Last month, Richard Reser, 71, ate steak at a local diner in Topeka, just because he felt like it. He had just been released after serving 28 years in prison. Eating steak was what he always imagined freedom would be like.
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Reser was supposed to spend 12 more years in prison. But he is one of the more than 1,300 inmates whose sentences have been commuted by President Obama, more commutations than the past 11 presidents combined.
Because of his poor health, Reser spends most of his day confined to a room that doubles as a living room and kitchen, watching TV. Reser still wakes up at 6 a.m. and falls asleep at 9 p.m., the same time he did in prison. “Habit, I guess,” he said.
His fridge has eggs and bacon, his freezer hamburger and hotdogs, and his cupboard beans and macaroni – it’s a bounty of food he could never have kept in prison. The guards used to rifle through his things and order him to throw out whatever extra knickknacks they thought were too much. “They can’t do that no more,” Reser said. “What I have now is mine.”
Soon after he was released, his breathing got so bad he had to have surgery to install a pacemaker. But on Christmas Day, his first full day of freedom at home, Reser sat on his couch alone.
His mother and father died while he was in prison. Both his brothers died. His son had died a few years earlier, in Seattle. And now his daughter is in prison, too.
He briefly called to wish happy holidays to his ex-wife, a childhood friend and his nephew down the street. And then he went back to watching TV. During his last eight years of prison in Arkansas, he didn’t have a single visitor, he said.
And, except for a friend who helped him buy furniture, he hasn’t had a visitor in his new home.
He pulled a blanket out of his closet on Christmas, lay down on his couch – much softer than anything he’d slept on for decades – and went to sleep.
Obama promised to use commutations as a tool to reform the justice system. It’s politically difficult to release prisoners, Obama has said, because some of those released prisoners go on to commit more crimes. So the vast majority of his commutations were granted in 2016, the final year of his presidency.
Obama limited his commutations to nonviolent, low-level offenders who, if they had been sentenced today, would have received shorter sentences. The prisoners had to have already served at least 10 years in prison, although a few who served eight or nine years have now been granted clemency.
In 1989, when Reser was sentenced, U.S. prisons held fewer than 800,000 men. In the mid-1970s, when the prison population just started to grow, there were fewer than 300,000. Now there are about 2.3 million in prison or jail, by far the largest prison population in the world.
In 1986, a bipartisan Congress passed a law that required mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offenses, part of Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. As the prison population started to grow in the 1970s and 1980s, crime continued to increase. For the past 25 years, the crime rate has been falling steadily, while the prison population has continued to increase.
In the meantime, more than 10,000 additional prisoners have applied for relief from Obama, the most in history. And as his presidency comes to a close this week, thousands of prisoners like Reser are waiting and hoping for one last chance.
In 1989, Reser had taken his kids out to eat hamburgers and then dropped them off at his ex-wife’s house. He hugged them, gave them a little money and told them that maybe someday they could come and live with him in Wichita.
Many times, after spending the day with his kids, he would drive back to Wichita. But sometimes Reser would go out drinking with a few friends in Topeka.
He went out that night and heard that someone was willing to pay $300 for some drugs. “Can you get some?” he said he was asked.
Reser knew he shouldn’t do it. He was caught delivering a drug package in 1977, he said, and spent three years in prison in Texas. He’d gotten divorced while in prison and, when he got out, moved from Topeka to Wichita.
He had vowed to never do it again. But after 12 years, he had fallen and hurt himself while doing drywall and hadn’t been able to work for a couple of months. That $300 would pay his bills.
“I don’t know,” Reser told his friend. “I’ll check.”
A couple of times a month when he was out partying, Reser would take what he still calls “a diet pill” or “speed” but is now usually referred to as meth, so he could stay out even later. So although he didn’t deal drugs, he knew whom to ask.
But the man who wanted the drugs was a police informant. When Reser saw a police car following him, he pulled over, ran from the informant’s car and started walking through a field. The police drove through the field and pulled out their guns.
“Stop or we’ll shoot,” they shouted.
The police discovered two guns under the seat of the car, which Reser said were the informant’s guns. But tougher laws enacted in 1986 meant that Reser had to serve at least five years for each weapon, even if he didn’t own them.
At the time, Congress was concerned that drug penalties varied too widely across the country, based on the discretion of judges. The mandatory minimum laws increased sentences for first-time offenders and were more severe for second-time offenders like Reser.
Reser knew what he had done was wrong and told the prosecutor he was willing to plead for a sentence of five or 10 years.
The only way he could get a more lenient sentence, according to the new laws, was if he turned over other drug users.
But Reser said he didn’t have anyone to turn over. The judge had to give Reser 30 years for selling meth and five years for each weapon. Reser was 43 and wouldn’t be eligible to leave prison until he was 83.
Reser tries not to dwell on the anger he has for the informant who he said lured him in.
“I don’t want to put it there in my head,” Reser said. “You put it that way, you’d be like one of these guys who go in the store shooting the boss for firing him, and I ain’t going that route.”
Life after death
Reser’s main activity every day is a trip to Wal-Mart in Topeka, which was still under construction when he went to prison in 1989.
After he takes six pills in the morning, he puts on a special backpack with an oxygen tank, which he uses when he’s struggling to breathe, and takes tiny steps to the bus stop around the corner.
He has a large “No smoking” sign posted on his front door, because he’s afraid a spark could ignite the oxygen tanks in his house.
On the inside of the front door, he taped a copy of his will, which gives his nephew permission to make decisions for him if anything were to happen to him.
Reser sets out for Wal-Mart early so that he doesn’t get stranded after the last bus leaves in the evening. He wanders the aisles looking at all the foods he’s never seen. In prison, the list of items he could buy from the commissary fit on two pages.
He receives $1,400 in disability payments, much more than the $10 a day he made in prison building furniture in the wood shop. But he also has $700 in bills. After six weeks out, he’s still saving to buy a bed.
Cox Communications called him recently and asked for his e-mail address so he could pay his cable bill, but Reser told them he didn’t have e-mail. He bought a cellphone but is still learning how it works.
“There are very few people I have phone numbers to even know anymore,” Reser said.
Reser carries a little food home every day. It’s a difficult journey for him, but he’s happy to have something to do.
“I think I’m adjusting to life pretty good,” he said. “I ain’t got much at this moment, so I buy a little bit at a time.”
The federal prison population fell under Obama for the first time since 1985, by about 8,000 prisoners.
Prison reform appeared poised to pass Congress in 2015 with prominent members of both parties showing support. But no action was taken.
“It is a setback that the legislation didn’t pass when it enjoyed such overwhelming support in the House and the Senate,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama who led his efforts to promote criminal justice reform, told The Eagle.
As with immigration and climate change, when Congress didn’t act, Obama used the limited powers of the presidency to push changes. He required federal contractors to stop using a job applicant’s criminal record when applying for work.
And Obama reduced the sentences of more than 1,300 nonviolent drug offenders like Reser. His commutations represent less than a quarter of 1 percent of the country’s total prison population.
President-elect Trump campaigned on “law and order” more than “prison reform” and chided Obama for releasing prisoners who could be dangerous. “Some of these people are bad dudes,” Trump said. “These are people out walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”
Supporters of reform will have to use persuasion going forward. “It’s going to be up to us, and I include myself in that, when this week is over to make the case from the outside of Washington why this will be better for our society,” Jarrett said.
Even if the issue regains traction in Congress, 90 percent of the country’s prisoners live in state prisons, not federal ones. And commutations by governors at the state level remain low, so Reser’s story remains an exception.
Back in August, Reser was working in the prison wood shop, handing out tools, a job guards give to 71-year-old inmates in poor health, when he was directed to go to the visiting room. Reser had never had a visitor in Arkansas.
A man whom he’d seen pictures of introduced himself as the warden.
“Mr. Obama gave you clemency,” the warden told him.
Reser could hardly breathe. He had filled out the forms requesting clemency years before. He had spent hours in prison law libraries trying to find a way out, but nothing had ever come through.
“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama’s letter stated. “You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.”
A few dozen men in the wood shop gathered around Reser when he returned.
“I just got my clemency,” Reser announced to cheers.