By Weldon Angelos
June 17, 2016
IDEAS
Angelos was convicted for selling marijuana while carrying a gun in 2002. He was released from federal prison on May 31

Earlier this month, I did what I once thought was impossible: I attended my son’s high-school graduation.

This is the 13th year of my 55-year prison sentence. I wasn’t scheduled to be released until I was 79-years-old, when my kids would all be in their late 50s and early 60s. But thanks to the hard work of my sister, the judge who sentenced me and even the prosecutor who first brought charges against me, I was released from prison on May 31.

I am not a convicted bank robber, a terrorist, a serial murderer or any other violent offender. While in prison in Lompoc, Calif., I met a few people who were, and their sentences were sometimes shorter than mine. My crime was selling marijuana when I was 23. I was arrested in 2002 in Utah as a first-time, non-violent offender for selling about $1,000 worth of cannabis while carrying a gun.

I was shocked when I received a 55-year prison sentence in 2004. I knew that what I did was wrong and that I had to face the consequences of my actions, but 55 years seemed more like a death sentence to me.

The judge who sentenced me felt the same way, calling my punishment “cruel, unjust, and irrational.” As I quickly learned, his hands were tied by the system. My charges carried several counts that came with “mandatory minimum” sentences—non-negotiable rules dictating a specific prison term for specific crimes. In my case, I was subject to three separate mandatory minimum sentences that added up to over half a century.

I was a rap producer before I was locked up, so music was my life. But in jail, you can’t keep up with music. Just listening to the radio the other day was a new experience—there’s a different sound, a different feel, and the things people are rapping about have completely changed. My kids tell me I’m like Captain America, who was frozen after World War II and woke up in modern times.

For years my three kids, Anthony (19), Jesse (17), and Meranda (13) were just faces on the other side of the glass or voices over the phone. I was able to hug them only a few times during my incarceration. I could only hope that my absence did not put my children at risk of falling down the same path I did.

I don’t know what number of days, months or years would have been the appropriate sentence for my crime. However, something seems wrong with how the determination was made. If the goal is to help people learn a lesson and reenter society as better people, then it seems the method of rigid, extreme sentencing isn’t working.

I was very lucky to have people fighting for me. My family—especially my sister—as well as individuals like Mark Osler, Mark Holden and groups including Families Against Mandatory Minimums and Generation Opportunity were on my side. That gave me hope.

Others with extreme sentences don’t always have that luxury. When people don’t have hope that they’ll get out, they often wonder why they should stay out of trouble or play by the rules. I saw many people like this when I was in prison. If the goal is to help them learn a lesson and reenter society as better people, then something isn’t working.

Our criminal justice system doesn’t always teach lessons—it often ruins lives and destroys families. Now that I’m released, I am fighting for the tens of thousands of people locked up longer than necessary due to mandatory minimums. And I will fight as hard as my sister, Lisa, fought for me.

Human nature dictates that everyone makes mistakes. I am responsible for the bad choices I made and deserved punishment. However, we have a system that excessively punishes thousands of people like me by locking us up and—in essence—throwing away the key. Many lose hope because they lose the chance to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life after serving time. I’m grateful I now have that chance. But many others deserve it, too.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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