Donel Clark was working at Dallas grocery store, supporting his wife and three young sons, when he took a more lucrative job as a “cook” in a friend’s kitchen, where the main ingredient was raw cocaine and the final product was crack. In 1994, when Clark was 29, a judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison for his participation in the business. Although the prosecutor later denounced the sentence as unduly harsh, the federal mandatory minimum drug laws left the judge no choice but to impose it.
Twenty years later, with 10 years of his sentence still ahead of him, Clark has reason to believe he may soon return home to his family. Last spring, in an unprecedented attempt to address the devastating effects of the severe drug laws of that era, the Obama administration announced a plan to free many of the thousands of federal prisoners serving time for nonviolent, low-level offenses. Clark, now 50, is one of thousands who have filed for clemency since then. With his spotless prison record, he meets the administration’s criteria. Here’s an account of his life in prison, in his words:
Arriving to Allenwood Federal Prison
It was late evening when the bus pulled into the prison complex in White Deer, Pennsylvania, and started dropping men off at the different facilities. The winter that year was brutal and there was snow knee-deep on the ground, something that I had never seen. I was nervous and on guard, not knowing what to expect inside.
I had never been to prison, but I knew people from the street who told stories of how to conduct yourself inside, or else people would see you as weak and prey upon you.
The group I arrived with was told that our paperwork hadn't arrived yet and they would have to place us in the [Security Housing Unit] until it did. SHU is what inmates call "the hole." It's where you're locked in your room 23 hours a day with one hour of [recreation] if they have time to let you out. They need your paperwork to be sure that you don't have any orders in your file to stay away from any particular inmates.
I ended up being in the hole for 10 days before my paperwork arrived and I was released to the compound. There was nothing to do but look out the window every day at the rec yard and the mountains in the distance. I had too much time to think in there by myself, and I started to get antsy. I found it hard to sleep at night because I was napping all during the day. The only sounds you hear are those of inmates hollering from cell to cell and the guards’ keys as they come down the range from time to time.
My First Cell Mate
It was dinner time when I was released from the hole and sent to the housing unit. An older black man was inside my room, laying on top of his bed reading a book. He greeted me warmly and showed me how to make my bed properly. Then he grabbed his coat and personally took me down to the kitchen to eat before it closed for the night.
At first I was a little skeptical of his eagerness to help. He took me by the barber shop and told one of the barbers that I needed a cut and that he'd make sure he was paid for it. They charged a pack of cigarettes. I started to wonder what his motives were, and I started to pay real close attention to all of his actions. I was on guard for if he tried anything that night, but he didn't. He just was a decent guy.
My biggest problem was being so far away from home and the cost of the phone calls to communicate with my loved ones -- $4.05 for 15 minutes. My sons were asking me when they were going to see me again. That really broke my heart because I knew that I was just starting my stay.
The Crack Riots of 1995
Congress had just turned down the Sentencing Commission's recommendation to make the punishment for crack cocaine equal to that of powder cocaine. Everyone had hoped and prayed that the recommendation would pass, but it didn't.
One morning they were serving pancakes and bacon, a inmate favorite, when there was a loud explosion in the kitchen. Everyone stopped talking. I looked around and noticed that one of the windows at the rear of the kitchen was gone. That explained it. Through the quietness I could hear the sound of fire alarms going off somewhere else across the compound.
Then a guy from Detroit ran into the kitchen from outside and got everyone's attention. He screamed, "What the fuck are y'all waiting on? Let's tear this motherfucker up!"
Just like that, the place went haywire. People started turning tables over and throwing napkin holders and just going crazy.
I still didn't know what was happening, and another inmate and I just hugged the wall and stayed out of the way. I thought it was a fight between Philly and New York or something. Then in just a matter of seconds, the mob started to leave the kitchen.
Things were totally out of control. Guys were running around with towels tied around their faces so all you could see was their eyes. They were lighting fires in the barrel trashcans and knocking lights out, turning foosball tables over, breaking glass, total chaos. I didn't know what to do, and I was scared. Then a few of them started to holler for the guard to come unlock the door so they could get outside. I could tell from the look on the guard's face that he was terrified. I thought they were going to attack him or something. They kept following him around and shouting commands at him, but he just kept on walking and ignoring them, watching them out of the corner of his eye.
That scene went on for at least a couple of hours, and the smoke from the fires was starting to get to me. Boy, how I wished my room was inside that building, so I could get inside and away from all the madness. I sat on some stairs and prayed silently. Then I noticed three guys up in a corner of the upstairs range, and one of them was gesturing with his hand for me to come that way. I knew him because he was a choir member in the church, so I went up there to see what he wanted.
He told me to pray with them. I'm still ashamed today to say that at that time I thought prayer was the last thing we needed to be doing. I was worried about not being hit by flying debris and here they were holding hands in the corner and asking me to join them.
All I Wanted To Do Was Stay In Touch
We were on lockdown status for a good three weeks before things returned to normal. A few guards had been assaulted and many inmates hurt. During that lockdown I received mail under the door informing me that my appeal to the appellate court had been denied. I was heartbroken, to say the least. That meant that my sentence would stand as it was.
When we came off lockdown, I called my wife and told her the news about my appeal. I refused to lie to her like a lot of other guys do to keep their women hanging on, thinking they're about to get out. She was disappointed but she didn't say much more. A few weeks later she stopped sending me money. She told me it was hard on her and the boys and she couldn't keep taking care of me and them. I told her I understood, and that money wasn't what our relationship was based upon anyway. All I wanted her to do was stay in touch with letters and pictures. But she didn't do that either. From that point on, if I didn't call, we didn't communicate.
Over the next few years there were rulings in the Supreme Court that caused many of us to believe that our sentences might be cut down, but in the end the courts decided against making their rulings retroactive.
I broke some serious laws by participating in the selling of the drugs that I did, and I take full responsibility for my actions. I feel that the sentence I received was way too excessive, but the law is the law. I look forward to one day when I'll be free again.
Seamus McKiernan contributed reporting.