US & Canada

Inmate families hope for the mercy of a president

Miquelle West prepares for her visit to the White House
Image caption Miquelle West prepares for her visit to the White House

For families of federal inmates who have asked President Obama for executive clemency, the wait has been excruciating. For both the administration and the prisoners, time is running out.

Standing in front of a mirrored closet in her hotel room, Miquelle West considered two outfits to wear to an invitation-only event at the White House: a Christian Dior dress or a custom dark suit.

West - a celebrity stylist living in Los Angeles - knew what her grandmother would have said: dress "like a proper lady". But unlike most civilians whose invitation to the White House marks a happy occasion, West was not there to celebrate.

"I just feel like I need to be more business savvy," she said. "This is an important conversation. It's probably one of the most important conversations I'll ever have in my life."

She chose the suit.

Miquelle's mother, Michelle West, was given a double life sentence plus 50 years for her role in a drug operation in Flint, Michigan, in the 1990s. Though it was her first offence, a man was murdered by West's associates. The triggerman received immunity for testifying against the others in the ring and West got a much heftier sentence by choosing to go to trial.

At this point, Michelle West will spend the rest of her life in prison unless she receives a presidential commutation.

Past presidents have used this unique executive power extremely rarely, but the Obama administration has already commuted the sentences of 248 individuals, more than the last six presidents combined.

The creation of Obama's Clemency Project 2014 - which aimed to be a comprehensive review of the cases of first-time, nonviolent drug offenders who had served a minimum of 10 years - sent a shockwave of new energy and hope through the federal prison system, resulting in 36,000 applications for clemency.

However, according to Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St Thomas School of Law who represents several inmates in their bids for clemency, those newly raised hopes are a double-edged sword. Since its creation two years ago, CP2014 has shown its weaknesses and the clock is running down on the Obama presidency. It's unclear how any of the possible incoming administrations might treat the program.

"I talk to people in prison a lot and there's a high level of anxiety amongst those who are very hopeful," he says. "If you think about it, from the perspective of [the inmate], that's the most important thing in your life is the chance of getting that letter from the president."

That hopeful anxiety spreads to inmates' families, which is why 33-year-old Miquelle - who says her mom personally typed up all her resumes and pores over fashion magazines from behind bars to send ideas and clippings - has flown from Los Angeles to Washington DC for the White House's "Life After Clemency" event on 31 March.

She joined 19 men and women who have already received pardons and commutations from the current president and from former administrations as far back as Gerald Ford's. It was an opportunity to share "expertise and insights on returning to society after years behind bars", according to the White House.

Although the focus was meant to be on re-entry for former inmates, Nkechi Taifa - a senior policy analyst and lawyer at the Open Society Foundations who organised the event - said she wanted to make sure the families of inmates still waiting were represented.

"Their families are serving time with their loved ones," said Taifa. "That's an untold story."

Though the White House invite specifically said that the event is "not an opportunity to discuss individual petitions", Miquelle went into the day hopeful that she would be able to help her mother's case. She was also quietly hoping to meet the president.

"I'm going to let him know that I think he's the most elegant president that we've ever seen…then I think I'll go into my mom's situation and say I think she deserves a second chance. And I do, too."

At the inception of Clemency Project 2014, former Attorney General Eric Holder thought the administration might grant as many as 10,000 clemencies. Instead, the process became bogged down by delays and bureaucracy.

The administration's Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff resigned in January, complaining in her letter that the justice department "has not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency". Just eight months away from the end of his time in office, Obama's 248 commutations fall far short of the project's initial goals.

Image caption Miquelle speaks at the "Life after Clemency" event

Over 9,000 petitions that meet the Clemency Project criteria are still pending. Some inmates who've been granted clemency in the last two years did not meet the criteria, fuelling confusion over the process, which is notoriously secretive.

The Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment from BBC News.

Criteria for inclusion in Clemency Project 2014:

  • non-violent, low-level offenders
  • no ties to gangs or organised crime
  • served at least 10 years
  • no significant criminal history
  • good behaviour in prison
  • no history of violence

Source: Clemency Project 2014

"It is a certainty that there will be hundreds and hundreds of people who meet [the Clemency Project] criteria who won't get released and to me that is a tragedy," says Rachel Barkow, a law professor at New York University and cofounder of the Clemency Resource Center.

"They will have suffered twice. They've had their expectations raised and then they will be denied it again."

These raised hopes are the most devastating, unintended consequences of Clemency Project 2014. The worst of it for Alice Marie Johnson, a 60-year-old model inmate serving life plus 25 years without parole for her first drug case, came at the last holiday season. Rumours flew around her prison in Alabama that she was on the list of clemency recipients.

"I believe that this year [my family] will have an even greater cause for celebration when my clemency is announced," Johnson wrote in an email message to BBC News at the time. "This is the season of miracles!"

Hours later she wrote again.

"I'm not on the list. I just talked to my attorney. This is the last time that I will put my family through the heart ache of expectations," she said.

Image copyright Courtesy CAN-DO Clemency
Image caption Alice Marie Johnson and Michelle West

Catina Scales and Tretessa Johnson, Alice Johnson's daughters, went through those same raised and dashed expectations on their way to Washington DC for the clemency event. On 30 March, Obama announced another 61 names - again leaving off their mother. Tretessa found out at the airport.

"I'm scrolling through the list, and it's kind of like a little punch in the gut," she said.

"It's been a lot of ups and down," added Scales. "You're sitting there like, 'OK, just announce the name, I just want to hear the name,' and when it's not there you're really sad about it."

At a packed reception just down the street from the White House, both Miquelle West and the Johnson sisters met clemency recipients who had served time with their mothers - in some cases decades.

Image caption Catina Scales and Tretessa Johnson

"I served 16 years with your mom, she was like my mom," Sharanda Jones called out to the Johnson sisters. Jones had her life sentence commuted by Obama in the Christmas-time list that left out Alice Johnson.

"I've seen you in the visiting room, but we never met," recent commutee Ramona Brant told Miquelle West. "We watch each other's kids grow."

When the time came to walk down the street to the White House gates, the Johnson sisters and Miquelle West traded strategies with other families. They exchanged hashtags - #FreeMichelleWest and #FreeAliceMarie - and talked about how to garner celebrity support. Michelle West's picture appeared once on Humans of New York. Alice Johnson's petition has nearly 100,000 signatures. The daughters have become like publicists for their incarcerated parents.

"I feel excited," said West just before she disappeared behind the gates. "I have three new lawyers interested in helping out with my mom. I feel good. I feel blessed."

Image caption Miquelle West in line to enter White House security

Hours later, she emerged and returned to the hotel. The president did not attend, and there was no surprise clemency announcement. But West said she doesn't feel disappointed.

"I know every official he had meeting with us were his eyes and his ears," she said.

She was heartened by the words of Obama's senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, who told the group that she would continue to work on clemency for the remainder of the administration's time. Indeed, in a statement that accompanied this week's 61 clemency announcements, White House counsel Neil Eggleston wrote of future commutations, while warning that they are a "tool of last resort".

"While we continue to work to resolve as many clemency applications as possible - and make no mistake, we are working hard at this - only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences," he wrote.

For Miquelle West and the other inmate families, it's back to waiting - even when it comes to something as simple as a phone call.

"I want to call my mom and tell her it was an amazing day, but I have to wait until she calls, I can't just call her," said West. "I know this is coming to an end here. That's what I'm excited to tell her. She's almost finished with this journey and on to a positive one."