Billy Wheelock

Billy Wheelock was a nonviolent drug offender when he was given a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine in 1993. He served 21 years before receiving clemency from President Obama on December 19, 2013.

I grew up in Temple, Texas in a single parent household.

We were raised by mother and I was the baby of the family. The living conditions could be tough and we did a lot of moving but I managed to graduate from high school in 1982. Instead of going to college I knew I had to go right into work and started out as a cook.

It was hard to make ends meet. I had children and there was pressure to provide for them as best I could. I was a 26-year-old working in a Jack in the Box uniform and I had never even heard of crack cocaine at the time. But I was growing frustrated and when one of the restaurants I was working at closed, a friend offered me a way to make money by selling cocaine with him. Unfortunately, I saw it as an opportunity to make a quick dollar and agreed.

I was not involved for long at all, it was just a bad choice that I made, and I take full responsibility for it. I ended up selling an ounce of crack to someone who sold to an informant, and that person implicated me. That was it.

I would have pled guilty if my sentence range would have been reasonable but they told me I’d still be facing 0–20 years and in those days, you could get that 20 years. This was at the height of the war on drugs just after the death of Len Bias and they had recently passed the 100:1 sentencing disparity for crack to powder cocaine. Now, I would have plead out if they told me 0–10, but I felt the possibility of 20 years was too harsh for what I did. I had no idea I would end up facing life.

This wasn’t a conspiracy case until I wouldn’t plead guilty.

I wanted to go to trial, which I have a constitutional right to do, and they basically punish you for that. Suddenly that ounce became 96 grams because in a conspiracy they hold you accountable for others’ actions too. But even 96 grams wasn’t much.

That amount could be sold in hour on the street.

I had a public defender and he basically worked for them, not for me. He was on the prosecutions side. My judge was nicknamed “The Hangman.” He wasn’t just racist, he was one of those judges who hated anyone who found themselves on the other side of the law in his courtroom. I’ve heard of judges who would disagree with the long mandatory sentences they were forced to give, but I remember clearly that he had no remorse giving me a mandatory life sentence.

If you’ve never hurt no one, killed no one, raped no one, you can’t even imagine that you’re going to get a life sentence.

When you hear those words, and you know that in the federal system life means life — there’s no parole — you have everything taken away from you in one second. It was unbearable. I didn’t breakdown there because it was so hard to believe but once I left and went back to the unit and called my mom, that’s when I broke down.

I was 29 years old when I started my life sentence. I had four kids, two girls and two boys, and one of them was just a baby. Because I had a life sentence, I had to go to a United States Penitentiary but in 1993 there still wasn’t a USP in the state of Texas, so they sent me to Terry Haute, Indiana, a world away from home. I had never been on a plane and so my first plane ride was in chains being forced to live thousands of miles away from my family. I was so far away nobody could come to visit me and any relationships I had started to fade away. I was there for four years before they opened up the first USP in Texas at Beaumont.

Prison is an atmosphere of violence.

That took getting used to. Here I am, a nonviolent drug offender, living among rapists, gang members, murderers —the worst of the worst. You’ve got people who are already violent and then you send them to a place where they know they’ll never leave so they don’t care. You’re in their house and it’s a house of chaos and confusion. The ironic thing is they can’t stop any of it from happening. I’m in a United State Penitentiary and it’s full of drugs, weapons, and violence.

It’s so easy to self destruct or join a gang or just end up dead. I knew I had to stand on faith and not fall prey to the system. The violence was unbelievable and you can’t get used to it. You can only try to separate yourself from it.

One of the hardest things for me was just having my children not only grow up without me there, but with the stigma of a father in prison. They had to deal with that fact. There is shame that comes with that reality and it created another life for them. It’s not easy to explain that your dad is in prison for life.

When you have a life sentence, they deny you the opportunity to better yourself.

Many of the programs they offered inmates at the USP, things like education opportunities or barber school, I was denied because of my sentence. They figured providing me with those opportunities was a waste because I was never getting out. At first I just accepted this. I got a job working in UNICORE sewing Army fatigues and did that for many years. I’ve always been aggressive in everything I do and eventually I moved up to a lead man role, the highest paid in UNICORE with most recognition. It was a high honor and I had all kinds of awards for my work there.

Over time I started to learn the ropes of the system and I found out that I could make the case to the warden for having more opportunities. I knew that if I wanted to get out, I needed to have more accomplishments under my belt. To me, having a life sentence didn’t mean I couldn’t prove that I could be ready to leave and reenter society. I wanted to be admitted to the HVAC program and study restaurant management so I went to the warden and said,

If I’m doing everything right, if I’m a model inmate, if I opened this prison, why would you deny me this opportunity? Nobody can say I’m not getting out. As long as I’m living, I have a chance and you can’t deny me this opportunity.”

She said yes.

Clemency was a hidden treasure.

I had been in 14 years. That’s a long time and I had never heard about clemency even though it had been available forever. Nobody ever thought to apply because it was such an unlikely possibility that President of the United States would intervene in your case. I got the paperwork and looked over it to see if I needed help and I really didn’t. It just tells you to be honest, explain your crime, how you’ve changed, and why you deserve freedom.

I took my time. I could have done this all in one year but I took two years. I wanted to have as much done before I submitted my clemency application so I finished my HVAC and restaurant management certifications. I explained how everybody in my case except for me was already free. I explained the long years I’ve spent behind bars and how I was impacted by the 100:1 disparity. I just told my story and all of my accomplishments in prison. I submitted on August 2011.

For two years I didn’t hear anything. That was hard but I just kept telling myself no news is good news. After a while, I kind of forgot about it. It wasn’t on my mind anymore.

President Obama granted me clemency on December 19, 2013.

I remember it was on friend chicken day because man, I love my friend chicken. I was called to the lieutenant’s office which usually means one of two things, you did something wrong or you have to submit a UA. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong so I was kind of mad that I had to leave the chow hall before I could eat my chicken. When I got to the office they made me wait and I was sitting on the bench and could see the chow hall was about to close and I left two good pieces of chicken in there!

The Warden looked me and she just said:

“Mr. Wheelock, it happened.”

I didn’t know what she was talking about it. Then she started reading the letter from the president. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t hear. I just started crying. I told her she could stop reading and she told me she stopped minutes ago. I had been in prison for 21 years and in one instant, I was free. A million things when through my mind. You start planning your life and thinking about how you’ll tell your family the news. I walked out and looked outside and saw mountains and it felt like they were reaching out to touch me. I wasn’t thinking about that damn chicken anymore!

But wouldn’t you know this was national news. We were considered the “Obama Eight” and and next day I was on the front page of even my hometown newspaper. It was like everyone knew before me.

I came to Denver because of my wife.

My fiancee came and picked me up before I had to go to a halfway house. We met on a muslim dating website while I was in prison, getting to know one another, and fell in love. The first meal I had was Popeye’s friend chicken. You just can’t get that in prison! Since then I’ve eaten a farm of chickens.

They let me travel to Texas and see my mom and my kids within a month of getting out of the halfway house. They were shocked. I didn’t even tell my mom I was coming, I just surprised her. She didn’t know it was me because I hadn’t seen her for nine years.

It took some time for me to get adjusted to life and I wanted to make sure I had a good grasp on things before I applied for a job. I went through a temp agency and found an HVAC role and I’m a cook at a volleyball resort. When my wife got colon cancer I took on additional work so we had extra money. I do lots of work through the temp agency whenever I can like security at Denver Broncos games.

I speak at Denver University once a year, talking to students taking classes with Professor Arthur Gilbert. It’s wonderful to be able to share my experience with these students. It gives me an opportunity to tell my story.

I’m also working on a book called Faith Without a Date. It’s more than my life journey, it’s a tool for people so they can change their situations. I want it to be a roadmap that helps people work through the difficult situations in life.

My advice to people is to just have faith and don’t let anything interfere with that. Faith gives you hope, and for me, hope came true. I had to do 21 years to get my heaven and I could have given up so many times. You’d never know by looking or talking to me that I went to hell to get to heaven. But people judge me by how hard I work and how I treat them, they don’t judge me by my past.

If it weren’t for President Obama, I would still be in prison.

He gave me the opportunity to prove that I’m worthy of a second chance, and I believe I’m doing that. I want to thank him for believing in all of us. We aren’t perfect people but that doesn’t mean that we can’t overcome the circumstances we find ourselves in. I would ask any president to have the same compassion because there are so many people in prison who don’t deserve to be there.

Photos and story editing by Jon Perri Twitter

Billy Wheelock
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