TIME politics

I Am an Inmate at the Prison That Obama Just Visited and This Is My Hope

Kenneth Evans is currently serving a life sentence at Federal Correctional Institution, El Reno.

This article was compiled from a series of emails Evans sent TIME following President Obama's visit to El Reno Federal Correction Institution where Evans is an inmate. Evans was convicted of charges related to crack-cocaine possession and distribution, among other charges, in 1993

I was very excited when I heard that President Barack Obama was coming to visit the federal prison in El Reno, Okla, where I am an inmate. To be honest, I would have been excited to hear the president was visiting any of the prisons within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He’s demonstrating his focus and commitment to working diligently to create real change within the criminal justice system. I love that he is moving forward with his clemency project to commute sentences for nonviolent criminals. I’m even more excited by his call to Congress to substantially change the system. He’s making history, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

I agree with what President Obama said this week—”America is a nation of second chances.” I look forward to having mine one day. I am currently serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense. I was a low-level street drug dealer, and I fully acknowledge that my activities as a teenager and young adult did harm to my community. But I was sentenced as if I were a drug lord. I walked into prison when I was in my 20s, and I am now a few months away from my 50th birthday, a grandfather, and a completely different man.

I have learned a great deal here. I have become a better, more organized, more business-minded, more mature person. I have learned many skills—from cooking to accounting to teaching to making dental prosthetics—that have encouraged me to change.

I have watched landmark Supreme Court cases right wrongs of the past but have no retroactive effect. I have watched Congress pass new drug laws that have no effect on many who have been incarcerated the longest. And I have watched so many leave prison, only to return because the necessary programs, educational opportunities, and community support were not there to assist them.

The one thing that I would tell the president about life inside El Reno is that rehabilitation does not take 20 or 30 years. Prison time as a punishment is one issue, but that punishment should fit the crime. The rest of the time should be used for genuine rehabilitation and correction.

Living in El Reno has forced me to see both the depravity of mankind and simultaneously the incredible missing dynamism within families and communities out there. It has provoked me to not only face my circumstances, but also face my country and ask whether the intentions of federal courtrooms are being met by this facility.

I have applied for clemency, and my application is under review. After Obama’s visit, my hope transformed into more of a confident expectation. Even though the president only spent a very short time here, it seems that he has now made himself a part of the very important struggle for fairness and true justice. Thursday was a very good day for not only me and the men here at El Reno, but also for America.

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