Once a young man with a promising future, Fulton ended up in prison for nonviolent offenses related to the drug PCP. Mandatory minimums landed him with a life sentence. He spent more than 21 years in prison before receiving clemency in 2016. He has dedicated his life to the creation of art that reflects his positive and hopeful outlook.
“He has somehow used his talents, service, and heart for people to turn his prison bars into his very own white picket fence, with open doors to all that he can reach with his story and the love of his family, and an unwavering contagious hope.” —Ahneishia Washington
When Fulton Washington, now 62, was a little boy, his mother worked at the Mattel toy factory in El Segundo, California. Some days she would bring home broken toys for him, and he would fix them or re-engineer them into better or different toys.
Fast-forward many years to 2014, to a résumé Fulton puts together. It states that he is a “fine art and Mural Artist in Oils, Acrylics, and Air Brush Paintings on Canvas, Plywoods.” Under “Education,” the CV lists several classes in painting and graphic design (“more than 16,000 hours in techniques of oil and acrylic painting”). “Experience” includes classes taught in color theory, canvas stretching, glazing, and top coat finishes. Appropriately, the document is titled “Artist Resume.”
And every entry on the résumé after high school offers the location as “Federal Bureau of Prisons” or “United States Penitentiary.” On September 8, 1997, “Mr. Wash,” as he is now known, was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for conspiracy to manufacture PCP; possession of PCC with intent to manufacture PCP; and attempt to manufacture PCP.
A look back at his childhood and early adulthood reveal a boy and a young man full of drive and promise. But in his late twenties and early thirties, his life seemed to fall apart as he got involved with people who used PCP, a turn that would eventually land him with the life sentence. The harsh sentence was triggered by three prior drug-related charges, none of which involved violence. (A low-level offender, Mr. Wash would have received a significantly lower term if he were sentenced today under current law and policy.)
At the sentencing of Mr. Wash and his two co-defendants, the judge said, “So these aren’t the type of defendants, in my opinion, that the mandatory minimums and all that are addressed to, but that, unfortunately I guess, is not for me to decide. That’s for Congress to decide, and it’s not really for the government to decide. It’s really more bound by what Congress would mandate … But the statutes are such and the guidelines are such that it is required that there be a life imprisonment imposed.”
And that would seem to be that. The rest of Mr. Wash’s story, then, would have ended with his eventual death behind bars. The man who fixed the broken toys as a child could not now, it would appear, fix his own life. But a few things happened to change Mr. Wash’s story, and the first had already happened, right there in the courtroom.
One day during his trial, Mr. Wash’s court-appointed lawyer had been desperately trying to locate a witness to testify on her client’s behalf, with no success. She knew that he’d already developed somewhat of a reputation for making artistic greeting cards for other inmates, and in desperation, she asked if Mr. Wash could draw a quick composite sketch of the witness to help in her search. The sketch Mr. Wash made surprised everyone—including the artist himself—with its remarkable resemblance.
That day marked the start of his intense commitment to his art, despite the odds. In prison, Mr. Wash launched into what he would later describe as “self-rehab with art while incarcerated.” He took as many art classes as he could, eventually teaching those same classes and more to his fellow inmates. His tenacity paid off: the Lompoc Mural Society commissioned him to create a mural, as did the Veterans Memorial Building Foundation, and many people came to admire and support his work. Through the years he has donated countless works of art to better his community.
In May of 2015, one of Mr. Wash’s daughters, Ahneishia, wrote a letter to President Obama in support of her father’s petition for clemency. “He has not allowed his circumstances to determine his outlook, but he instead allows his outlook to determine his circumstances. He has refused to sit on the sidelines of life … While his presence was removed, his emotional availability and support was strongly expressed and felt … I hope to have the opportunity to cry in his arms and call him daddy with no time restraints and no guard intervening.”
That day eventually came. Fulton “Mr. Wash” Washington received Executive Clemency on May 5, 2016. He is spending much-needed time with his family, and despite severe arthritis, he persists with the same passion and commitment to his art. He is already teaching several art classes and creating art for his community. “The opportunity to serve the community and help others is mentally and spiritually rewarding to me and worth trading days of my life for,” he says. “I am and always have been a public servant.”
Name: Fulton Washington
Sentence: Life, released by Executive Clemency
Offense: Conspiracy to Manufacture Phencyclidine (PCP) class A Felony under 21 U.S.C. 846, 841(a) (1); Possession of Piperidinocyclohexane-carbonitrile (PCC) with intent to manufacture PCP (Count 2), Class A Felony; under 21 U.S.C. 864 (a) (1); Attempt to Manufacture PCP (Count 3), Class A Felony.
Year Sentenced: 1997
Age at Sentencing: 43
Released by Executive Clemency: May 5, 2016