Fulton Leroy Washington was a nonviolent drug offender when he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to manufacture PCP. He served over 21 years wrongfully convicted before receiving clemency by President Obama on May 5, 2016.
I grew up in Watts, California outside of Compton in the 1950’s and 60’s. My mother worked at the Mattel toy factory in El Segundo and she would bring me home broken toys, like plastic boats, and I’d sort of engineer them into toys that I could play with. We were poor and lived in projects, and I’d give some of the toys I made to other kids. I was always a builder.
When I was 11-years-old, the 1965 Watts Riots took place. Houses were burned and stores were looted. It got so bad the National Guard was sent in and residents were put under curfew. I remember being afraid and not quite understanding what was really happening. You have to understand, during those times, for most children, the projects were like the whole world. I didn’t even see another white child, other than on TV, until I was about 10 years old.
As I grew up I worked a lot, from cleaning the neighbors flower beds, selling greeting cards, to working at auto wrecking yards. l opened my own business called Leroy’s Handyman when I was 17. I later worked in construction and refurbished my own house with additional rooms, a fountain, and a patio. My wife, children, and grandchildren still live in that Compton house. We had six children together. Unfortunately, I also found myself associating with drug users and people involved with PCP. I was arrested a couple of times during the 80’s for PCP possession and spent some time in state prison.
In 1997, I was working a construction job and needed a truck so I borrowed one from an acquaintance having no idea that he was wanted for drugs or that he had purchased chemicals for making PCP. I was a passenger in his truck when he was pulled over. We both were arrested. Suddenly I was facing charges of conspiracy to produce PCP.
My case started out with the state but they, after fabricating my identity as the suspect, dropped all of the charges. Then the feds picked up the case. I was adamant about my innocence and refused to take a plea deal so we we went to trial. I was appointed an attorney who, in my opinion, was working with the government. He didn’t care about proving my case. I went to trial because I felt I could provide my innocence but I never got that opportunity — the whole thing felt like a circus. I was found guilty on three counts and because of my previous drug offenses, given a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison, which my judge disagreed with.
When I heard the life sentence, I really didn’t feel anything. It just felt like rhetoric to me.
For over a decade I was moved to prisons outside of California including Colorado and Missouri. The first prison they sent me to was the Leavenworth USP in Kansas. I didn’t expect that I’d be sent so far away from my family. That was the hardest part but I also kept myself in the mindset that I would see them again. I never felt that I would serve a full life sentence.
I started spending my time sketching. I worked on it everyday and just drew and drew. Eventually, I had the opportunity to start painting and that changed everything. Being able to express myself through painting, to have control over colors in a place as sterile and cold as a prison, and to be able to hone in on a craft, I just became obsessed with it.
Soon, I was good enough to start teaching other inmates. I taught painting and drawing at every prison that I was sent to and it gave me an opportunity to connect to show other men how to build their own futures and not just accept the future that has been handed to them. Painting was how I turned this unfortunate time of my life into something else — a negative into a positive.
Over the years, some of those guys that I taught or mentored would leave prison and find work as artists, some of them even opened their own galleries. They’d send letters thanking me and that was an incredible inspiration to keep me going as well.
I was painting for my freedom.
In 2007 I was finally moved back to California to the federal prison in Lompoc. The community there really embraced me both inside the prison and out. I was even commissioned to paint pieces and the donated funds were used to help support my legal defense.
I enjoy painting murals of our military. That’s always been important to me. Some of my painted murals are of the 1923 Honda Point tragedy, the country’s military seals, and one called “Home Soil,” a tribute to Lompoc soldiers who died in Iraq. I donated several pieces to the Lompoc Veterans’ Memorial Building Foundation and in 2015 they even held a ceremony to unveil my mural American Flag Raising,” depicting the raising of flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
Of course I couldn’t be there to see it but local news medias covered the ceremony and I started getting noticed as the artist in the community for my work and contributions.
When my mother died, I couldn’t go to her funeral.
All I could do was read her obituary and look at pictures of her in a coffin. It’s hard to put that kind of pain and hurt into words. My painting “Thinking Out Loud” shows those photos as part of me, along with the house I built for my family. “Thinking Out Loud” is a continuation of my paintings as a way for me to tell my story to the people I could no longer be with. It was a way to tell them that I loved them with every breath that I had.
In 2007, when the presidential campaign began, I started painting Barack Obama as the President. I always painted him as president, because I could envision that. People ridiculed me for this, both prison staff and inmates. When he was elected I was working on a painting titled “First Lady”. It was an image of Michelle Obama with Barack behind her, and the flag behind him. Two days after the election, I was asked to report to the back gates and they had the painting in there and it was destroyed — a clear message to never paint this image again — it was cut through President Obama’s face and someone smeared paint over Michelle’s face. My tools and brushes were broken into pieces and thrown into a trash can that was also placed in front of my painting. Wow! What a message.
That didn’t stop me though. Over the years I created thousands of images and many of them of President Obama and members of his administration. One of my favorite paintings is titled “Compassionate Release.” An image of President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Charles Samuels the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, together as the first of black men to ever hold those positions.
In 2013, I was contacted by an attorney through the Clemency Project 2014, who offered to help file my petition for clemency which we did.
President Obama granted me clemency on May 5, 2016.
I was getting ready to teach my weekly art class when a I was called to the unit office. My first thought was that one of my children or family members had died. There’s just never good news when they call you in over the loudspeaker. When I walked into the room, a bunch of people in suits were standing there, and they listened in as over the phone, my lawyer James Felman, informed me that President Obama had commuted my sentence.
I was pretty much speechless. For years every attempt I made to gain my freedom back had been denied so actually receiving clemency from the president felt like such a longshot.
The last painting I created while in federal custody is the Emancipation Proclamation. This shows President Obama and myself sitting down at a table and negotiating my freedom while the rest of his administration looks on. My hand is drawn back and I’m not reaching for the pen because in order to get my freedom the petition required a statement of remorse and rehabilitation, but I’m reluctant because I couldn’t show remorse for something I didn’t do.
I’m experiencing life as much as possible. It’s a beautiful thing.
Currently I’m living in Compton in a senior citizens retirement complex. I can’t live at the house I built with my wife because she operates a daycare facility out of the home and I’m a convicted felon. That’s a challenge but we’re making it work best we can. I love seeing my children and my grandchildren. For me, the real blessing is that my family will not to have to experience me dying behind bars. That would have destroyed a spiritual part of them and their faith in our laws and criminal justice system.
I’ve really been embraced by the public and community as a whole. I’ve been able to have art shows in Los Angeles, Orange County and request for Las Vegas, Denver, and New York. I’ve setup a website and store, ArtByWash.com, to showcase my works and solicit commissions.
My paintings are part of my legacy and my life’s story. Each day is the first day of the rest of my life, and I intend to do something positive, constructive, and great with every minute and day of it. I intend to continue to paint historic events as they occur throughout my lifetime and support criminal justice reform, I believe that shall be my calling, God willing, that shall be my eternal legacy.