Inmate Released by Presidential Decree: ‘I Am Completely Confused.’

By Sameer Rao Jul 23, 2015

It’s no secret that VICE has been paying close attention to President Obama’s prison reform agenda. The media company joined the President almost two weeks ago while he visited a federal corrections facility in El Reno, Oklahoma, documenting the trip for a special to air in the fall. VICE additionally spoke to Patrick Roberts, one of the 46 nonviolent offenders whose sentence was commuted by presidential decree. 

The interview with Roberts, a 65-year-old black Detroit native who was serving a life sentence at the federal corrections institute in Terre Haute, Indiana, offers an illuminating look at the full picture behind Obama’s commutations. Roberts, who was sentenced for what VICE calls "a drug distribution conspiracy involving crack cocaine, among other substances," described being summoned by prison officials and receiving the news from Warden Leann LaRiva: 

"’President Obama gave you a pardon,’ is what she told me," Roberts said. Initially believing that he was granted immediate release, Roberts thanked her and turned to leave, intending to walk straight out the front door of the prison without giving a single thought about returning to his cell to collect his personal belongings. 

"The Warden said, ‘Wait, wait… not right now.’" Roberts says. "’You’re leaving on November 10.’" She proceeded to ask a few questions; namely, did he have any family? What about a place to go? As he made his way back to the unit, Roberts asked himself,Who should I call? Family? My girl? Friends?

Roberts chose to keep the news relatively quiet before advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the White House put out press releases with the names of those being pardoned: 

"That’s when everyone started to wanna know who Patrick Roberts is," he says. Laughing, he adds, "It’s like I was becoming a celebrity or something. A lot of people were saying I’m even more blessed than the Pope is."

Roberts also spoke on the uncertainty of life post-release, saying that there hasn’t been much preparation for his reentry aside from being put into "community placement": 

"There are so many people that have different agendas for me that I am completely confused. So my next choices will be the best ones to fit my means—which is 15 more years of life, living a life legally!"

 "What would be the pre-release preparations? You have to look at my age. I am not in the greatest health, but I am not in the worst of health either. I could probably hold a night watchman job or whatever, but what else am I prepared to do except stay out of the way?"

Roberts entered a guilty plea in 1999 and was told that he would be in federal prison for 15 years. The judge who sentenced him used the then-widespread and racist increased standards for crack cocaine distribution, which made his sentence 100 times greater than if he were only charged for powder cocaine. 

Click here to read VICE’s full piece.