A Prisoner Pardoned by Obama Speaks

By Robert Rosso 01/05/16

"I never thought this was really going to happen. Never in a million years. I was all the way overwhelmed."

A Prisoner Pardoned by Obama Speaks

Eric Orington was working in the UNICOR prison factory when one of his bosses told him that his case manager, Mr. Shoemaker, wanted to see him in his office. When you are a federal prisoner and your pay level is grade-one with maximum longevity—$1.40 an hour—you have reached the pinnacle of job success inside the belly of the beast and the last thing you want to do is take a single minute off work and miss some money.

"I really didn't want to pay him no mind," Orington admits to The Fix. "I had a lot of work to do and I didn't want to get docked any of my pay."

Checking his watch, he recalls that it was "about 12:45" and he decided to keep working until one. With any luck, he thought, he could make it up to Shoemaker's office and be in-and-out before the one o'clock controlled movement ended.

"But then another boss came and told me I needed to go see Shoemaker now, so I just gone ahead and went," he says.

A few minutes later, he was standing in Case Manager Shoemaker's office.

"I just remember he asked me if I knew what I was doing in his office, and I told him I had no idea," Orington tells The Fix. "And that's when he told me what he did."

"You got a blessing," he remembers Shoemaker saying. "President Obama gave you a gift; your sentence has been commuted."

Orington said he couldn't believe it. He was shocked beyond belief.

"I never thought this was really going to happen," he says about the commutation. "Never in a million years. I was all the way overwhelmed."

And the truth of the matter is that Orington admittedly broke down and cried. Tears of relief and jubilation at being released from an unjust drug sentence that so many drug offenders in this country are dealing with.

On Sunday, December 20, at the library inside of the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Terre Haute, Indiana, The Fix sat down with Eric Orington for an exclusive one-on-one interview. The scope of the interview was originally intended to get his reaction to the good news, find out a little bit about his life and learn of his future plans. But what Orington revealed was an amazing story, about how one man’s selfless act led to another man’s freedom.

In 1994, Orington was convicted of possession with the intent to distribute 260 grams of crack cocaine. Because he had "numerous" prior drug convictions, he was sentenced under the federal career offender statute, 21 U.S.C. 851, and received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of release. A small-time drug offender with a criminal past, he got hammered.

Orington was originally sent to United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, a maximum-security federal prison. With the exception of one fight early on, his good conduct earned him a transfer to FCI Greenville, Illinois, a medium-security facility. There, he immediately started working in the prison factory and "stayed out of the way," meaning he didn't participate in all of the nefarious prison schemes and conflicts that are paramount on every compound across the nation.

Enter Steven Tyrone Johnson.

Also serving a life sentence for cocaine, Johnson and Orington met while working in the prison factory and instantly became good friends. According to Johnson, "Me and Easy (Orington's nickname) used to go in the law library a lot and keep up on the cases. Anytime there was changes in the law, we tried to make it work for our cases."

In 2005, Johnson wanted a change of scenery. He had been at Greenville long enough and put in for a transfer to FCI Terre Haute, the same prison where Orington had spent three years, only it had since been turned into a medium-security facility. Wanting to remain with his friend, Johnson urged Orington to go to Terre Haute with him.

"I didn't want to go," said Orington. "But I didn't really associate with nobody but him, so I went on and put in for my transfer and they sent both of us to Terre Haute."

Once at Terre Haute they immediately went to work in UNICOR, the part of Federal Prison Industries where prisoners can work and make decent money (decent money for prison, that is). Over the years the two not only worked their way up to the maximum pay scale, but they also maintained clean conduct and spent time in the law library regularly studying the changes in the law, of which there were many, in the hopes of finding some relief from their life sentences. Unfortunately, none of the changes applied to them.

Then, along came President Obama.

"We always believed Obama was gonna do something big for prisoners,” Johnson says, who sat beside Orington in the library as we did the interview. "But we didn't know what it was, or what we would need to file. We just believed in Obama."

In 2014, Johnson befriended the prison's junior law clerk, a guy who "is one of the best I've seen since I've been in prison," says Johnson. "I knew he was the one I needed to help me and Easy."

Although the law clerk did agree to help Johnson, he didn't have the time to help Orington.

"So one day the man (law clerk) tells me to get all of my papers together and bring them to the library the next day," says Johnson. "I asked him again to help Easy, but he wouldn't do it. He told me he only had time to do one more."

The following day, Johnson returned to the library with a stack of papers in his hand. As he handed them over to the law clerk, Johnson recalls saying: "These here are my friend Easy's papers. Go on and take care of him and I'll figure out something later.” A selfless act that would pay big dividends.

"That's about the way he said it, too," Orington confirms. "And something inside me felt wrong, like I was doing something bad. I tried to tell Brother Johnson I couldn't do it, but he wouldn't hear it. That’s just how he be."

The decision to forfeit his chance to have arguably the best jailhouse lawyer in Terre Haute prepare his clemency petition was based on "prayer and a gut feeling," Johnson says. He further stated that—given the fact Orington was convicted of selling a substantially smaller amount of cocaine than he was—he felt Orington had a much better chance at early release, a feeling that was confirmed less than two months later when the Justice Department laid out a new criteria for clemency petitions.

"I fit every part of the criteria,” Orington tells The Fix. "I mean all of it."

As part of the Clemency Project 2014, prisoners such as Orington who fit the criteria could apply for a attorney—free of charge—by completing an electronic survey that was sent to all federal prisoners in general population in the spring of 2014. Besides filing his clemency petition pro se (representing one's self), Orington also sought guidance from a lawyer.

"I called my lawyer a couple of weeks ago and he said we was still 'getting it together,'" Orington says, meaning that his attorney still had not filed his clemency petition. "I don't think the Clemency Project is working too good. As far as I know, he still working on it."

With his projected release date being April 16, 2016, Eric Orington will soon be residing in Champaign, Illinois, where he will be staying with a "lady friend." His future priorities are very simple: To have a relationship with his 26-year-old son, to be a model probationer, to be active in his community and to have a simple job.

"After working in a prison factory 16 years making less than two dollars an hour, I'll do anything," says Orington. "Work in a warehouse, a factory, a hotel—I like people and I like to work."

James Holt, who works in UNICOR with Orington says that he believes Orington will be just fine.

"Easy runs the sheet line in the sheet factory and he has 12 people under him," Holt says. "He's a hard boss to work for if you're lazy, because he's all about producing and doing his job. He definitely ain’t coming back to prison.”

And that’s what the clemency process is about. Identifying prisoners in the drug war that have been sentenced harshly and deserve a second chance. Eric Orington was one of the 95 federal inmates whose sentences President Obama just commuted but there are many more that are worthy of a second chance. President Obama has made a step in the right direction to right the wrongs of the drug war but there is still much more to be done. 

Robert Rosso is serving life in federal prison for a non-violent drug conviction. He also writes for VICE and has written for numerous publications and websites during his close to 20 years of incarceration. You can follow him on Twitter @robertrosso69

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Robert J. Rosso is a journalist serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. He writes for VICE and TheFix. You can follow Robert on Twitter.