In light of John Legend’s moving open letter to President Obama, this week Rolling Stone is highlighting the stories of several prisoners who have petitioned the president to commute their sentences.
At 11 years old, Dondrell Haynes witnessed a grisly murder. On his walk home from the convenience store where he says his mother often sent him to pick up her cigarettes and liquor, Haynes saw two men fighting; one beat the other to death with a baseball bat. “This was the first murder I witnessed in [New Orleans’] St. Bernard Projects, but it wasn’t the last,” writes Haynes in a letter shared with Rolling Stone by his lawyer, Rachel Shack.
Haynes is one of more than 10,000 federal prisoners who have petitioned President Obama to use his clemency powers to commute their sentences, granting them an early release. To date, Obama has commuted the sentences of 944 people – more than any other president – but thousands still wait. As his days in office come to a close, petitioners like Haynes are growing anxious.
Like the majority of those waiting, Haynes is serving time for a nonviolent, drug-related crime. Haynes says in his letter that he and his seven siblings grew up with two drug-addicted parents, and that he had to take responsibility for supporting the family at a young age. After he saw the convenience store murder, he started having nightmares.
“I couldn’t sleep at night, and I saw the dead man’s face constantly,” writes Haynes. “At the time I didn’t know this was PTSD.”
He started smoking marijuana to cope, which he says his mother called “her medicine.” When recycling cans and a part-time job at a race track weren’t enough to support his siblings, Haynes turned to a more lucrative option: dealing drugs. By 14, dealing was a full-time job. In 2007, at age 31, he was arrested for distribution of crack cocaine. Under federal sentencing laws at the time, two previous minor, nonviolent offenses classified him as a “career offender,” which greatly increased the length of his sentence. Haynes received 170 months in prison. Under today’s laws, Shack believes his sentence for the same crime would be just 79 months.
In April, Shack filed Haynes’ clemency petition. He aspires to return to his community in New Orleans, where he plans to start a youth prevention program to help kids avoid the mistakes he made. He has completed numerous educational courses in prison, and successfully sought a transfer from a prison in Louisiana to one in Texas, where he could access a drug rehabilitation program.
Haynes “has taken responsibility for his mistakes, and really wants to pay it forward to his community,” Shack tells Rolling Stone. “I just hope he gets the chance to do that.”