WASHINGTON -- Norman Brown is done with flip phones. Twenty-six years ago, when Brown and his associates were selling crack cocaine in the nation’s capital, a man who they thought worked for a cell phone company traded them cutting-edge devices in exchange for drugs.
“We were some of the ones that got the first flip phones. That’s what really intrigued us,” Brown, 48, said in a recent interview. “We thought we were what was happening, we’ve got the new flip phones. Little did we know, we were buying them from the feds.”
The phone store employee was actually an undercover FBI agent, and Brown was caught up in a massive drug bust. Brown, who was in his early 20s and had two prior convictions, wound up with a life sentence as a result of mandatory minimums. Had President Barack Obama not commuted his sentence last year, Brown would have died behind bars.
Brown is one of the lucky ones, and he knows it. He first applied for clemency in 2010, long before the Obama administration announced an initiative in 2014 to increase the number of federal prisoners who would have their sentences shortened. With a spotless disciplinary record, a stack of certificates of achievement, letters of recommendation from corrections officials, strong support from his family, and legal advocacy from former Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, he beat the odds and was granted clemency last summer.
So instead of being locked up for life, Brown is now adjusting to life in the city he hadn't seen for himself since George H.W. Bush was president. He's buying new clothes for the first time this century. He's spending time with his daughter, who was conceived shortly before he went to prison; his sister, who is putting him up; and his fiancee, a woman he first met in high school. Working with groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, he's also telling his story -- including on a panel at the White House -- in hopes of aiding the thousands of federal prisoners who are seeking relief from their sentences.
Last week, he got a chance to meet the man who set him free. Obama popped in on a meeting that Brown and others who had received clemency were having at the White House and then took them to lunch at a restaurant in the U Street neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
The meeting came at a time when the president's legacy on clemency is up in the air. Former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff stepped down in January, and a copy of her resignation letter obtained by USA Today revealed that her efforts to get the required resources for the clemency initiative -- which now has more than 10,000 cases pending -- were not successful. Leff said the Justice Department "has not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the president" and that she had been told to set aside thousands of petitions for clemency and pardon.
More than a year ago, in an interview with The Huffington Post, Obama promised to use his clemency power "more aggressively." While the number rose to 248 -- including over 90 other individuals like Brown who had been given life sentences -- it falls far short of what advocates hoped for and say is necessary to correct the unnecessarily lengthy sentences given out to federal defendants over the past few decades.
Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called Obama's clemency total "increasingly impressive," after the announcement last week, but said Obama and his team need "to vastly increase the pace, and continue granting commutations on a regular basis throughout the remainder of his term."
White House Counsel Neil Eggleston recently said the administration was committed to the clemency initiative, and that announcements would be coming "on a more regular basis."
In an interview with HuffPost, Brown said he hopes Obama can "reach back" to the men and women he left behind. "Allow the time to fit the crime," Brown said. "Overkill is not the answer."
Brown said it took a while for it to sink in that he had been sentenced to die behind bars. He was locked up for more than 24 years and says, "I lost both of my parents, I lost my brother and my grandmother back-to-back. So [it was] pretty much devastating."
"I really thank God for keeping me sane, because in the process I developed a whole lot of self-help groups while I was in, I took so many classes," he added. "I think I stayed strong because there were so many of my comrades or colleagues, or what I would call my family members. When you do as much time as I’ve done, all of the things that we go through being incarcerated, these are your family, your extended family."
Brown says he never allowed himself to believe that he would never get out, and had to keep faith that he would eventually be released.
"I’m such an optimist, it was a long shot, but knowing that I’m a man of belief, I leaned more towards receiving it than not. If I didn’t get it, I would’ve died in prison," Brown said. But when he recently learned how many people had applied for clemency compared to the few hundred who had received it, it was "kind of scary," he said.
Brown is now the proud owner of a smart phone, and has quickly learned to text, email and to get himself around. "We had cellular phones that were as big as computers at the time when I came to jail," he joked. He stays in touch with many of the friends he made on the inside, although he may never be able to see many of them in person ever again.
When he was in a halfway home, he was only allowed to have a cell phone without a camera: that limited his options. And then one of his old friends gave him a gift.
“You wouldn’t guess what kind of phone. A flip phone,” Brown said. “He gave it to me laughing, he said ‘Here, you want this?’" Brown said with a smile. "Oh, this is funny huh?”