On March 30, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 61 nonviolent drug offenders.
Jesse Webster’s name was last on that list.
“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” the president wrote in the official notification.
On April 12, Webster walked out of the federal prison in downstate Greenville. His brother Lee got there early to scoop him up. Guards were clocking in for the early shift.
“They kept saying, ‘We hate to see him go,’ ” Lee said. “We were, like, ‘He can’t stay here.’ ”
Webster met up with his mother, Robin, and daughter, Jasmine, at a Portillo’s down the road.
Riding away from the prison that gray and chilly morning, “I was amazed that I made it,” Webster later told me. “And then the challenges came to my mind. Lee, he’s driving. My cousin is in the back seat. I’m in the front, and we are talking.”
But Webster said he was only half-listening. His mind was racing. He called Jessica Ring Amunson, his lawyer, “and the talk was all upbeat. But it was one of those ‘wows.’ I’m coming home to nothing. I have to do for myself.”
He asked himself: “How?”
“I don’t depend on anybody to do anything for me,” he told me. “So you have a funny feeling in your stomach and emptiness. I’ve got to succeed.
“I’ve got the gumption, got the initiative to succeed — but will I have the opportunity?”
Every year, more than 650,000 convicted criminals are released from state and federal prisons. A 2005 study by the National Institute of Justice found that, within three years of release, about two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested.
The high volume of returnees is reflected in the skyrocketing growth of the U.S. prison population over the past 30 years and the tremendous cost to keep all of these people in prison.
In the 2014 federal budget year, the average cost of incarcerating one inmate in federal prison was $30,619.85 a year — $83.89 a day.
By the time Webster was granted clemency, the government had spent an estimated half-million dollars keeping this nonviolent drug offender locked up.
Yet there are only a handful of organizations in Illinois providing the services needed to reintegrate these returnees back into society.
Perry L. Gunn is the executive director of Teamwork Englewood, a community-based organization that provides re-entry services for ex-offenders.
When men who were incarcerated come home, they face a host of needs, Gunn told me: “How do I get a job? How do I get my record expunged? How do I get health care services? Where am I to going to sleep? Where is my housing? Am I going to be sleeping over my cousin’s house?
“When you come back home and you are dealing with some of those challenges, you need support so you can stay out of trouble.”
Because the Chicago Housing Authority bans most people who have a criminal record from living in public housing, many returnees can’t find a place of their own to to call home.
Webster wanted desperately to be back in the outside world. But he also understood the transition wouldn’t be easy.
For one thing, his old neighborhood had changed a lot in the more than 20 years he’d been away.
The community where Webster’s family lived for more than 40 years is one of seven community areas where over half of former male prisoners released to Chicago return.
“Before, it was about guys trying to make a little money and being protective over their territories,” Webster said. “Now, it’s just mayhem.
“This is a new generation of violence. These are guys who have been in the streets all of their lives.”
He stays away from old friends.
“I go to my mom’s house and to my sister’s and my brother’s,” he told me. “I hang out with all of them.”
“With re-entry clients it is really about the jobs,” Gunn said. “Getting a job and maintaining that job is the biggest thing we see.”
Two years before his clemency was granted, Webster took steps to get his Social Security card and birth certificate so he would be prepared to find a job.
He got the birth certificate in two weeks. But it took a year for his Social Security card to find its way from the Social Security Administration to prison.
That was exactly the kind of glitch that Webster warned inmates about when he taught re-entry classes in prison.
“Not having ID is one of the main things that hold people up when they get out,” he said. “A lot of guys are not proactive enough, and institutions don’t have the setup where they can get ID real easy.”
On Dec. 15, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a measure into law to ensure that ex-offenders being released from the Department of Corrections or Department of Juvenile Justice are each provided with a valid state identification card upon release.
Because Webster was a lifer, he spent 17 years in high-security institutions where educational opportunities were limited. But in 2011, his request to be transferred to Greenville, a medium-security federal prison in southern Illinois, was granted. That allowed him to earn a GED and take computer classes.
In the days leading to his release, he focused on getting rid of remnants of his life behind bars.
“I went to my cell and threw away all the legal stuff that I had,” he said. “I wanted to have a bonfire. It was all about getting myself ready to come back out here.”
He said his goodbyes to the few inmates he called friends, like Sherman Moore, a 55-year-old black man doing life.
“I left a lot of good guys that I would like to see get out,” Webster said of those he knew in prison. “Some of them got life, even though there was no violence.”
He also thanked prison staffers who had helped him make the most of his time.
“I had grown attached,” he said, singling out a staffer he called Mr. Pickett for giving him an opportunity to take college courses.
Although Webster had only an eighth-grade education when he went to prison, he ended up tutoring math and teaching re-entry classes for those soon to be released.
“It really turned into something for me at the end,” he said.
When inmates are released, they are given blue jeans and a shirt to wear home. But Webster turned down the freebies. He had managed to save $1,100 in his prison account over the years, and he took the money with him on a debit card.
“I kind of stopped spending money just because I didn’t need as much and because I thought I was going to go home,” he said.
On the way from prison, he stopped at Kohl’s department store near the highway and picked out a pair of Levis, a belt and a shirt.
After waiting nearly three years for the clemency, he was leaving Greenville behind two other inmates whose sentences had been commuted the same day.
“They wanted to send me to Pekin Camp, another institution, then to the halfway house,” he said.
After he protested, the Bureau of Prisons agreed to send him directly to a Salvation Army halfway house on the Southwest Side.
“It had something to do with the ‘public safety factor’ that is attached to a drug conspiracy,” Webster said.
In prison, inmates often try to muddle through filing appeals on their own — or to be fortunate enough to find lawyers willing to give up hundreds of billable hours to get the job done.
Amunson, Webster’s lawyer, had not laid eyes on him during the seven-year fight to get him released. They finally met in October at the Capital Grille in downtown Chicago. Jesse had been out of prison at that point for nearly six months.
“It wasn’t like I was seeing her for the first time,” Webster said. “I felt like I knew her. We talked about the whole challenge with the case. We both admitted that, when we started, we didn’t think we would ever get it.
“She had a lot invested in it. And she put in a lot of time and had a lot of patience.”
Amunson told me she was proud of Jesse for all the work he put into it.
“It was a pretty amazing thing to be a part of helping someone spend the rest of their life with their family, rather than spending the rest of their life in prison,” she said.
Under the terms of his commutation, Webster has to serve five years of supervised release.
After a brief reunion with his family, he went straight to the Salvation Army halfway house at 825 N. Christiana, where he would have to stay until his release date. That would be nearly five months away.
COMING TUESDAY: Halfway to freedom, part 3 of series
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