For Wayne Potee, it all comes down to one day. It was a weekday, and he was working on power lines when he took a bad fall off his truck. He suffered an injury to his rotator cuff that required surgery. Afterward, the surgeon prescribed Percocet. In seemingly no time at all, Wayne became addicted to pain medication and his life went to pieces. Now he’s in prison, into year four of a 15-year sentence.
Before that terrible day, Wayne was a “valued employee and a shining light,” as one boss put it. A friend called him “the kind of guy that would do anything to help anyone out and if needed, he’d give you the shirt off his back.” He worked steadily in construction and in a group home for developmentally disabled adults. People looked up to Wayne. He was generous and kind, and he paid his taxes every year like the responsible citizen he was.
But Wayne was even more—he was also a hero. As the supervisor at the group home where he worked recounts, Wayne once stepped into the middle of a dangerous altercation at the residence. He managed to disarm a man who held a loaded gun held to a resident’s head, then detain the man until the police came. “Wayne selflessly put his life in danger to save my client,” says the supervisor.
Saving a life is about as far as you can get from where Wayne’s addiction landed him. As with so many others, Wayne’s addiction took fierce hold—and quickly. When the pills prescribed after his surgery ran out, he found Dr. Samuel Ashby, who gave him prescriptions for Oxycodone every month. This arrangement continued for several years, until, unrelated to his dealings with Wayne, Dr. Ashby was sent to prison for prescribing a controlled substance illegally. Unable at this point to get opioids, Wayne made a serious effort to get sober. He checked himself into a methadone clinic, but after attending for about a year, his addiction came roaring back and Wayne took to the street to purchase pills.
Finally, in 2012 he tried to get sober again, taking prescribed Suboxone, which works to curb addiction. Wayne was working as a commercial truck driver then and eventually, he just couldn’t afford the cost of the medication. He began selling his possessions in desperation to pay for the only thing that could keep him off pain pills.
Ironically, it was this desperation to stay sober that led Wayne to sell very small amounts of methamphetamine—roughly two grams at each sale, with a street value of $100 to $300—to pay for his addiction treatment. And two of these sales were to a government informant.
In November of 2015, he was arrested. He pleaded guilty. Because his drug sales took place within 1,000 of a school, they triggered a hefty mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement under Tennessee Drug Free School Zone Act—even though his crimes took place during the summer, at night, and with no harm to children. Wayne was facing decades behind bars.
Prosecutors made it clear to him that if he wanted any relief, he’d need to act as an informant. Wayne declined. There was a good reason for his reluctance: Soon after his arrest, he’d been jumped by a prison gang after declining to give one of them a cigarette. He had to be rushed into emergency surgery with a shattered sinus cavity. So for his low-level drug sales, Wayne accepted an aggregate sentence of 15 years served at 100 percent.
In the four years he’s been locked up, Wayne has gotten sober and remains committed to recovery. He has had zero disciplinary infractions. In 2019, he began preparing an application for compassionate release because his mother was in the advanced stages of cancer and the family badly needed Wayne’s help. Sadly, his mother died in September of 2019 before his request could be considered.
Wayne is truly a changed man. His outsized sentence bears no reflection on the life he led before his addiction and the life he is more than ready to return to: He has a job waiting for him and strong support from his community and family. The sentence does reflect, however, Tennessee’s unfair and overly harsh Drug Free School Zone law. It’s legislation that needs reform and retroactivity in line with that reform. Meanwhile, for his low-level crimes born entirely of addiction, the state will pay for Wayne to remain behind bars for more than a decade more.
NAME: Wayne Potee
SENTENCE: 15 years
OFFENSE: Conspiracy to sell methamphetamine
YEAR SENTENCED: 2016
AGE AT SENTENCING: 43
PROJECTED RELEASE: November 20, 2030