Alvin Green’s friends in prison were giving him grief. He had submitted a petition to have his sentence commuted by the president and was cautiously hopeful that this shot in the dark might set him free.
“They were saying, ‘You’re wasting your time putting that in.’ But I said, ‘I’ve tried everything else, so I might as well,’” Green said.
Two years later, his buddies were congratulating him.
“I told them, ‘Yeah, you should have tried,’” said Green, smiling as he recalled the twist of fate.
Green was one of thousands of people serving mandatory life sentences in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses under laws adopted at the height of the “war on drugs” in the ’80s and ’90s. By the 2000s, there was growing awareness these laws disproportionately affected black and Latino men and had led to a bloated prison population, and new laws were passed to address unfair sentencing guidelines, often with bipartisan support.
But these changes didn’t affect those already serving time. For Green, only executive clemency offered a chance at leaving prison. Prior to 2014, this would have been nearly impossible. Of prisoners sentenced to life without parole for federal drug offenses, George W. Bush granted clemency to just one while Bill Clinton didn’t grant clemency to any, according to the Buried Alive Project. But with the help of some dedicated University of Denver law students, Green became one of more than 500 “lifers” to have his sentence commuted late in Barack Obama’s second term.