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.
Douglas Carroll Tignor grew up in coal country. The son of a miner in West Virginia, there wasn’t much question about what kind of work he’d do when he grew up. He followed his father’s path into the coal mines, taking a common job in a state where the largest industries rely on hard manual labor.
“My problems started when I was injured in the mines,” Tignor says by email. “With three failed back surgeries, pain and the dependency, [that marked] the start of an addiction that led to 188 months of my life taken away.”
Tignor treated his chronic back pain with prescription painkillers, which failed to treat his discomfort and quickly became a habit he couldn’t break. This is an increasingly familiar story in the U.S., where opioid painkiller addiction, which often leads to heroin abuse, has become an epidemic in recent years.
Today, Tignor is serving the 12th year of a 188-month federal prison sentence in Alabama. He hopes to be one of the prisoners granted a commutation, or early release, by President Obama before he leaves office. He was sentenced in 2006 at age 51, when he plead guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. Tignor was arrested for his role in a prescription drug sales scheme; the arresting officers found 13 OxyContin pills on Tignor and a gun under the passenger seat of his car. At the time of the arrest, his only asset was a car worth $500, and he had $4,000 in medical debt, according to his lawyer, JaneAnne Murray. (Murray represents Tignor through the University of Minnesota Law School’s Clemency Project, which she runs.)
At his sentencing, Tignor was classified as an “armed career criminal,” due to a past conviction for street-level cocaine distribution, which triggered a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison. Murray tells Rolling Stone that under today’s “more enlightened” federal charging and sentencing policies, his sentence would be much shorter.
At the time of his incarceration, Tignor had a five-year-old daughter, whom he was raising as a single parent. He says he’s eager to get back to her, his fiancée and his 90-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s – he’d like to care for “in her remaining lucid days.”
Tignor describes prison as a “bad dream, a nightmare come true … that breeds hate, racial conflicts, and bitterness.” If granted clemency, he writes that he looks forward to “fishing, ball games, Nascar, and the smell of holiday meals being cooked.”