities and even life-saving medical treatments. In short, they are essentially waiting to die.
Jana Drakka was born and raised in a working class Scottish town, a long way from San Francisco, where she was ordained as a Zen priest nearly 25 years ago. At the moment of her ordination, Jana walked out into the streets to work directly with people who suffer with addiction and homelessness. Inspired by Issan Dorsey, founder of Maitri Hospice, Jana began her street ministry by performing memorials for those who died on the streets, or in SRO hotels, serving as a witness for the lives of countless John and Jane Does whom no one else would claim.
Her calling brought her into contact with other helpers, professional people who work directly with mentally ill, addicted, and homeless people, where she learned about harm reduction. As she developed her practice, Jana was able to successfully reach out to people right where they were suffering in the moment, to connect and offer counsel. She also developed Harm Reduction Meditation—a unique approach to meditation she shares with people in need, providing respite in the most dire situations.
Jana has become a familiar figure on the streets of San Francisco—her “Zendo Without Walls”—well-known for her deep compassion, her ability to make connections, her rowdy sense of humor, as well as her political activism in various arenas, including LGBT and sex worker advocacy. After working through an illness and a period of homelessness, Jana is living at a retreat center about an hour away from San Francisco. She travels to the city a few times a month, and trains and ordains other Zen priests to carry on her harm reduction work. Most recently, she was featured in the latest edition of Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics, a collection of writings from several Buddhist luminaries. I had the honor of speaking with her at length, and I am pleased to share an excerpt of our phone conversation with you.
I'm curious about how you went from living in the monastery to working with people on the street, and I'm also interested in your introduction to harm reduction and how you see it aligning with your Buddhist principles.
Do no harm. There it is, right there: reducing the harm you do to yourself. It absolutely synchronizes completely with Buddhist practice—how to meet everyone where they are. It started out when I heard there were not many memorials happening in the SRO hotels. So when I heard that, I went to a big one that was for everybody that died on the street the first Christmas. I was very moved by it. And then I started to go into the SRO hotels where people lived, and offered memorials there. I noticed that the case managers who worked there—when they were talking to the residents—they had a whole skill set that I didn't have. They were reaching people better; they were supporting people better. I got friendly with some of them, and I just asked one of them: “What is it you're doing? There's something else, some skill set you have.” And he told me, “Oh, it's called harm reduction.” I started going to classes in Oakland, took harm reduction to an advanced level and went on to a wonderful skill set called motivational interviewing. I studied up on that, and was able, then, to meet people much better.
Is this breath worth more than a million dollars? Yeah! [Laughs.] I mean, they're all a gift!
There's a big resource center for homeless people called Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, and they sent a message to the Zen Center, saying, “Would anyone like to try to teach meditation to a group of active drug users?” Well, I was the only one that said “Yes!” [Laughs.] So, that was fierce. That was really fierce. I had a conference room and maybe a dozen people would come. I always provided food. I learned very quickly to do that at the end, and not at the beginning, because if you provide it at the beginning, people run in, eat, and leave again. I mean, you're helping them, but not as much as you could. I ended up doing a group there every week, with a therapist. We started each group with zazen [meditation]. I learned to do short pieces of zazen that were focused on particular issues we were all looking at. Do a minimum of 10 minutes, because 10 minutes is the length of time a craving lasts if you don't interact with it. Everything was at least 10 minutes, so that they could see right away that they had the power over their—I don't like to use the word “addiction”—on their chaotic use of substances.
How receptive do you find people, especially disenfranchised people, homeless people, people very lost in these behaviors to, not just meditation—which a lot of people are resistant to, anyway—but also meditating with a Zen priest?
Well, I don't dress in robes when I'm on the street, unless I'm doing a memorial. But I do tend to wear a little something, like a samue jacket or a hippari, something like that, because I found out that people like it. They love it that a priest is sitting down with them, and they're not used to priests being all warm and friendly. [Laughs] And I have a misspent youth. I can relate. I've been homeless. I've used, you know? I've done things in my life I'm not proud of.
There was a woman I was working with who couldn't stop stealing dresses. She started to tell me [about it]. She was looking kind of ashamed, and I said, “You know what? When I was about 15, I really got into shoplifting.” And I started telling her about one of my shoplifting episodes. She was so happy! [Laughs.] That's what I call the Issan Dorsey Effect. Issan had an enormously wild life and used all the drugs you can think of. And became a dharma ancestor. Changed, you know? So when they see that I'm just a regular person that has a past life, but it's changed a lot, then it's very encouraging. Whereas if I were someone who was all holy-schmoly, it wouldn't last five seconds! [Laughs.]
Right, they wouldn't be able to relate to you at all.
Right. I don't bring it up right away that I'm a priest. I don't work much indoors, because a lot of the trouble with the folks I work with is they're sitting on the street—not because they like sitting on the street, but because they have no kitchens or dining rooms or living rooms or gardens to hang out in. My groups are usually outdoors in the community garden. I don't do formal zazen, and I don't use the word zazen, because it's a bit odd for people.
We do things like cup-of-coffee meditation or looking-at-the-trees meditation. Basically, I train them to focus their attention on something other than their own thoughts. For example, the woman that was stealing dresses, I took her to a café. She could never understand why she kept stealing dresses. I mean, she was in her 50s and every time she walks into Macy's now, they just throw her out before she does anything! [Laughs.] So, we did soda meditation: We sat and talked, and every time she got upset, she held the soda and felt the cold and listened to the bubbles, and then she could go on with her story. All of a sudden, she went, “Oh my God! I know now; I know!” And I said, “What is it, honey?” And she said, “Well, when it was my eighth birthday, my dad said he was going to buy me this beautiful dress. He went out to buy it and we never saw him again.”
I said, “Honey, you've been stealing the same dress for 40 years!” And she actually laughed. I mean, her life was in a terrible state with addiction and homelessness, but she burst out laughing. And then she said, “You know what, Jana?” I said, “What is it?” She said, “I don't even like dresses.” [Laughs.] But, that's the harm reduction in action. I would never have been able to sit down and talk with that woman if I was dressed as a priest trying to share zazen.
What does a day in your life practicing harm reduction on the street look like?
Basically, the most important part of it is zazen in the morning, so that I'm ready. Get really, really, really, centered before I go out. And often the day would be something like, say, a memorial, perhaps, in the morning, at one of the SRO hotels. We usually do a little bit of sitting [meditation] at the memorials, and then I stay behind after to counsel people. And that's when we really get into working with harm reduction. You know, what's going on in their lives, how they can lessen their suffering—do less harm to themselves. So, the counseling part afterwards is really important. In harm reduction, you can do the best counseling in the world over a cigarette for five minutes.
Sometimes, it's just so important to connect and be able to listen. People are not used to being listened to. And then I usually would have lunch with one of the case managers, because I was running a support group for the case managers as well. And then the afternoon would probably be one of the garden meditation groups. And usually, I would put in a bit at hospice.
[After some discussion of the social services infrastructure in San Francisco.]
So, yeah, we really have a lot of work to do. I really think it's spreading. Our meditation practice and developing compassion and lovingkindness is the way forward. I think that Zen Buddhism is revolutionary. What we need is the spiritual revolution. And that's what's happening. I can see the wheels starting to turn, thank goodness. I'm not playing with false hope, but I'm chipping away at it at a grassroots level.
As long as we can see that there are possibilities...
Yes, it's so simple, just be right here in this moment and realize that our thoughts are all barriers to perceiving reality. That's it. Right there. Not beating yourself up because of your past failures. I mean, this is so important to share with people. This is what counts so much in the shelters, for example: You're not worthless, useless, and a piece of trash! Let's start again and look at what you really are, without those thoughts, without those feelings.
How do people in the shelters receive that information from you?
The thing is, because of harm reduction techniques, I never impose my opinions on them or tell them anything about themselves. It's more about allowing. As you know, you can't really teach this stuff. It's more about putting people in the situation where they begin to see it for themselves.
Right, and there's where something like motivational interviewing...
Yes. Exactly. Approaching it that way. I'm still in touch with quite a few people. One friend credits the staying-present meditation with her success out in the world now. It wouldn't have happened if she hadn't learned to sit zazen, basically. And also to be completely accepted for who she is. She's transsexual, and how many transsexuals have you seen in Buddhist temples?
I don't know!
[Jana makes a game show buzzer sound and laughs.] When I saw it could work on someone who was as depressed as I was, and so horrified by the world and its actions... And now, I'm sitting here looking out the window at the trees, and the birds are sounding beautiful, the raindrops are coming down, and the chicks have gone quiet. This is nirvana right here. Right here in this moment, with this breath. And we also talk a lot about the preciousness of breath. Because, you know, when we stop to look down upon ourselves, and treat ourselves badly, we don't really think there's anything much precious going on.
For example, one of my guys who has trouble with alcohol, he came to me one day and he said, “Jana, I stayed up all last night!” And I'm like, oh, gosh, what happened? Did he fall off the wagon or something? And he says, “You know, you keep telling us to pay attention to our breathing?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I always find it really hard.” And I said, “Yeah...” He said, “Well, last night, I was sitting there, and I took a deep breath, and suddenly I asked myself, is that worth more than a million dollars? And I answered myself yes, because I couldn't buy another one.” And he said, “I got so excited by that idea, so the next breath I thought, is that worth more than a Cadillac? Yes!” [Laughs.] That was his breakthrough night. The whole night long, he sat up thinking this breath is worth more than... you know. He came up and he was laughing and telling me this, and it was wonderful. Actually, he's completely abstentious now. He doesn't drink at all.
That's a great story. I love that idea.
Is this breath worth more than a million dollars? Yeah! [Laughs.] I mean, they're all a gift! The last night of a seven-day sitting, we had this great Irish priest, Paul Haller, and we're all sitting there, beginning to be a bit satisfied. You'd made it through a week of hell. It's the last night and you're feeling good about yourself, and suddenly, he says, “This breath is your last breath.” And you could hear all around you, [Jana gasps]. He gave it a minute, which was kind of scary, and then he said, “The next one is a gift.” And to me, that's it. The next one is always a gift. People can get down with that. And it doesn't matter who you think the gift came from, or where it came from, the fact is that every single one of us gets a precious gift very often.
Ilse Thompson is the co-author (with Stanton Peele) of Recover! Stop Thinking Like An Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program (with Stanton Peele). She is currently an M.Div. student at Maitripa College, in Portland, Oregon.