Searching for A Kardashian

Kim helped get clemency for Alice Johnson, who will help me?

Elyse Blennerhassett
Mar 28 · 6 min read

by Christopher Hunter

Most mornings I wake up around 6:30 A.M. and get ready for work. My morning routine is the same everyday. Routines in prison are second only to hope.

I mix three huge spoonfuls of Colombian instant coffee with hot water. It’s the cheapest stuff they have in the commissary. I chug it, then brush my teeth. A convict never goes around anyone without washing up. It’s just protocol.

Next, I head downstairs. FMC Lexington is one of the oldest in the Bureau of Prisons. There’s no air conditioning, its dirty from years of use, and it’s falling to pieces. I am reminded of how old it is every time I walk down the hallway to the TV room where there are several TV’s playing the morning news. One plays Fox, the other shows CNN, and the third usually shows some other headline news. I watch all three of them at once, and think about how almost all of them seem like propaganda. None really show news anymore.

A couple weeks ago, I was going through the motions of my morning routine, and watching the news before work. A story caught my attention. I saw that Kim Kardashian had set up a meeting with the President to discuss commuting the sentence of a woman in prison.

My first thought was, “Wow, that’s really good of Kim K to stand up and try to help get someone a second chance!

Then I realized that Alice Johnson, the woman Kim is trying to help, was a federal prisoner serving life for a non-violent drug offense. She’s been a model prisoner, making positive changes while serving time. Still, she was passed over for a pardon by the last administration.

I don’t have life,” I said to myself. “But 27 years is a long time, and I have a request for commutation pending that was passed over too.

In 2005, a federal judge sentenced me to 420 months in prison for selling cocaine. That’s 35 years. I never believed I would do all that time. Call me crazy, but I think the Universe sets your body in the direction of your mind. So I constantly hoped that something would give.

Eventually, something did. Between winning an appeal and a change in the sentencing laws, my time was reduced by 8 years. But I still have too much time, and there’s no parole in federal prison. In the 13 years I’ve spent in prison so far, I have always been searching for some way to reduce my time.

The last President understood that because of harsh mandatory minimums people received too much time in prison. He granted around 1,700 federal commutations, specifically for non-violent drug offenses, through the Clemency Project.

I remember each month a list of his pardons would come out. The President was like Willy Wonka, giving out “Golden Tickets.” 100 here, 89 there. I remember an older guy I worked with was turned down initially. The Clemency Project suggested he file directly with the President. Within a few weeks, he got a letter saying his petition was accepted. Some of the men who were pardoned left prison within week while others had to stay an complete a drug program.

At least five of the guys I worked with in the clerk’s office got out. Everyone acted happy for them, but it was a strange feeling too. I remember thinking, “How can they do this? How can the let some out and not others? How? We all deserve a second chance. Where is the grace?” It hurt me to the bone.

I filed for clemency toward the end of Obama’s presidency, but I was not granted a “Golden Ticket.” I wasn’t denied one either.

The very first day the new president came into office, the pardon attorney contacted my counselor here and requested additional information. It was as if I was on deck.

I thought, “Okay, here we go! It’s on! They are going to continue helping people.

It had been extremely difficult watching random guys with identical charges getting out and having to smile and congratulate them while being envious as hell on the inside. I told my counselor to keep me informed.

As I watched the news of Kim’s advocacy, I got the strangest feeling. I felt as though I was already supposed to have been on top of this. Of course I didn’t know anything about what was going to happen. It was just a weird feeling.

I realize I was day-dreaming, and routine kicks in, and I rush to my cell to put it in perfect order before making the 7:45 work call. That morning, the Kim K White House sit down was a hot topic. The general consensus of my coworkers is, “Man, Trump ain’t about to do nothing for nobody!”

Almost everyone agrees that because of Attorney General Sessions, “we ain’t got nothing coming.”

For some reason, even though I know I should agree, I just don’t. It’s that strange feeling again. My pending pardon flashes in my mind. As I shake it off, I have to admit I didn’t think Alice Johnson was getting out anytime soon.

What happens the next day blows my mind. The news is reporting that Alice Johnson’s sentence was commuted and she was being released immediately.

“Are you serious?!”

“The very next day!?”

“Man that’s so great for her!”

The evening news flashed between Kim K’s side of the story and Alice Johnson’s reaction to being released. I felt a lump in my throat. I was genuinely happy for her. Willie Wonka gave her a “Golden Ticket.”

The next morning things seemed to get even better. The news was reporting that the president would be doing dozens more commutations. By the time we left work that day, everyone was tripping. The president had announced that he would be doing a lot more commutations, looking from a list of 3,000 cases similar to Ms. Johnson’s. He also reached out to the NFL players telling them to bring him names of people who had been treated unfairly.

After hearing the news, I made up my mind that I was going to get my request for clemency in that list of 3,000. I had to find a celebrity like Kim or an NFL player. I knew NFL players like Doug Baldwin, Malcolm Jenkins, and Anquan Boldin were standing up for prison reform. I wondered how I could get in touch with someone or convince them that I was worthy of being helped.

I rushed to the law library, a place I know well. The room is filled with the noise of people pecking desperately away on ancient typewriters hoping for good news. I wrote the pardon attorney telling him of the additional programs I’ve completed since he had contacted my counselor. I wrote the President and explained all I’ve done, and asked him for help. I told him I don’t know any celebrities or football players, but I need help. My pardon has been pending for two years. I explained that I’ve been a model prisoner, how I’ve taken drug programs and many more. I explained that I work and I’ve become a part of the church. I explained I’ve been locked up 13 years on a non-violent drug charge, that I’m not a career offender, and never have had a violent charge. I wrote how I now understand that drugs poison our communities.

I asked for help from anyone.

I made 30 copies of each letter, and all the certificates I’ve accumulated. I was elated to be putting my energy into something positive. To be working and fighting.

I emailed a copy of the letter to several friends and asked them to begin emailing it to celebrities and NFL players, people like Kid Rock and Van Jones. I have a Facebook page and I’ve posted it on my wall. I got the address for as many attorneys and advocates as possible.

I remember perceiving that another inmate was skeptical of all I was doing. I sensed him scoff at my work.

Listen to me, bro, you never know what can happen,” I said. “Kim K didn’t get Alice Johnson out, her family who was fighting and tweeting for her did.

I told him my pardon is right there at the top of that stack and it could be a pastor, athlete, broadway star, gas station worker, housewife, or anyone that does the one thing that propels my name forward.

If the universe sees you fight for freedom, the universe may just help you get it. If the universe sees you’ve changed, then someone’s heart can be moved. Without the slightest bit of doubt, I said a prayer and began mailing out my little SOS’s.

I am still waiting.

Kites From Inside

a collection of letters and stories written by men and women who are currently incarcerated in the United States

Elyse Blennerhassett

Written by

audio + multimedia producer for podcasts, film, and space

Kites From Inside

a collection of letters and stories written by men and women who are currently incarcerated in the United States

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