how the clemency initiative saved one man from life imprisonment
Nobody stays long at the Anthony P. Travisono Intake Service Center in Providence, Rhode Island, and nobody wants to. Serving as the first stop for over 1,200 incarcerated people on their way into the criminal justice system each month, conditions are poor—the stale confines reek of musty clothes and pepper lingering from the mace spray often used by corrections officers. Unlike most prisons, which offer GED classes, self-help programs, and therapy groups, the Intake Center has nothing for the incarcerated individuals to engage with. For the administrators, there never seems to be a point, because most people are transferred to another facility within weeks or right after their trial. But one man, Charlie Brown, almost spent the rest of his life there.
In 2004, Charlie Brown became the only man in the history of Rhode Island to receive a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, after being convicted for possessing more than 50 grams of crack cocaine—equivalent in size to a Snicker’s bar—with intent to distribute. Prosecutors, using a common DA tactic, invoked a sentencing enhancement statute that would take into account his two possession of marijuana charges from years before and push the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines up from a minimum of ten years to a minimum of life. The prosecutors meant to pressure Brown into agreeing to testify against his co-defendant.
Faced with a life sentence, Brown still plead not guilty.
His two other co-defendants, facing lesser charges, did the same. Brown continued to appeal the two older marijuana charges, however, and since this aspect of his sentencing had not technically been finalized, he remained at the Intake Center—a facility not designed for long-term care—through a legal error.
On the day of Charlie’s sentencing for his possession of cocaine charges, a class from a local elementary looked on, the students crying as judge Mary Lisi declared:
“Congress has given up on you…I don’t know how you will spend the time that you will have in prison without being able to look ahead to see a day when you would be released. There’s certainly no incentive for you to better yourself, and perhaps what you will do is spend the rest of your life deluding yourself…and blaming everyone else for the situation you find yourself in.”
Brown spent his first night at Intake reflecting on the judge’s words. Years later in a letter to his lawyer, Brown wrote that he realized he had a choice to make about the way he would live the rest of his life: he could turn into the type of person the judge and correction’s officers expected him to become—violent and withdrawn—or he could try to overcome the dehumanizing environment he had been placed in.
“My choice from that day forth was to no longer let any negativity dictate my future decisions or actions,” Brown wrote. “I decided to embrace change and focus all my energy positively, going forward.”
Lying in a cell on his first night, Brown remembered the choices he made over thirty years ago, as a fourteen-year-old, about how to approach his life.
At the time, he attended the vocational track of what was then known as Central High School Tech. Brown always had an intuitive ability to make things, but instead of being challenged in the classroom, Brown recalls that his teacher kept having him do the same boring electrical wiring exercises over and over, long after Brown had mastered them.
“I felt like school failed me,” says Brown, who dropped out at the age of fifteen.
Around the same time, he was kicked out from his grandparents’ home because they mistakenly thought he was selling drugs, and faced the prospect of having to move back in with his estranged mother. The allegation that he was selling drugs wasn’t true, but it was about to be.
“There used to be people selling drugs right down the street, I watched the cars come through like clockwork,” Brown says. “When I was working I was making minimum wage…and I look at the drug game, and I see these images of gold and jewelry on TV. And I’m thinking, I want that to be me. I was gonna be my own man. I was gonna make it so nobody could ever kick me out again.”
One day, he says, he found himself staring out the window of the Burger King where he had recently begun to work. He stared at the street, thought of the possibilities that lay there for easier money. He decided to quit his job and spend more time with the guys on the street.
Brown always had an entrepreneurial mind and an eye for organization, along with meticulous attention to detail. By sixteen, he says, he became the main man on his block, and anyone who rolled up to Rhodes Street and asked for Charlie Brown would be greeted by six or seven men, asking why. By eighteen, he had quit drinking and smoking to maintain a lucid mind at all times.
As he built up a drug business, he focused on legitimate entrepreneurial endeavors as well: He learned mechanics and bought his own auto-shop while simultaneously entering the real estate industry where he purchased and restored old houses. He says he kept his illegitimate earnings separate from his other businesses.
“I wanted to make it in legit business, and my heart was in that,” Brown says. “But I also wanted to keep the street cred—the power and respect—of my other life.”
But the “other life” soon became unsustainable. On June 3, 2003, Providence Narcotics Detective Scott Partridge peered through a small hole in a fence next to a Burnside Street apartment complex. The first floor, owned by Brown, had become a crack house; Partridge—whose team had been staking out the place for a month—watched as Charlie Brown took out a plastic peanut container, unscrewed a false bottom, and removed a couple plastic bags filled with white powder. Within minutes, a narcotics force had busted Brown and his two partners.
During his time at intake, Brown woke up at 5 a.m. every morning, a habit he has maintained for thirteen years. He would lie awake in his cell in a state of contemplation during the hours before his 7 a.m. shift at the cafeteria, where he worked into the afternoon for two dollars a day. Later, when he had a break, he went to the library, where typewriters sat atop desks and stacks of law books covered the walls—thick, outdated, and full of impenetrable legalese. For a few hours every day, Brown heaved some off the shelves and devoted himself to studying his case.
He also had to confront, for the first time, the other side of the drugs he had once sold, watching new arrivals experience the excruciating effects of withdrawal.
“What they had to go through, to see the life sucked out of them—I had never really looked at it like that before, never really saw the consequences of my actions,” Brown says. “I understood the effects that it caused in other families—that I caused by even being involved with that. That’s something I didn’t want to be a part of anymore. I couldn’t take back what I did, but what I could do going forward was try and prevent that same process from happening again with someone else.”
He became a calming presence in the intake center: the person whom suicidal inmates could talk to as the representative for the Samaritans LifeLine program, the surrogate father figure for the young guys doing their first sentence, and the next best thing to a lawyer for anyone looking to understand the ins and outs of the criminal justice system.
From 2004 to 2009, Richard Baccaire, caught in the turmoil of a serious alcohol and drug addiction, passed through Intake over a dozen times by his own estimation. On each occasion, he saw a curious thing—the same man in the chow hall, serving coffee: Charlie Brown.
“That was a strong guy right there,” Baccaire says. “To just get up in that rotten stinking place every day and fight. Nobody has ever been in that building for as long as he has.”
Brown carried himself with quiet pride and tremendous self-confidence. Yet despite serving as a role model and informal counsel for dozens of others, he found it difficult to stay positive during the nightly lockdowns, when all he had to eat was peanut butter and jelly and a 25-cent bag of chips. The burden of imprisonment weighed heavily on him, especially after he missed the birth of his first grandchild.
“I lost so much the day I was put behind these walls and was completely out of almost everyone’s mind when they heard the words ‘life,’” Brown wrote to a friend in 2008. “I been through a lot and this is a lot to go through alone, but everyday I wake up ready to fight. I don’t know how I keep doing it, but I’m just glad I do.”
Brown ultimately received legal assistance from Judith Crowell, the defense lawyer his family had originally hired to work on his case—when she’d urged him to take the plea deal, he’d hired another lawyer. Crowell still ran into Brown a couple times a year while passing through Intake for her work; eventually, she began to offer him free help with his post-conviction appeal, intending to remove one of the previous marijuana charges and bump his sentence down from life imprisonment. Crowell knew the post-convictions appeal was a legal Hail Mary, but she tried her best.
Then came the clemency initiative.
Launched in 2014, the Obama administration offered incarcerated individuals serving sentences of 10 years or more for nonviolent offenses the opportunity to apply for sentence commutation, provided they had prison records clear of misconduct. Most people serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes had been collateral from the “War on Drugs,” a campaign that imposed the harsh mandatory minimum sentences and policies that disproportionately affected people of color, ultimately repealed by Congress in 2010.
“Depending on whether someone was sentenced before or after those decisions, you could have two people in the same cell with similar criminal histories, crimes, and one could be serving life, and the other could be serving 10 years or less—that’s disturbing,” says Cynthia Roseberry, the project manager for the Clemency Project 2014, an organization that helped facilitate clemency petitions. “These were cookie-cutter policies that didn’t take into account individual circumstances.”
For weeks, the two frequently met at Intake, setting the clemency application process in motion. To qualify for the program, Brown had to drop his appeal, leave Intake, and transfer to Hazelton, a federal penitentiary in West Virginia. Forced to eat his meals at a table designated for East Coast natives, Brown had to keep his head down in order to avoid the numerous stabbings and brawls that occurred at Hazelton. However, he finally had the opportunity to take classes, and he enrolled in as many programs as he could.
As Brown and Crowell moved through the clemency application, corresponding via post, some major changes in the criminal justice system since Brown’s incarceration became apparent. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder had directed prosecutors to avoid invoking the Section 851 statute Brown’s prosecutors had invoked to increase his sentence based on past drug charges.
Under a 2007 federal legal amendment, Brown’s two marijuana convictions would be counted as a single conviction since they occurred on the same day, disqualifying him outright from the Section 851 statute. Crowell calculated that if all these new factors had been applied at the time of his sentencing, Brown would likely have received a sentence of around 11 years, not including the opportunity for parole. Brown would already have been free, and his co-defendants already were.
“This is not about a grave miscarriage of justice where the person didn’t do it,” Crowell says. “This is about a grave miscarriage of justice in that the laws have changed as we have become more enlightened. In order to get clemency in the past, you have to admit guilt in the first place.”
One of Brown’s co-defendants, who had faced the same charges but without the Section 851 statute enhancing them, had already been released from prison in 2011. His sentence had been reduced through the retroactive application of new legal amendments decreasing the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses. But people like Brown who were facing life in prison could not receive retroactive reductions for Section 851 statutes.
Even Judge Lisi, who was known for her judicial severity, showed her support. “If I were to be sentencing Mr. Brown today, unfettered by the mandatory life term, I would not impose such a sentence,” Judge Lisi wrote in a letter she submitted to the White House pardon attorney on Brown’s behalf.
Crowell worked for two weeks over Christmas, the only free time she had with the courts out of session, to finish Brown’s application for the Department of Justice. Then came the wait. The Obama administration had promised 10,000 incarcerated individuals would have their sentences commuted, but they were unprepared for the enormous influx of applications and lacked sufficient resources to handle all of them in a timely manner.
When Brown’s name didn’t come up on either of the first two lists of incarcerated individuals cleared by the initiative, he wrote to a friend for support.
“I really need to hear something soon,” Brown wrote. “But until then I’m gonna continue to hold all my fight inside until I get the good news. Don’t feel bad for me, just get ready to feed me with some good food.”
Crowell finally got to deliver the good news in May, when a number with a D.C. area code called and left the message she had been cautiously expecting to receive for months. She immediately called Hazelton, where Brown felt the tension of a decade in prison lift off his shoulders, years of patience rewarded with one presidential pen stroke.
“I woke up the next morning like, ‘Oh, the fight’s over’,” Brown says. “It felt funny, crazy, strange, that I didn’t have to wake up anymore and fight that life sentence.”
After he was released from prison in September, Brown sent Judith Crowell a note reading “Thank you Mrs. Crowell your [sic] a life saver”, along with a bag of Life Saver candies, both of which Crowell still keeps in the drawer of her desk.
Yet the repercussions of being away from one’s family for 13 years are not easily overcome. Sharina, whose name has been changed, met Brown in high school, and had always been impressed by the way the otherwise stoic man acted like a small child around his grandmothers, doting on their needs. The two eventually started seeing each other and would go on to have three children together.
“It didn’t fully hit me until he was sentenced,” Sharina says. “And he was sentenced on my birthday, and I think that’s when it really hit that he’s not going to be home, ever.”
With a two-year-old baby and an infant only a couple of months old, Sharina says she hid her frustration with Brown because she didn’t want the children to feel any resentment towards their father. What she felt, she explains, was something that remained beneath her skin for years, more like “How could you?” and “Why did you?” rather than “I hate you.”
“We’ve never truly dealt with his imprisonment,” she says. “His absence has been the big elephant in the room that’s been shifted from side to side to side.”
Still, Brown stayed present in his family’s life, at least over the phone. If there was trouble at school or at home, Brown would call, disciplining the children with punishments that Sharina would enforce. Sharina worried about his delivery sometimes. He didn’t sugarcoat anything, delivering words strong and raw. Sharina believed that he wanted his children to learn in their home first how to deal with the physical and emotional harshness of the world outside.
But when Brown arrived home—surprising his children by returning several months before they expected him—the years of absence were momentarily forgotten as the children rushed to welcome him back.
“I was trying to refrain from overreacting because I wanted the kids to enjoy the experience,” Sharina recalls. “But when I saw him, it was like there was this big gift I’d been anticipating, and I opened a box, and suddenly it was there. I didn’t know whether to cry, laugh, or scream. I had just all those emotions bubbling up, and all you can do is stand there with a silly grin.”
The summer of 2016, Sharina watched Brown struggle to reconnect with their 15-year-old, who at 6’1” and 300 pounds stood substantially bigger than his father. He didn’t want to get a summer job. Brown would pull up outside the house—no more video games, he’d say, we’re going to work on fixing your great-grandma’s house. When his son finally relented, it was on one condition: I’m not working for free.
You’re not working for free, Brown told him. You’re gaining knowledge of how to put a roof on, so you won’t have to pay someone else to do it later. You’re learning how to paint a wall. You’re taking care of your great-grandmother.
That was Brown’s way, Sharina saw—he wasn’t a mushy guy, and he didn’t believe in pampering his children. For him, raising a child meant teaching them discipline, and slowly father and his son came to understand each other laying shingles in 100-degree heat over the waning summer weeks.
On a December morning last year, Charlie Brown clears fresh snow off Bellevue Avenue outside his grandmother’s house in South Providence, the sky above still dark. Wet slush seeps in through his shoes because he doesn’t own proper boots yet.
“I already made someone smile this morning,” Brown says. “A lady stopped by and told me how proud she was of me.”
By sunrise, the driveways outside his grandmother’s and his neighbors’ houses will be clear, and Brown will have left for work, where he unloads Bentleys and Mercedes as a longshoreman at the Davisville docks for 33 dollars an hour.
Brown revels in carrying plastic grocery bags into his grandmother’s home. The bags contain orange juice, cornbread mix, ginger snaps, sausage for breakfast, instant coffee, and everything else the old 83-year-old woman bundled up in blankets watching the nightly news needs to get through the week. A few months before Brown came back, other family members had told her the house wasn’t livable—they’d have to sell it and take her to her son’s home. Then Brown arrived, filled two full dumpsters right up to the rim with the garbage and clutter of old age, retiled the roof of the home, fixed the plumbing, and said to her: “Time for you to come home, grandma. I know you’ve missed it.”
“He’s paying me back now for all my time,” says his grandmother, Elizabeth Cassell. “For all I did for him when he was small.”
Five months after Brown left the Hazelton Federal Correctional Institute, President Obama left office, bringing the clemency initiative to a close. Obama ultimately granted clemency to 1,927 people—more than the previous nine presidents combined. But those receiving clemency represented only five percent of the 36,544 petitions he received, and he ended his final term with over 7,881 still pending.
From the outset, the Obama administration had faced criticism for failing to provide sufficient support to process the thousands of petitions from incarcerated individuals.
“…The clemency initiative is moving too slowly…,” reads an open letter to Obama from the Sentencing Project written in June of 2016. “No person in prison who meets the criteria for relief should still be behind the bars when you leave office.”
Deborah Leff, the Pardon Attorney in charge of overseeing the clemency initiative for the White House, had resigned earlier that year in January, protesting the lack of resources in her department to effectively handle the influx of petitions. This meant, she wrote, that “the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard.”
Although the initiative eventually received additional resources, it became clear as Obama exited office that the initiative promised greater change than it ultimately delivered. Flawed as it was, however, the clemency initiative had represented a promising turn from the historically retributivist stance of the executive office on crime. There is virtually no chance that the problem will be resumed under Donald Trump, who had previously criticized Obama’s sentence commutations as an endangerment to public safety.
Charlie Brown remains an enduring testament to a brief period of reform, when hundreds of incarcerated individuals were given a chance to prove that the policies that had kept them from the outside world for so long had been mistaken in their severity. But resting in his grandmother’s driveway, Brown is focused only on the construction work he still has to do.
“I don’t make up for lost time,” Brown says. “I’m just trying to be me by taking care of today, making sure tomorrow is the best it can be.”