I Was Granted Clemency After Serving 25 Years of a Life Sentence for Drugs

By Seth Ferranti 09/16/16

When Obama granted clemency to 111 non-violent federal drug criminals, Tim Tyler—who got life in prison for LSD—was on the list.

Tim Tyler
Tim Tyler was arrested for selling acid while following The Grateful Dead during the '80s and '90s. via FAMM

When President Obama commuted the drug war sentences of 111 non-violent federal prisoners on August 30, long-term prisoner, Grateful Dead fan and LSD offender Tim Tyler, who’s been a sort of poster boy for what's wrong with the War on Drugs since the '90s, was finally granted release from his draconian life sentence. The Fix covered Tyler’s story a year ago, as have numerous other media outlets including VICE, Rolling Stone and CNN, pointing out the absurdity of the life sentence he received when he was just 22 years old. 

Sentencing advocacy groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) have long championed Tyler’s case and criticized the federal three strikes law that he was sentenced under, especially since he only received probation for the first two strikes which resulted from LSD charges. Now after almost 25 years, Tyler can see a light at the end of the tunnel. With completion of the Bureau of Prisons' Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), Tyler is eligible to be released on August 30, 2018. With his story going viral on the Internet, The Fix chatted with the now 47-year-old Tyler by phone from Federal Correctional Institution, Jesup, a medium-to-high security prison in Georgia, to find out how it feels to be granted clemency when you’re doing a life sentence.

How and when did you find out that President Obama commuted your life sentence?

They called me to Receiving & Discharge at 1:40 in the afternoon on August 30. The guard told me that I had to be there exactly at 2:00 p.m. Everybody knows that if you get called to R&D at a specific time, then you’re there to receive a clemency. If you’re getting a denial, they call you to the mailroom. I was placed in this waiting room. Two other guys were also placed in the same room as me. I said to them, "What do you think the odds are that all three of us are in this room and we have one thing in common, we are wishing on a clemency." 

Not one of us would believe it until they called us and gave us the news individually. They called me to the Assistant Warden's office and immediately put Professor Ogilvy from Catholic University on the speakerphone to talk to me. He said, "Mr. Tyler, I have some good news for you sir." Before he could say any more, I had to breathe deep to keep from crying. He then said, "The Office of The Pardon Attorney called me and said that the President of the United States had decided to grant you clemency. The clemency will have a conditional release of August 30, 2018 with the condition that you enroll in a residential drug program.”

What did it feel like to know that you don’t have to die in prison due to the War on Drugs, and that you have an out date and can go home?

Without FAMM, and particularly Julie Stewart, finding me and recognizing my plight, I would still possibly be just a number with no future. The president really granted me another chance. I keep waking up and waiting to see if this really happened. Then, I see the signed clemency and realize this is going to happen. I never imagined this day would come. It feels unreal to know that I can be home eating organic vegan in one year. It is like having nothing to continue to go on for one morning, and then in the afternoon, a caring, compassionate person decided to give you another chance. These prisons are not designed for a person to live in for 20 years.

They asked me what’s the first thing I’ll do when released. I answered, to hug my mom and sister. Then, to detoxify my body. I would be happy with an avocado and a garlic clove, and treasure that moment. I honestly never thought this day would come. I did live for many years with a belief in Jerry Garcia's end date that Terence McKenna imagined of 12-21-2012. When that date came and went, I had spent 20 years waiting on that. Technically, a global shift of consciousness did happen on that date though. 

They legalized weed in two states for the free world people. They gave us in the federal prison system access to mp3 players, which finally allowed me to listen to my favorite band's music. That was a feeling of freedom that I will never forget either. I used to stare at the mp3 player and could not believe I could even listen to it. So thankful to the president for allowing that music player in my life, that I seemed content. Then with this clemency, he has shown me forgiveness and love without perhaps even comprehending the amount of karma he has cured.

As a stipulation of your commutation, you have to take the Bureau of Prisons' Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). Do you think going through a drug program at this stage of your incarceration will help you?

I will proceed with the nine-month program. I am not sure why I have to take this program, but I did notice that at least a dozen on the clemency list have to take it. Perhaps it’s to get used to speaking in front of people to help my future. Perhaps it’s because of numerology. It’s not for my ingesting drugs though. We get urine tested at random and I can count 50 times through the years where they have wasted taxpayer money testing me. I have never given them a dirty, which is saying plenty coming from a deadhead who has enjoyed some kind in the free world. 

Prison administrators will take away your phone privilege and throw you in the hole for a couple of months for even smoking one joint. I value being able to call my sister and mom more than I value a joint, is how I’d explain that. Everything happens for a reason and I’m sure the reason for the drug program will show itself to me. I will just embrace it and learn, which will give me plenty to talk about one day that may be of interest to a few and perhaps save some from my plight. 

What challenges do you think you’ll face with technology, considering there was no Internet or smartphones when you got locked?

As far as technology goes, I used to program the VCR for my dad. Then I would set up his fax machine. I am a quick learner with anything. I will embrace the new technology and learn it, because it will be required if I want to help out other people that find themselves in my shoes.

What do you have to say to all the people that have been supporting you and your fight for freedom?

The people that have supported me are all kind. I am so blessed to have support in the first place. My sister should receive a medal for all that she’s done for me. I can thank people all day and night, but I did want to especially thank the ACLU with Jennifer Turner placing ads in many magazines around the country with six pictures on them. My picture was one of them and it drew plenty of attention to us that were serving non-violent drug offenses. I believe that out of the six of us, only one hasn’t been granted clemency yet. 

I want to thank The Fix, VICE, and Rolling Stone for running stories that helped gather support for my freedom. Then there is Relix magazine that supported me for this whole sentence. I would write them at the "Letters from Prisoners" page and they would print my article every time I wrote. When I just say the words "thank you," it seems perhaps just another word, but the meaning of the words come from my heart. One day I will have to go to CNN in person and thank them so everyone can watch my tears and know how thankful I am to every single person.

My sister is realizing that we can live again. Together we will heal and end her 24-year depression. She and my mom have had a great burden lifted off of their spirit. My sister and I have always been close. When she is feeling bad then I am too, even from a distance of 2,500 miles. The friends that have supported me, at least from the ones that I email, have overwhelmed me with tears. I received a card and letter from this woman in Florida exactly two days after I received clemency.

If you could talk to President Obama, what would you say to him?

I would say to the president that what you’ve done has released bad karma from society. I understand that many are into their phones and have not even known about some of these laws. If you took all lifers right now and reduced their sentence to 30 years, it would not only give them a possible chance at freedom one day, it would perhaps slow or stop plenty of the violence in the penitentiaries. If you brought back parole again and really took caution with it, you would end violence in federal prisons for the most part. 

Give a person a chance, even if it is far into the future, something to look forward to or strive to do better—then most people will make that attempt. Part of your legacy is prison reform. I have seen firsthand the changes inside prison, where SHU time (what we call "the Hole") has been used more cautiously throughout the system. You have come and saved my life on August 30, 2016. May history record and show the kind and intelligent man that you are. I am humbly thankful.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.