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Freedom Denied: 21-year marijuana sentence leaves man stuck in prison, denied parole

When he was a young boy, Jeremiah loved to fish. His father taught him the sport, and Jeremiah would catch bass weighing over 10 pounds and sell his catch for top dollar to the people in his hometown.

He was a street-smart kid who “knew how to hustle” — something his father taught him.

In high school, Jeremiah — whose name has been changed in this story to protect his identity — found another passion: football. He attended college on a football scholarship and played on the defensive line.

But for the past eight years, Jeremiah hasn’t fished, played football or watched as his brothers and sisters have grown up without him. He’s been in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) since being sentenced to 21 years for trafficking 5 pounds of marijuana.

Jeremiah was up for parole a little over a year ago. But he was denied.

The reason? Insufficient time served, the parole board said.

Such denials are not uncommon from the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP), which has a notorious record of denying parole to people in state custody, especially those who are Black. Despite vastly overcrowded prison conditions in Alabama and a national trend toward easing the harsh sentencing practices of previous decades, the board has slowed its parole grant rate in recent years – and the existing racial disparities have only accelerated.

• Read more on the series: Freedom Denied

The situation has only worsened a failing prison system, where deadly violence and unconstitutional conditions led to an ongoing lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice. The SPLC is litigating a separate suit over the inadequate health care provided to people in custody.

That Jeremiah was punished so severely by the state — and has been denied parole — shows how little has been done to reform penalties for nonviolent drug offenders in Alabama, even though it is now legal to buy cannabis for recreational use in 18 states. Thirty-seven states allow it for medical use.  

“They got me when I was boy, but now I’m a man,” Jeremiah told the SPLC during an interview inside a correctional facility. “This system was made for me. They want me in here for a very, very long time.”

A necessary evil

In the community where Jeremiah grew up, gangs and drugs were a way of life, so his father also taught him how to survive the dangerous streets where they lived.

The drug scene was unavoidable in his hometown, so Jeremiah began selling marijuana at an early age. It was a necessary evil: Either understand the streets, the drug scene, or live in fear.

“Drugs were everywhere, and I had to be able to navigate that world,” Jeremiah said. “Is that right? No. But I had to prepare. My mom was working two jobs, so money was tight. I couldn’t be a kid anymore.”

Before his conviction, Jeremiah had big goals. He was studying to become an engineer and had dreams of a large family.

“I loved football and was preparing myself to make big bucks for the family I wanted,” Jeremiah said. “I needed financial security, and the cost of living as a student was hard to maintain. I needed income to focus on my education and the family I would create. And I wanted to be a successful engineer.”

His dreams were cut short when he was just nine units of coursework away from obtaining his degree.

Still in custody, Jeremiah spends his free time reading books on Warren Buffett and other business leaders to better understand the business world – a field he would like to pursue.

But he will not be eligible for parole again for at least two years.

Fighting his sentence

Jeremiah’s ordeal began when a postal inspector seized a package containing marijuana. When Jeremiah walked outside of his apartment one day, the local drug unit was waiting to arrest him.

“Everyone was telling me to be prepared for three years [in prison],” Jeremiah said. “I believed that.”

Ultimately, he was found guilty and sentenced to remain in ADOC custody for over two decades.

Jeremiah was shocked.

“Everything changed,” he said. “Nothing felt the same. For the last eight years and since hearing that sentence, I’ve disengaged from my emotions. I’m studying. I’m learning. That’s how I’m fighting this sentence.”

Learning from mistakes

The parole board’s protocols clearly state that after someone completes one-third of their sentence, they are eligible for parole.

That Jeremiah was denied parole solely because he had not served enough time is contrary to the parole board’s rules, regulations and procedures – more evidence that the parole system in Alabama is broken and that the ABPP doesn’t even follow its own rules.

Jeremiah is not only upset that he was denied parole, he feels as if he has been set up.

“They’re targeting me because I’m a Black man,” he said. “I’ve had no infractions over the past eight years, so I’m qualified to be released. You have to be two times smarter than a white man, when you’re in here, to get your freedom back.”

In 2019, 34% of Black applicants were granted parole by the ABPP, while 36% of white applicants were released. In 2020, a mere 16% of Black applicants received parole, while 29% of white applicants were released. Last year, the parole board released just 8% of Black applicants.

“For me to stay in here when my white counterparts don’t doesn’t make sense,” Jeremiah said. “I’m just saying that the system should be fair. Give people the opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them.”

Alabama’s broken parole system has, as the statistics show, gotten worse, not better.

In 2021, when Jeremiah was considered for parole, the ABPP reported that it granted parole in 15% of the cases. So far in 2022, it’s reporting a grant rate of 11%. If the ABPP doesn’t fundamentally change before Jeremiah is again up for parole, he faces the very real possibility of being denied parole once more.

A higher purpose

Jeremiah is up against tough odds — and he knows it.

In the time he’s been incarcerated, he has done everything that the state of Alabama says he should have done to be granted parole. He’s completed significant programming, maintained a clean disciplinary record and demonstrated that he’s capable of — and committed to — leading a productive, crime-free life upon his release.

The cruelest part of Jeremiah’s time behind bars is when his family comes to visit, he said. He doesn’t want them to see him as a victim.

“Even though my mother and father tell me to ‘stay strong,’ I’m in prison, so I’ve got to control myself and stay focused,” Jeremiah said. “But it’s been very difficult for me to witness my family’s suffering.”

Jeremiah has remained resilient throughout his sentence. But it hasn’t come without hardships – and learned lessons. 

“I’m looking at what could happen based off of my decisions,” he said. “I didn’t used to think; now I do.”

He also said that instead of looking at individuals in prison as “bad,” there ought to be an avenue that allows people in custody to not be defined by their prison sentence. There should also be a way for people like him to prepare for the outside world, he said.

“Work release is fine, but people are not prepared to be out,” he said. “They should prepare us for life outside of prison. We are a part of the community, and we need to be prepared.”

Jeremiah still has big dreams for himself and has no plans to abandon them. He’s continuing his studies to learn about the business world and would also like to be an advocate for those who’ve been treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. He’s learned that his decisions and actions can deeply affect others, so he plans to always do what’s right.

“I want a job and a family,” he said. “The money means nothing to me now. I’ve learned that I have a choice to say yes or no to things put in my path, and I want to make the right decision.”

When asked what he wants people to know about him, Jeremiah said: “I’ve always been a loving person. I’ve never been violent; I always took my aggression out playing football. I feel like I’m interconnected with everyone. I have a higher purpose. My faith in God keeps me going — and my family. That’s what keeps me sane.”

Top picture: Illustration by Ryan Simpson

Read more about the Freedom Denied series here.