The Obama 8: Stories from the Prisoners whose Sentences Obama Commuted

Post Date: February 14, 2014

(TIME) None of the eight federal prison inmates whose sentences were commuted on Dec. 19 ever got a chance to vote for President Barack Obama, but they all tried, and succeeded, at making sure Obama knew their names.

The voices of the commuted prisoners, all of whom have served at least 15 years in life sentences for crack-cocaine related crimes, help tell the story of the Obama administration’s plan to fix what it sees as broken aspects of the criminal justice system. As we detail in a piece in this week’s magazine, the legislative and executive actions that make up that plan are slowly beginning to have an impact. The latest move saw Attorney General Eric Holder calling on states to restore voting rights to the nearly six million people disenfranchised because of felony convictions. Yet despite the executive actions and proposed legislation, thousands face sentences that would have been shorter if they were convicted under updated drug laws.

For a story in this week’s magazine about the president’s criminal justice reform record, I ended up speaking to five of “Obama’s eight,” most of whom are in low-security camps and halfway houses across the country awaiting their first step toward release back into society. They were all first time, non-violent drug offenders who got caught up in the tough-on-crime federal sentencing rules that attached long sentences to crack-cocaine involvement. Many of their stories were told in detail in an American Civil Liberties Union report on people sentenced to life for non-violent crimes. 

These five people—Jason Hernandez, Helen Gray Alexander, Billy Ray Wheelock, Clarence Aaron, and Reynolds Wintersmith—have spent much of their lives behind bars, and expected to remain behind the wire until death, until their sentences were commuted. (Read more)