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Interview: Man Granted Clemency By Obama Over Drug Charges Rebuilds Life

Romaine “Chip” Dukes was born in Brooklyn, New York. He was one of four children to a mother, who suffered the many trials that accompany drug addiction. At the age of 13, after spending a tremendous amount of time on the street, his mother was incarcerated, and Dukes and his other three siblings were forced into the foster care system.

“I took it upon myself to leave foster care. So I ran away and lived on the streets until my best friend’s mom took me in and treated me as her own son,” Dukes told Shadowproof.

This is where his life drastically changed. Dukes sold drugs to survive.

“While on the streets, I caught two drug cases that were four months apart. One was serving a dime bag of crack to an undercover police officer, which I got probation for, and the other was for possession of two grams of crack, which I also received probation for,” he said. “I ended up violating probation and serving one year in the Illinois state [prison] system.”

After Dukes’ mother was released from prison, she moved to Iowa where he visited and she tried to convince him to “leave the jar game alone and become a productive member of society.” She offered him a place to stay. Dukes worked two jobs and attempted to get to know his mother again.

“It was a struggle at first getting to know my mom while I was still blaming her for my life being the way it was. While I was in Iowa, I started meeting people that were selling drugs, and they asked me to go to Chicago to get drugs and bring them back to sale,” Dukes said.

“After about eight months of working, I quit Starbucks and started selling drugs in Iowa. I ended up catching a conspiracy charge because my co-defendant was serving an undercover agent. So when he got caught, he told the people that I was going to Chicago to get drugs and that I was the source of supply.”

“I was arrested for conspiracy, went to jury trial and lost,” he said. “Ultimately, I was found guilty and sentenced to life in federal prison.”

In 1997, when Dukes was 24-years-old, he was tried on one count of conspiring to distribute cocaine base and two counts of distributing cocaine base. He was convicted on all three counts and was given a mandatory life sentence, plus ten years.

Dukes realized that he was swept up in a federal sentencing racket that was intentionally discriminatory, and in the words of the ACLU, “perpetuate[d] a racial caste system when it comes to our criminal justice system.”

Once Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine was stark: distributing 5 grams of crack cocaine, for example, would get a person a minimum 5 year federal prison sentence while distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine would get a person the same sentence.

According to the ACLU’s report, “Cracks In The System,” African Americans received federal drug sentences that were 11 percent higher on average than that of whites before mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses was enacted. Their drug sentences were 49 percent higher just four years after.

And so Dukes found himself, a nonviolent drug offender, watching as the most critical moments of his youth crawled by in federal prison—a place he was sentenced to live out the rest of his days.

“[The Controlled Substance Act] states that if you had two prior convictions which were felonies, and the offense that you are on now involved 50 grams of crack or more, it constitutes a mandatory life sentence,” Dukes explained. “When it comes to conspiracy charges, your sentence depends on the amount of grams sold throughout the whole conspiracy, which in this case was 185 grams.”

“In 2010, Congress passed legislation to change the ratio [from 100 to 1] to 18 to 1 based on scientific evidence that powder cocaine and cocaine that is cooked up is chemically the same. So why treat it differently?”

“Despite the law having been changed, it wasn’t to apply to any of us that was already incarcerated. Under the new law, I was looking at a 10 year sentence,” he said. “I felt that it was unfair to keep us locked up under the old law, but when the law was passed, they didn’t make it retroactive.”

Dukes sought leniency from President Barack Obama and requested “executive clemency,” which he received. He became one of 46 people who had their sentences commuted in 2015.

By that point, Dukes (now 43) had spent 19 years locked away in federal prison. His son, who was just 8-years-old when he was first imprisoned, was now 27.

“I missed practically his whole life as a child. I got the chance to spend one year with him before he was killed in a car accident,” he said.

A commutation is an important step forward for people fortunate enough to receive one, but it is not a finishing line for freedom. People with commuted sentences still face blinding obstacles when attempting to find work, housing, academic opportunities, financial assistance, and medical services.

Race and class play a direct role in shaping what an inmate’s future will look like after they’re released, especially after longer stints. The less support they have from family, friends, and mentors, the more difficult it may be for them.

When Dukes was released, he had a lot of moral support that helped him make it through. “Coming out after all those years, you need as much support as you can get. So shout out to my family and friends that held me down. They know who they are.”

“The first month I was out, I put in a whole lot of applications but never got called back. So I went to temp agencies, and I started working different jobs. I am determined to succeed,” he added. “I had to deal with a lot of obstacles, and I’m still dealing with them. All those years in prison, I can truly say that I’ve learned a lot about myself, people, the world in general, relationships, religions, etc.”

“I started working with this trucking company through a temp agency and after six months I was hired on. I had a baby boy who is 1-year-old now. He is so adorable. And now, I’m trying to make this dream of owning my own business into a reality.”

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Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Lebanese-American writer, published poet, and journalist, whose work can be found at Roqchams.com.