Adjusting to freedom after 22 years in prison

The Washington Post has a series about the legacy of the war on drugs and the current efforts to reduce the prison population of non-violent offenders. One of the stories told is about Donel Marcus Clark who spent years in jail for the intent to distribute cocaine. Donel Clark’s sentence for his first offense was 35 years.

The 51 year old Mr. Clark was granted clemency this year after serving 22 years of his 35 year sentence.

A 51-year-old who has spent more than two decades behind bars, Clark is one of 22 nonviolent drug offenders whom Obama granted clemency in March in an effort to shorten the harsh mandatory minimum sentences imposed on thousands of mostly African American men during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.

Those ex-convicts, along with 46 others given commutations in July, are making their way from federal prison back into neighborhoods around the country. Separately, 6,000 federal prisoners will be released at the end of the month after retroactive changes in sentencing guidelines.

After receiving Obama’s clemency letter six months ago in the Seagoville federal prison, just southeast of here, Clark was surrounded by guards and inmates who shook his hand and congratulated him.

He was free, they told him. But freedom, he learned, comes step by bureaucratic step.

Inmates granted clemency are first moved to lower-security prisons, then to halfway houses before home-confinement and, finally, probation.

Clark was initially transferred to a minimum-security prison camp at Seagoville, but outside the high razor-wire fence.

The article talks about Mr. Clark’s background and the details that led to his becoming involved in packaging drugs.

Raised by his grandmother after his mother died of cancer when he was 13, Clark went to church regularly and worked at a grocery store during high school. He was hired to work full time after graduating and a few years later took on a second job managing a liquor store for a friend. At 24 he married Ceyita Sampson, a neighborhood girl. They had a son and bought a house.

But Clark’s life began unraveling when he got fired after getting into an argument with his manager at the grocery store when he was not paid for doing extra work.

I was young and stupid,” Clark said.

About the same time, his friend decided to sell the liquor store and Clark knew he was about to lose that job as well. By then he was supporting three children, including one with an ex-girlfriend and his wife’s son from a previous relationship.

When a former classmate and known drug dealer came into the liquor store, Clark noticed his new truck with new jet skis on the back. Clark asked if there was a role for him in the business.

“He said, ‘This isn’t for you,’ ” Clark recalled. “I wasn’t a street guy. But I told him, ‘I’ve got bills, I’ve got family. I need some help.’ ”

His friend offered him a job packaging the drugs and supervising the “kitchen crew” — which cooked the powdered cocaine into crack. He would get paid $1,000 a week.

“I was like, man, $1,000 a week!” Clark said. He didn’t worry about money for a year and a half. He bought his wife jewelry and a car.

Then in May 1992, he was arrested. Police raided his house, and the recently purchased cars, televisions sets and electronic gear were all seized.

After a three-week trial a year later, Clark, then 29, was convicted of conspiracy with intent to distribute cocaine, using the phone to commit a felony and manufacturing cocaine near a school — one member of the group lived within 1,000 feet of one. The judge determined that the group distributed more than 50 kilos of crack.

Clark, who had never been arrested before, was sentenced to 35 years.

Later, the prosecutor in the case said she always believed Clark’s sentence was too severe, but in court the judge said his hands were tied.

Clark was sent about 1,500 miles away from his wife and three sons — then 12, 8 and 4 — to Allenwood prison in Pennsylvania.

Check out the entire article at the Washington Post.com.

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