Life After Prison: Phillip Emmert

Phillip Emmert, prison sentence commuted by President George W. Bush

“I thought that those kinds of sentences were reserved for predators”

I got sentenced back in 1992. I was originally sentenced for conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine. I was told when I got arrested that I was looking at a year, maybe, and then with the advice of my lawyer I went to trial and wound up getting 27 years because I was charged with conspiracy for everyone involved.

I had no clue that you could actually get 27 years without parole for a first time offense. I thought those kinds of sentences were reserved for predators and people who hurt people. Most people don’t realize that everybody who testified against me testified that they sold me drugs — not a single person testified that I sold them drugs. But every person who testified against me got less time than me.

My judge looked me right in the eye and told me, “I don’t want to do this.”

The prosecutor stood up and said, “You’ve got to do this.” And the judge told him to sit down. He was mad. He said, “I know what I’ve got to do, but I don’t want to do it.”

On March 30, 2016, President Barack Obama granted commutation of sentence to 61 individuals. On the same day the President also stopped by a White House meeting to meet with Phillip and other individuals who had been granted clemency in the past.

We need to give judges discretion. They need to look at each individual life. All situations are not the same. Sentencing guidelines don’t give the judge any discretion. It actually takes the judge completely out of the equation. He’s more like a mediator between the prosecutor and the probations office.

“What’s your motive?”

When I was in prison I read everything that I could read about sentencing reform. Most people don’t realize that federal prison doesn’t have parole. What you get is what you do. There’s no incentive, unless you’ve got it inside you, to rehabilitate. A lot of people in prison said, “I’m not working for these people.”

But I never considered myself working for them, I was working for me. I was trying to teach myself something. I started taking training specifically to work at the VA hospital because I knew that was one of the better places in my hometown to work. I learned they need boiler operators, so I got a boilers’ license. I lobbied the prison to set up an apprenticeship program for me so I could log hours with the federal Department of Labor.

For everything I did, that was the motivation. I used to have a thing above my desk at work in prison that said, “What’s your motive?” My motive was to teach myself a trade. And to this day, I still live that — I want to make sure that everything I do has the right motive. That’s how I did my time. I never gave up hope. Hope is a powerful thing.

“There’s nothing more powerful”

I got commuted in 2006 by President Bush. I was telling President Obama, you can never underestimate what one act of kindness can do to change somebody’s life. Commutations definitely change people’s lives. They need hope, people who are in prison. People are doing life in prison without parole for marijuana. It says right on their paperwork, “Out date: Death” for marijuana. It’s ridiculous.

When President Obama told us the news that he commuted 61 people, I had tears flowing down my eyes because I know what conversations they were having today. One, they were getting told by their lawyer or whomever that they were going home. And I know that feeling that rushes through them, because I experienced myself. The second one is the conversation they are having when they are calling home and telling their families they are coming home.

I’ve been out nine years. I listened to the stories of other people telling their stories and it brought it back just like it was yesterday.

I remember that feeling of overwhelming gratitude and relief and being able to run and tell my daughter that her daddy is coming home — there’s nothing more powerful than that.

It gives you a huge sense of responsibility that you are going to represent everybody who’s been commuted and going to be commuted, so that presidents now and in the future continue to commute prisoners who got caught up in the system.

“You just do what you got to do”

When I first got out, I was scared. I had a wife who stuck with me through thick and thin — very, very few people do — and my daughter was waiting for me. So I had a support group.

But it was still tough. When you fill out an application for a job, they ask you questions like, “Have you been in trouble in the last five years? Have you been fired from a job in the last five years?” I kept putting, “No, because I was in prison.” I wanted to make sure I was as truthful as possible with them because I didn’t want them to come back and find that I wasn’t truthful and mess up that job.

That was a tough thing to do, to fill out an application and account for a 14-year gap in your employment. But I had some people who took a chance on me.

I was lucky enough to find a job three weeks out of prison, but it seemed like the probations office was working against me on a lot of things because they would come to my job site and visit. They were a little leery of my job because it was a hospital. I’d have to show up and give a urine analysis test during work and sometimes they called me for a meeting during work. I had to take off work a lot. I was lucky I had an employer who was understanding of that because I don’t think a lot of employers would be.

Once, I had to come to the probations office during a 20-inch snowstorm.

They told me if I didn’t make it there I’d be gone. I live 35 miles away from the probation office. The news said that all the roads were closed and the sheriff didn’t want anyone on the roads. But I had to go, so I went. You just do what you got to do. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to be seen in any light like I was trying to buck the system, because one of the biggest blessings I could have gotten was to have my sentence commuted by the president.

“I’m going to take care of you now”

Now, I’m working at the VA hospital. I’ve been working there for nine years. I started making a fairly good income after about five months, so I started getting more confident. I was able to get my wife off of disability. My wife got in a car wreck a year after I got locked up, so she had been on disability and in a wheelchair. When she went to get off of SSA disability, they had never had anybody do that. I said, “Tell them to take you off. I’m going to take care of you now.” It was one of the best moments of my life.


In 1992, Phillip was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. He spent 14 years in federal prison and was granted clemency by former President Bush in December 2006. By all accounts, Phillip turned his life around in prison. He kicked his addictions, became deeply religious, took job training and volunteered at a hospice for inmates. And he used the job training he received in prison to land a solid position maintaining air-handling systems at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Iowa City. His supervisor, Richard Lindenbusch, said Phillip earned the promotion because of his in-depth knowledge of complicated, computerized heating and cooling systems.


“Because it just doesn’t make sense to require a nonviolent drug offender to serve 20 years, or in some cases, life, in prison. An excessive punishment like that doesn’t fit the crime. It’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not making us safer.” — President Obama on criminal justice reform

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