TIME justice

Report Says St. Louis Court Treats Blacks Unfairly

gavel-sounder
Getty Images

Ferguson, where the fatal shooting of Michael Brown took place last year, is a St. Louis County town

ST. LOUIS — The U.S. Department of Justice has released a report critical of the St. Louis County Family Court, alleging that black youths are treated more harshly than whites, and juveniles are often deprived of constitutional rights.

The investigation was initiated in 2013, addressing issues that drew increased scrutiny last year after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by a white police officer in Ferguson, a St. Louis County town. The new report was issued just over a week before the anniversary of Brown’s death, Aug. 9.

Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta calls the findings “serious and compelling.”

The report says the Justice Department could pursue litigation but will seek mutual agreement to resolve violations. Messages seeking comment from St. Louis County officials were not immediately returned.

TIME justice

Bill Cosby To Be Deposed By End of September, Says Attorney

He'll have to testify under oath about a molestation allegation

Bill Cosby will have to testify under oath about an old sexual assault allegation by Sept. 30, according to attorney Gloria Allred, who represents 17 of Cosby’s more than 40 accusers.

Allred said Tuesday that by the end of the week a judge will set an exact date for the comedian to be deposed in the case of Judy Huth, who claims Cosby molested her when she was 15. The statute of limitations has expired for a criminal case in the matter, but a 1990 California law allows allegations of sexual assault on minors to become civil suits years later, USA Today reports.

Now 55, Huth alleges that Cosby “took her hand in his and performed a sex act on himself without her consent” after taking her to the Playboy Mansion. A December 2014 court filing says Huth and a 16-year-old friend she was with told Cosby how old they were.

“We are very pleased that the case is now moving forward whether Mr. Cosby likes it or not,” Allred said in a statement. “Mr. Cosby may be praying for divine intervention to halt his deposition, but he will soon have to give his testimony in Ms. Huth’s case, and we are looking forward to that day.”

Read next: Why the New Case Against Bill Cosby Is Different

 

TIME justice

Obama Administration Could Expand Pell Grant Eligibility to Prisoners

Arne Duncan Obama prisoners pell grants
Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with President Obama at the White House, in March 2015.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan hinted recently that administration is “developing experimental sites” that would make Pell Grants available to prisoners

The Obama administration could soon unveil a plan that would make federal college grants available to prisoners.

On Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hinted during a policy speech that the administration is “developing experimental sites” that would, among other things, make Pell Grants available to “incarcerated adults seeking an independent, productive life after they get out of jail.”

The Wall Street Journal reports the announcement could come as soon as Friday, when Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch are slated to make a joint appearance at a prison in Maryland on Friday.

The move would be the latest attempt by the Obama administration to provide opportunities to prisoners that could help reduce the national recidivism rate. According to Inside Higher Ed, six House Democrats introduced a bill in May that would expand Pell Grant eligibility to those behind bars. Congress blocked prisoners from Pell Grant eligibility in the 1990s.

TIME society

‘Insight Policing’ Could Have Helped Sandra Bland

It helps officers recognize and defuse conflict behavior when they see it

The disturbing video released earlier this week of the stop and arrest of Sandra Bland highlights once again the excessive and inexcusable use of force by police officers in this country. The 28-year-old’s death in police custody after a routine traffic stop is currently being investigated as a murder.

Both ordinary citizens and experts have been calling for police departments to ramp up efforts to stop these kinds of abuses, but tragically, they continue.

Why they continue is perplexing and complicated – from history and power to the role of implicit bias. But one answer, as a Memphis cop put it to me in an interview for the Retaliatory Violence Insight Project, is what police officers call the “tricky part”: maintaining trust with citizens while enforcing the law.

The tricky part

Part of what is tricky, I found talking with police officers, is that traditional policing practice uses deterrence methods – force and the threat of punishment – to motivate compliance.

Most of us are familiar with these methods. Perhaps we have gotten a speeding ticket, or been subject to stop and frisk. The principle is the same – obey the law or face consequences.

Deterrence policies may stop crime in some cases, but they are counter to most people’s conception of trust, which depends on the belief that another person will not cause harm.

Because of this trust deficit, deterrence methods can fail to produce compliance; and instead, produce conflict between the public and the police. Just watch Sandra Bland’s arrest video, or the public reaction to the high-force police response during last year’s Ferguson protests.

Research from the Retaliatory Violence Insight Project into the challenges police departments face curtailing retaliatory violence in high crime communities has produced an alternative: Insight Policing.

Insight Policing is a community-oriented, problem-solving policing practice designed to help officers take control of situations with the public before conflict escalates. By doing so, the police maintain trust and enhance the probability of cooperation in difficult situations of enforcement.

The role of Insight Policing

Insight Policing helps officers recognize and defuse conflict behavior when they see it – both their own and the public’s. Often, conflict behavior resembles such stress-based behaviors as fight, flight and freeze; these are the actions people take when they feel threatened.

The thing about conflict behavior, and what Insight Policing pays particular attention to, is that when we feel threatened, we are reactive, not reflective, in how we respond. We do not take time to think about what we are doing, we simply do, in hopes that we will successfully stop the threat.

Sandra Bland refused to get out of her car (conflict behavor), responding to the threat the officer posed when he ordered her to. The officer pulled a taser on Bland (conflict behavior) in response to the threat her refusal posed to him as an agent of the law.

While clearly there are more dramatic instances of conflict behavior in police–citizen encounters – the high speed chase, the standoff – the more mundane conflict interactions are what are undermining police legitimacy.

When conflict behavior manifests as noncompliance, when citizens refuse to cooperate, as was the case with Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray and most recently Sandra Bland, what begins as mundane can become lethal when conflict behavior escalates.

Insight Policing, which has been piloted in two American police departments, Memphis, Tennessee, and Lowell, Massachusetts, is a promising tool for helping officers get a handle on the “tricky part.” Eighty percent of officers trained agreed that Insight Policing enhanced their ability to defuse the feelings of threat citizens have about their encounters with police officers.

An example of Insight Policing

Take an example from Memphis. Three Memphis officers trained in Insight Policing responded to a call for shots fired. They arrived on the scene to find a crowd of young men behind a house. They asked them the kinds of questions they always ask at the scene of a crime: “What happened?” “What did you see?” “Who did this?” The young men refused to cooperate: “We didn’t see anything.” “Leave us alone.” “We don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The officers suspected otherwise. And ordinarily, they reported, they would have arrested the young men on gang-related charges and questioned them down at the station – to delay any retaliation that might have been brewing as well as to get the information they were after. Instead, having been trained in Insight Policing, they recognized the young men’s resistance as conflict behavior. They dropped, for the moment, their crime investigator hats, and put on their conflict investigator hats. They used Insight Policing techniques to become curious about what was motivating the young men’s resistance.

What the officers found was not that the young men were protecting somebody or hiding something or breaking the law in some way, but that they had had trouble with police in the past. They did not want to speak because they were afraid of incriminating themselves.

Getting this information allowed the officers to delink the threat they posed by assuring the young men that they were not after them, they were after the shooter. They were able to build enough trust in the moment that the young men gave them the information they needed to catch the shooter later that night.

Had the officers used their power to arrest the young men, just for hanging out together, they would have played into the young men’s fear of incrimination. They would have escalated a situation, and who knows how it would have turned out.

By engaging the men in terms of their conflict behavior, the officers were able to build trust, garner cooperation and effectively enforce the law.

What if the officers who stopped Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and Mike Brown and Eric Garner had been trained to recognize conflict behavior and defuse it? Perhaps history would be different.

This article originally appeared on The ConversationThe Conversation

TIME justice

Can Congress Pass Criminal Justice Reform?

US Capitol Building Washington DC
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images The US Capitol seen on Feb. 11, 2015 in Washington.

Bipartisan negotiators are working on bills to fix sentencing guidelines and reform the prison system

There’s a growing bipartisan consensus around criminal justice reform, but it’s not yet clear if that will be enough to get a bill through Congress.

Supporters of reform got several hopeful signs last week. Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, then made the first-ever Presidential visit to a federal prison. Former President Bill Clinton chimed in to apologize for signing a crime bill that further clotted the U.S. prison system. And House Speaker John Boehner signaled his support for a vote in the House. “We’ve got a lot of people in prison, frankly, who really in my view don’t need to be there,” the Ohio Republican said.

The rare burst of harmony reflects months of work by lawmakers and the wide-ranging coalition of advocacy groups that have joined forces in a bid to fix the flaws of the U.S. justice system, which critics from both parties call bloated, costly and rigid.

“This was unthinkable six months ago,” says Van Jones, a former Obama administration official and co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan initiative to slash the U.S. prison population in half. Predicts Jones: “A series of bills will be on this President’s desk and signed into law by Christmas.”

But change never comes easy in Washington. And the powerful array of interests aligned behind reform have so far struggled to translate broad support into legislative success.

That could soon change. The Senate Judiciary Committee is preparing to unveil a bipartisan package of reforms that negotiators have been haggling over since March. The proposal is expected to include sentencing reforms as well as so-called “back-end” efforts to rehabilitate prisoners and more effectively reintegrate them into society.

“There are still a handful of issues left to work through,” says Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the Republican who chairs the committee. “The members are still working and committed to trying to reach an agreement that can gain wide bipartisan support.”

One of the challenges is getting powerful personalities with competing priorities onto the same page.

Grassley is a case in point. His participation in the process reflects the dramatic evolution of the politics of criminal justice. The 81-year-old Iowan is a tough-on-crime Republican who has long opposed reforms like easing mandatory minimum sentences. He’s signaled openness to reform, but as the chair of a crucial Congressional committee, he has the ability to block any bill that comes through.

The situation is similar in the House, where the Judiciary Chairman, Bob Goodlatte, is another conservative steeped in the tough-on-crime mantras that reigned in the 1980s and ’90s. Criminal-justice reform “is something that Congress needs to undertake,” Goodlatte said Wednesday, addressing a bipartisan audience at a justice-reform conference on a rooftop with views of the Capitol. The Virginia Republican indicated he wants to tackle issues like over-criminalization and prisoner re-entry. But he did not sugarcoat the complications of producing legislation.

It’s also not clear which chamber will move first. A raft of narrow bipartisan bills have been introduced in the Senate, including a measure to address mandatory minimums introduced by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee, and a bill crafted by Texas Republican John Cornyn and Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse that addresses prisoner re-entry. The House may coalesce around a single ambitious bill, authored by Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner and Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott.

As a result, the unanimity on display now could ultimately be derailed by the clutch of bills, competing goals and bureaucratic hurdles that often combine to stifle progress in a divided Congress. “Different members all want to assert their priorities,” says a source familiar with the negotiations.

Negotiators suggested a Senate package could be unveiled as soon as this week, but it now looks likely to wait until after the summer legislative recess. “Everyone is working in good faith, and it will be ready when it’s ready,” says a Democratic Senate aide familiar with the negotiations. “The more comprehensive our negotiations are now, the easier it will be to move the bill swiftly in committee and on the floor.”

But even members committed to advancing justice reform are clear-eyed about the looming obstacles. “It’s an uphill battle,” Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and presidential candidate who is part of the push for justice reform, said Wednesday. “Nothing happens easy in this town.”

Paul cited civil-asset forfeiture reforms and potentially legislation around the use of body cameras by police as two areas where the Senate could make progress. But he predicted the efforts in the House were more likely to bear fruit. “I think they’re more open to reform than the Senate is,” Paul said. “That’s just my opinion.”

Legislators say they’re encouraged by the breadth of agreement. And they know that justice reform is one of the last subjects they’re capable of tackling before the capital is consumed by the presidential race.

“Everybody is aligned,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said at a hearing last week. “The House, the Senate, the President. Let’s make it happen.”

TIME Race

Ferguson Chooses Black Interim Police Chief

Andre Anderson ferguson missouri
Jeff Roberson—AP Andre Anderson leaves at the end of a news conference announcing him as the interim chief of the Ferguson Police Department on July 22, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo.

Andre Anderson says his first priority is "simply to build trust" in the city where Michael Brown was killed last summer

The city of Ferguson, Mo., where the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown sparked days of unrest last summer, named a black interim police chief on Wednesday.

Andre Anderson, 50, told reporters that his first priority is “simply to build trust, to develop community policing in this area,” USA Today reports. Anderson previously was a police commander in Glendale, Ariz., where Ferguson interim city manager Ed Beasley once worked, and he grew up in an area of South Philadelphia he describes as similar to Ferguson.

The previous police chief, Tom Jackson, resigned after a report from the Department of Justice found that Ferguson police routinely engaged in racially discriminatory policing practices.

Anderson said he would use the Justice Department’s recommendations to help “cultivate relationships that we know and hope will reshape our direction in the city of Ferguson.” He also plans to attract and hire more black police officers and institute more de-escalation and “bias awareness” training.

“The city of Ferguson and our Police Department have endured a tremendous amount of distrust during the past nine months,” Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said in a statement. “We understand that it will take time to once again gain the trust of everyone. We believe that Cmdr. Anderson can make recommendations to the Police Department that will be innovative and will have long-standing improvements for our citizens and to the entire community.”

TIME justice

Federal Court Rules No Backsies on Butt Dials

More reasons to fear butt dialing

An Ohio butt dialer who sued a colleague for listening to his confidential discussion had no right to privacy, a federal appeals court upheld on Tuesday.

According to court documents, in 2013, James Huff, a board member of a Cincinnati airport, was discussing replacing the airport’s CEO when he pocket dialed the second-worst person possible: not the CEO, but her assistant. The assistant, Carol Spaw, took notes and audio recordings, and shared a summary with the airport’s board members, the court said.

“[Huff] is no different from the person who exposes in-home activities by leaving drapes open or a webcam on and therefore has not exhibited an expectation of privacy,” the ruling said, affirming the ruling made by a district court.

Privacy in butt dialing incidents previously made headlines in February, when a man who pocket dialed 911 was jailed for talking about drug dealing.

TIME justice

How a Teenager Sentenced to Life in Prison Became the Involuntary Face of Reform

When 14-year-old Barney Lee was sentenced to life in prison, he became a human experiment for new theories of penal reform

President Obama, speaking last week at an NAACP convention on the eve of his historic tour of Oklahoma’s El Reno Correctional Institution, outlined the major components of his vision for the future of criminal justice reform. When it came to the issue of juvenile offenders, he called for a shift in perspective: “We’ve got to make sure our juvenile justice system remembers that kids are different. Don’t just tag them as future criminals. Reach out to them as future citizens.”

These comments came after a year of intense national debate about issues surrounding what some have described as the “cradle-to-prison pipeline,” including the disproportionate policing of black and Latino minors in urban communities and extensive solitary confinement for juvenile offenders on Riker’s Island. Calls for reform often rely on images of teens the system is said to have failed. But more than 70 years ago, they relied on just the opposite, when one incarcerated youth—confined to one of the country’s most notorious state prisons—became the face of reform.

“The kid is quiet,” the photographer J.R. Eyerman jotted down in his notes as he observed 14-year-old Barney Lee on a summer afternoon in July 1941. “He is very interested in the planes overhead all day from nearby Hamilton Field,” he continued, referring to the new defense compound in Novato, Calif., 25 miles north of where they were stationed. Eyerman had been commissioned to document a day in the teen’s life, and found him—along with marveling at hovering aircraft—filling his time reading books with his tutor, playing with a model ship and throwing a ball around with friends.

Readers who came across Eyerman’s photographs when they were published the following summer in TIME would have found various aspects of Lee’s appearance familiar, his mischievous grin and obediently tucked-in shirt reminiscent of their own sons or nephews. But Barney Lee was no ordinary adolescent. Several months prior to Eyerman’s shoot, a California court found him guilty of murdering his uncle, a farmer from Salinas in California’s Central Valley. According to responding officers, Lee fatally shot his uncle after being scolded for neglecting his farm chores. The judge who presided over Lee’s case sentenced him to five years to life in prison, earning him the title of the youngest “lifer” in California history. When Eyerman watched him playing baseball and eating dinner in a cafeteria, he did so from inside the walls of San Quentin, which Lee now called home.

Lee might have been the youngest teenager to receive a life sentence, but he was not the first. Two teenagers, one 15 years old and the other 16, had once called San Quentin their lifelong home. The fact that Lee was living alongside some of California’s most violent criminals was not unprecedented, either. In 1941, California counted itself among a handful of states that made no distinction between those convicted of murder, no matter their age. Teenagers shared cells with inmates of all ages, an arrangement that reflected a larger penal philosophy known as the “custodial model,” which emphasized discipline, direct surveillance and physical punishment. According to this model, the inmate’s identity—young or old, black or white, female or male—no longer mattered, for it was eclipsed by a crime committed against a society eager for retribution.

But things were changing. After a series of crises in the early decades of the 20th century, including highly publicized prison escapes, instances of administrative corruption and social unrest stemming from convict labor abuse, criminologists, politicians, and civic reformers came together to craft and implement a new “progressive” program. As part of the new “reformative model,” inmates were encouraged to spend more time outside their cells taking classes, exercising and bonding in group settings and receiving vocational training to increase their likelihood of post-prison employment. Rehabilitating the fallen individual, rather than punishing the unredeemable collective, became the goal of the new penal order.

When San Quentin received Barney Lee as an inmate in 1941, the administration no doubt saw him as an ideal vehicle through which to showcase the prison’s transformation under the watch of a new chief warden, Clinton Duffy. Duffy had arrived with a robust reformative agenda, which included eliminating physical punishment, introducing night school, allowing prisoners to publish a newspaper and run their own radio station and establishing an on-site Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. The photographs of a smiling, well-dressed Lee shaving in front of a bathroom mirror, enjoying the fresh air on walks and typing away at his personal desk—all under the watch of specialists—testified to the dramatic changes that were ushered in during Duffy’s tenure.

Yet Eyerman seemed to sense that he was not getting an authentic tour of the prison compound, noting in particular how the youngster’s custodians anxiously curated the photo shoot. “[The] warden refused us permission to photograph Barney with ‘hardened criminal types,’” he remarked, adding that “[The warden] is strictly against using gag photographs of any description.’” Like the inmates themselves, the photographer’s movements on the premises were restricted, reminding the photographer of the limits of even this most humane prison regime. Two portraits of Lee—one of him leaning his back against a barred gate, another of him embarking on what looks like a dispassionate escape over the same gate—can be read as the photographer’s attempt to capture the fundamental lack of freedom at the core of the American prison experience.

Eyerman was not the only one to notice San Quentin’s shortcomings. Public citizens and state officials alike had been clamoring for more lenient treatment of young offenders for some time, and Lee’s case proved to be the last straw. In 1943, the newly formed California Youth Authority assumed the role of Barney Lee’s parent as part of a new statewide initiative based on the concept of parens patriae, or “the state is the parent.” Lee was transferred to the all-boy Whittier State Reformatory, where he became the first ward in an environment that promised to apply new research on juvenile delinquency prevention and treatment.

But it was only a matter of time until Lee would outgrow his new home. In July 1943, he escaped from Whittier and spent two years working undetected as a dairyman, pantryman and bellboy throughout the American southwest, before taking his nearly $300 of savings on a gambling trip to Las Vegas. His lucky streak ended there. In September 1945, police officers became alarmed when they spotted a young boy spending an inordinate amount of money at a local store. Lee was promptly arrested under suspicion of burglary. He was 18 years old.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

TIME Texas

Civil Rights Activist’s Death in Texas Jail Sparks Questions

Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell 3 days after her arrest

Family and friends of a civil rights activist found dead in a Texas jail have launched a campaign questioning the authorities’ ruling of a suicide.

Sandra Bland was arrested after allegedly becoming combative during a routine traffic stop on Friday. She was found dead in her cell on Monday morning.

The Waller County Sheriff’s Office said the 28-year-old died “from what appears to be self-inflicted asphyxiation,” calling it a “tragic incident.”

However, those who knew Bland don’t believe she would have taken her own life. She had recently moved to the area, about 50 miles west of Houston, and was due to…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME justice

What Inmates Think of Obama’s Prison Visit

Inmates and former inmates speak out

For six of the 15 years he spent behind bars, Jason Hernandez called Federal Corrections Institution El Reno home. And before President Obama granted him and over a dozen others clemency in 2013, he was destined to die there.

But when he heard President Obama would be traveling to the El Reno facility on Thursday, he yearned to be back behind those walls again, if only for a day.

“I immediately thought there was no place I’d rather be than in El Reno when the president is there,” Hernandez tells TIME. “President Obama granted one of my dreams. One of the others is to meet him.”

In 1998, when he was just 21 years old, Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling methamphetamines and crack cocaine. After serving nine years in the Beaumont maximum-security facility in Texas, Hernandez was transferred to the medium security facility at El Reno to carry out the remainder of his life sentence.

Yet, that sentence was cut short thanks to Obama, who included the now 38-year-old in his first splashy round of mass sentence reductions for low-level, non-violent drug offenders who likely would have been released had they been sentenced under current law. Hernandez doesn’t at all deny the fact that he was guilty of a crime—“I thought I was bettering people by giving them drugs,” he says—but he felt his sentence was excessive and the President agreed.

Now, Hernandez is living in a halfway house in McKinney, Texas, splitting his time between work as a welder and as a kitchen worker and mentor at restaurant aimed at helping kids who have gotten caught up in the juvenile justice system. Hernandez says he wants to use his newfound freedom to help keep young men of color from heading down his same path—something he notes he likely wouldn’t have even known he’d have a passion for had it not been for programs he participated in at El Reno.

Plus, he says, “I made that promise to the president.”

Over the past several days, Obama has made criminal justice reform his focus—from the 46 commutations he issued on Monday to the sweeping reform platform he laid out on Tuesday—and it all comes to a head on Thursday when he becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal correctional facility. During his visit to El Reno, a medium security facility in Oklahoma, Obama will meet with law enforcement agents and inmates and be interviewed for an upcoming VICE documentary about the American criminal justice system.

The site wasn’t at all chosen at random. The White House, the Department of Justice, and the Bureau of Prisons worked together to pick El Reno as the first federal prison to host a sitting president for a visit for a number of reasons, according to a White House official. For starters, about half of its 1,301 inmate population is drug offenders, which is proportional to the entire federal prison population. The racial and ethnic make-up is also representative of the federal prison population and inmates there are a variety of ages and carry myriad lengths of sentence. What’s more, it offers both an evidence-based residential drug abuse treatment program and a critical reentry program known as Federal Prison Industries that helps inmates prepare for life on the outside. Inside, according to an inmate handbook, inmates have access to educational and vocational training programs from GED and associate’s degree courses to business management and welding training.

“The President believes that, at its heart, America is a nation of second chances, and the reentry programs and drug abuse programs housed at El Reno are vital to ensuring that inmates have a second chance to give back to the country they love,” said a White House official.

Those second chances, however, have been all but lost on thousands of low-level, non-violent drug offenders sentenced to lengthy sentences as a result of harsh, decades-old drug laws. In many cases, first-time offenders caught peddling or transporting drugs have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled, due in large part to the massive numbers of drug offenders who’ve ended up behind bars for lengthy amounts of time. And although Congress passed a law in 2010 that reduced the punitive disparities between crack and powder cocaine, the law wasn’t retroactive, leaving many offenders who would be out under current law to languish behind bars. “That’s the real reason our prison population is so high,” Obama said Tuesday. “In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. A disproportionate number of inmates, too, are black and Latino men.

In a photo taken on the inside that Hernandez shared with TIME, nine black and brown men donning tan jumpsuits stare solemnly at the camera. All of them, Hernandez says, were sentenced to life behind bars for selling crack cocaine. Among them is Kenneth Evans, a former low-level drug dealer who is a few months shy of his 50th birthday. He’s been behind bars for 23 years. Evans lived next door to Hernandez when he was still locked up. When Hernandez found out he had been granted clemency, he cried to Evans—saying he felt guilty for leaving him behind.

In a message to TIME sent via the prison email system, Evans said he simply wants the president to know that “none of us are claiming innocence. None of us are neglecting or ignoring the harm that we caused our communities. But ALL of us are simply asking for fairness, true justice, and a second chance.”

Evans has applied for clemency through the Clemency Project, an Obama administration effort to identify more non-violent, low-level offenders for parole. According to the New York Times, some 30,000 federal inmates have applied for sentence relief through the initiative. But the process for clemency is slow, as noted in the number of commutation orders Obama has so far granted.

Yet, among inmates, hope is not lost. Douglas Ray Dunkins is not in the photo, but he’s also serving a life sentence in El Reno. His conviction for manufacturing and distributing crack as a young man was his first felony, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report in which he’s featured. He’s been at the Oklahoma facility since February 9, 1993.

When Jason was released, he told TIME via prison email, it was a bittersweet moment, “but it did give me hope that if [his] sentence could be commuted mine could as well.”

Both Congress and the White House have taken steps to try to curb the impact old drug laws have had on the prison population. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House recently launched a criminal justice reform caucus. Senators from both sides of the aisle convened on Tuesday to make the case for passing criminal justice reform this legislative session. Obama on Tuesday lauded the momentum around enacting meaningful reforms that reduce both the prison population and the crime rate, while noting that more work needed to be done. He’s likely to repeat the charge during his visit on Thursday.

Though Hernandez won’t be traveling to meet the President at El Reno, he hopes to someday meet him. But what he wants most is an opportunity is for other deserving inmates to experience life on the outside.

“There are individuals there that I believe are more worthy than I was—they had less drugs and they’ve done more time,” he says. “It’s my hope that one day the president gives life back to those individuals.”

Read next: Obama Calls for Sweeping Criminal Justice Reforms in NAACP Speech

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