Pubdate: Fri, 16 Oct 2015
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2015 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Sari Horwitz, The Washington Post


A Nonviolent Drug Offender Granted Clemency After 2 Decades Behind 
Bars Adjusts to Life on the Outside

DALLAS - The recently released federal prisoner sat down at his 
sister's dining room table. He pulled out a legal pad and began the 
letter he had been turning over in his mind for several months:

"Dear Mr. President, I am writing you today with the utmost gratitude 
to personally thank you for granting my petition for clemency on 
March 31, 2015. Your actions have given me a second chance to start 
living life normally again and mere words can't express how truly 
grateful I am for your making this moment possible. The Bible says, 
'To whom much is given, much is required,' and I vow to make the most 
of this unique opportunity that I've been given."

He went back and crossed out the words, "second chance," replacing 
them with "unique opportunity." He frowned. The change made the 
letter look sloppy. He tore out the page and started again. After 
writing the lines in neat print, he paused and took off his reading glasses.

How would he end it, he asked?

"When I read the president's letter to me, I could hear Obama's 
voice," he said as he wrote the letter last month. "I could just hear 
him saying those things to me personally, particularly when he said, 
'You've been given a unique opportunity.' He was saying, don't mess 
it up for the guys behind you. I took that to heart."

There is a lot to do. He has to find a permanent place to live. He 
has to avoid old friends who might have drugs, guns or felony 
records. He has to build relationships with sons who have only ever 
known him as a voice on the telephone. And he has to decide if he 
wants to get back with his wife, the woman who broke his heart.

He picked up the pen again.

"I vow to do many good things with the rest of my life. I realize 
that I am only one of many whom you have granted clemency to, but I 
want to assure you that I won't let you down.

Sincerely, Donel Marcus Clark."

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 Dallas, 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.

"After 22 years, it was my first taste of freedom," Clark said.

Three weeks later, at 7:25 a.m. on April 30, Clark was released from 
Seagoville prison. "Don't come back," a guard said. "Don't worry 
about that," Clark replied.

He pushed open the front glass door to a bright, chilly morning. His 
sister and his niece were waiting in the parking lot.

"My uncle Marc is coming home!" his niece, Kristen, yelled. "A long 
time coming. Oh my God!"

Clark, dressed in drab gray prison shorts and a T-shirt, tried not to 
show any emotion as he walked down the long prison sidewalk.

When he reached their car, he broke into laughter and hugged them tight.

Life behind bars

Donel Marcus "Marc" Clark was known as a "square" in the southeast 
Dallas neighborhood where he grew up.

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.

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.

Two years later, Clark's prison was one of four that erupted in what 
became known as the crack riots of 1995.

After Congress rejected a proposal by the U.S. Sentencing Commission 
to undo the huge disparity in sentencing between possession of 
cocaine powder and crack, uprisings broke out at four federal 
prisons. Inmates smashed windows, set fire to mattresses and attacked 
guards. Dozens of prisoners, guards and staff were hurt.

Although Clark was not involved in the rioting, he, like all the 
other inmates, was confined to his cell in a prison-wide lockdown for 
weeks afterward. It was during that time that a guard delivered a 
letter informing him that his appeal had been denied.

Soon after that, Clark's wife stopped sending the money he needed to 
make phone calls, buy food at the commissary and send emails. "It's 
hard out here," she told him, saying she needed to take care of their sons.

To survive life behind bars, Clark adopted a threepart strategy: He 
woke early every morning and ran three miles. Although many inmates 
chose not to work for the low wages, he went to a prison job in the 
textile factory every day, sewing pockets on military jackets for 
$1.24 an hour. And he studied the Bible.

"My faith in Christ is what sustained me," Clark said. He maintained 
a perfect disciplinary record.

In 2004, following five years in a Louisiana prison, Clark was 
finally transferred to Texas and his sister, Barbara McNair, could 
visit, along with his sons and his wife. Prison rules dictate how 
long spouses can hug and kiss in the visiting room. But, by that 
time, it didn't matter.

"We weren't in a kissing frame of mind," Clark said.

Halfway home

When Clark was released from the low-security camp, his sister and 
niece drove him to a Fort Worth halfway house where he had to report 

On the way, he rushed into a Whataburger to pick up fries and a burger to go.

When they arrived at the facility, Clark was told he couldn't eat. He 
had to fill out forms and take a drug test. Two hours later, an 
administrator allowed him to take out his food, now cold.

"It was still good," Clark said, "because it was real food, not prison food."

Still under the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, Clark was assigned 
for the next three months to a bunk bed in a room with 18 other men 
in a squat brick building run by the Volunteers of America.

"You think you're free, but this was just a different prison with a 
new set of rules," Clark said. "You're looking to get back into 
society, get back to your family and get back into the world. They 
give you a taste of freedom but say, 'We're not going to give it all 
to you yet.' "Clark could only leave to look for a job, go to work or 
attend church. He could only have a basic phone with no ability to 
use the Internet. He had to report in every few hours from a landline.

After the halfway house, Clark was moved to "home confinement" and 
was allowed to sleep at his sister's house. He was subject to random 
searches and phone calls, including in the middle of the night. A 
staffer showed up unannounced one time to see if there were drugs or 
alcohol in the house or if Clark had a smartphone.

Clark finally landed a job, at $13.45 an hour, in the freezer section 
of a warehouse run by the grocery chain Kroger, which, like a growing 
number of companies, is willing to give exoffenders a second chance.

'You're out'

At 6:05 a.m. on July 28, Clark signed his name on the Justice 
Department's "Notice of Release" form at the front counter.

"You're out," said Merrill Wells, facility director of the halfway 
house. "Good luck!"

Clark had to report to a U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services office 
where he filled out more forms and was given a new set of 
restrictions. He was told that he can't communicate with anyone with 
a felony conviction or travel beyond a certain area without 
permission. He took another drug test and is subject to one at any 
moment over the next four years.

Clark drove to downtown Dallas for a celebratory lunch with his 
lawyer, Brittany Byrd. In a sleek restaurant in Klyde Warren Park, 
Clark ordered Atlantic hake fish and chips and looked out the 
floor-toceiling windows, watching children playing and splashing in 
the park's water fountain. He bowed his head and prayed.

"Today is my first day of real freedom," he said.

That night, Clark drove to the apartment of his wife, Ceyita. She had 
come to visit him in the halfway house and told him that she wanted 
him back. In her apartment, Clark looked around for signs of another 
man. He peeked in the medicine cabinet and her closet. No sign.

Ceyita played him a song by Tyrese called "Shame."

"I need your forgiveness and your mercy, too. I must be all kinda 
crazy for what I've done to you. I hope you understand that my heart 
is true. ... This is not an excuse. I'm just telling the truth. Baby, 
I'm so sorry for hurting you."

Clark was touched but uncertain. This was a complicated decision. His 
wife abandoned him, he felt, yet she never divorced him. With his 
deep religious faith, Clark does not want to violate his marriage vows.

"I don't know," Clark said. "I need to take it slow."

He agreed to date her to see if "the old feeling is there."

One recent evening, Clark put on a new shirt. His wife picked him up 
at his sister's house and they drove to a nearby T.G.I. Friday's. 
Over $12 endless appetizers, they laughed about how they first met at 
a carwash three decades ago.

Then Clark pulled out his new smartphone, and they looked at photos 
of their sons and grandchildren - another step in his struggle to 
catch up with the past 22 years.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom