Larry Duke, 68, was unexpectedly released from a life-without-parole marijuana sentence on March 5, 2015 under the Bureau of Prisons’ Compassionate Release/Reduction in Sentence (CR/RIS) program. His release was a rare example of the executive branch’s broad, but oddly underused, power to release deserving prisoners — without exercising presidential clemency.
Larry was convicted in 1991 and is the first person serving a federal life sentence known to have been released under the CR/RIS program, making his case an important precedent for thousands of lifers serving life sentences for drug offenses.
The Clemency Report talked to Larry about his release.
Why do you think you received a Reduction in Sentence?
Everyone wants to know that, including myself. I certainly qualify under the new criteria (contained in policy statement 5050. 49) and in 3582 as well — but so do many others. I’m as healthy as a horse, so my sentence reduction wasn’t for medical reasons, although my age certainly would have been a qualifying factor.
You accomplished an amazing amount while in prison. Do you think that made a difference?
The Reduction in Sentence (RIS) program is supposed to benefit “extraordinary and compelling” performance. So I suspect what I did in prison played a role. I think I’m the only federal prisoner to obtain a patent while in prison. (Editor: The patent was for a water purification device.) I’ve also developed plans to help government design high-speed surface transportation and, separately, to speed mass evacuations during emergencies.
How important was the prison staff to your release?
Enormously. The biggest thing I had going for me was the great staff at Jesup, where I’d been housed for 20 years. They saw first hand the effort I was putting into developing these national plans and they rewarded me for it. As a whole, Jesup is so much better than any other federal prison I know of. They’re basically Southerners — professional, yet friendly — and they go the extra mile to help. There’s compassion among the Jesup staff that you don’t find elsewhere in the federal prison system. Those people worked hard and persistently to try to get me out — and their due diligence paid off in spades! I don’t know where I’d be without those wonderful people, probably still in prison.
Who, in particular, was important to you regaining your freedom?
Several staffers were crucial, especially Erin Chalfant, our inmate systems manager and case management coordinator. She’s in charge of the RIS program at Jesup. She tracked my application every step of the way.
And a special thanks from my heart goes out to Mrs. Cami Aspinwall, a floating Case Manager who is now working at Jesup’s low security prison. She wrote my initial request for the RIS program even though it wasn’t on her case load. She took it upon herself to complete all the requirements and remained in constant contact with my case manager to get everything needed for a good, complete application. She gave me a hug at the door when I walked out. Several staffers did. I remain grateful to the staff beyond what words can express.
Who else helped?
At Mrs. Aspinwall’s request, I had collected about 40 letters from family, friends and guys I served with in Vietnam and the military. Everyone from retired generals and Gunnery Sergeants down to guys I was in combat with offered support.
What about your prosecutor?
The prosecutors opposed my first request (which was rejected). Cami spoke directly with her on more than one occasion. The prosecutor opted not to reply to Mrs. Aspinwall’s phone calls,but later said in an e-mail that she would oppose my release. I’m not sure what happened this time.
What advice do you have for prisoners who are in a similar situation to you?
The new RIS policy could and should be an important tool for prison reform. Everywhere throughout the system, triple bunking has become the norm. This can relieve prison overcrowding.
Make a written request to your institution’s staff members, requesting their assistance to start the RIS process. After that, it’s an entirely internal Bureau of Prisons procedure, except for the letters from friends and family’s. When doors open, you should take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves, and this is a tremendous new opportunity to explore.
How is the new RIS sentence important?
It is just my opinion, but I sense these new rules and regulations were written to enable the Director of the Bureau Of Prison, and his administrative staff to internally reduce prison overcrowding. I recommend that all federal inmates who believe they meet the criteria to apply for an RIS, which I think applies nearly everyone over 65 in the federal prison system.
Why might nearly all older prisoners might qualify?
Age is the controlling factor. They’ve written these new rules and regulations so the BOP’s administrative staff at the institutional level can submit the required paperwork for anyone who qualifies. This allows the process to begin. The application then moves to higher levels up the chain of command. The new criteria are written in a way that allows the central office a wide discretion. The regulation enables the BoP to recommend an RIS (subject to judicial approval) to whomever they want. The process also gives the BoP the prerogative to deny it to whomever they want, as well it should.
Why are so few compassionate releases being granted under the new regulations?
I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth since I did get released, but I don’t fully understand why so few people are being approved when so many clearly qualify. At Jesup, 25 or so were sent letters of denial at some point as their applications moved up the procedural ladder. Only myself and Danny Wright, who’s 83, were given approval. (Editor’s note: Wright was convicted in 1991 of importing marijuana and was still in prison at the time of this interview.)
What do you mean by “getting denied somewhere in the chain”?
The bureaucracy can seem confusing, especially to individuals who don’t live in the federal prison world. Here’s how it works.
After your institution’s staff completes your application, your application goes first to your Unit Team, then to the CMC officer, then to the Warden’s office.
Of the warden approves, the application goes from your institution to the Central Office in Washington, D.C. Once there, it goes to the BoP’s Office of General Counsel, then to the BoP’s Director’s desk.
If the Director approves, the application goes to the Justice Department’s Deputy Attorney General, then to the Attorney General‘s office. Then it comes back down the ladder again — to the BoP Director and then back to the BoP’s General Counsel. The General Counsel then submits a request for a Reduction In Sentence to the U.S. Attorney in the inmate’s original sentencing court. The U.S. Attorney then files a Title 18, 3582 motion on behalf of the inmate.
As you can see, there are many, many procedural steps, and you can be denied at any of those levels for any of a long list of reasons. It’s not a vote. Every level has the power to say “no,” even if all others support.
What can be done to improve the process?
As I often do, I sat down three weeks ago and wrote a short essay on this. I called it, “The Stroke of the Pen.” That’s what it all comes down to really. It’s almost magically simple . I believe the process can be simplified even more and improved for everyone’s benefit.
By policy now, every federal institution has designated an RIS officer and an assistant who are assigned to this program. There are roughly about 100 federal institutions, so that’s only 200 people you have to deal with. In this digital age, you can write a computer program and push one button to get a list of everyone in the BOP who might qualify based on their age, amount of time served and the other criteria in the new policy.
I’d consolidate all of this information from all federal institutions into a single database. All RIS requests would flow to one place that collects and gathers the information needed in a systematic fashion. This would centralize expertise in the evaluation of requests and expedite “the final stroke of the pen.”
If the Bureau Of Prison’s intends for this new program to work on a much larger scale – as it says it does – then you need an App in the system to help the specialized knowledge on inmates flow into — and out of — a certain office with far fewer layers of review.
Thanks, Larry. And congratulations.