Keldren Joshua

Keldren Joshua was a first-time nonviolent drug offender when he received a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 to life for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. He served 10 years before being granted clemency by President Obama on August 3, 2016.

When the judge said my sentence out loud, I thought he meant days.

Then my lawyer told me it was months — 180 months. I was in shock. My only other offenses were for driving on a suspended license so I had no idea I was looking at a 15-to-life sentence when I went into the courtroom.

I was a pretty popular guy in Los Angeles. I grew up dj-ing and loved the party scene. I wasn’t a dealer but I knew where everything was. I liked being that guy who could get you whatever you wanted if you needed it. Then one day a friend asked if I could help someone with a methamphetamine deal.

At first I said no. I had a job at Bank of America and meth wasn’t a drug I had any involvement with or connections to. He kept asking me and eventually, I started making some phone calls. I was a middleman between the two people but it would turn out that the guy who got the drugs for me was a confidential informant.

My role was small and I had never been to jail before but with conspiracy laws, you can end up in prison for a long time if you go to trial and my lawyer told me there was a 98.9 percent chance I’d be convicted at trial. So I plead guilty. I was 35 years old thinking I’d end up with 10 years or so. Then I got 15 to life.

In prison, the rules are hard to get used to.

Everyday, all day, they tell you what to do. When you can go to bed, when you have to wake up, when you can eat. Once your freedom is taken away from you, you value life so much more. You start to remember these little things you were doing when you were free. Being able to hang out with friends or get a bite to eat or watch a movie. To not miss when someone in your family has a kid or a birthday. Visitation was always hard because even though I’d get to see my friends or family, I also knew it meant I’d have to say goodbye to them as well.

In the beginning it was really hard on my family. It became easier for them once I started to get more comfortable and they knew there was nothing going to happen to me. It was definitely hard on my mom but she was always there for me.

I didn’t even want to apply for clemency. I knew one of the main criteria you had to meet was being in prison for at least 10 years and at the time the clemency project was announced, I had only been inside for 8 years. There’s so many people in prison deserving of a second chance, so many who met that criteria for clemency that I didn’t want resources that could be used for one of them to be wasted on me.

One day I received a letter from a lawyer named Andre Townsend saying that I was “a perfect candidate for clemency.” Andre was working for a federal public defender’s office and we talked all about my case and the things I’ve been doing both before and during prison. He put together a clemency package that, when reading it, I started thinking, “Wow — I really do deserve this second chance.” I still talk to Andre today.

Once you apply for clemency, it’s a waiting game. You don’t really hear anything back until you’ve been approved or denied. I waited almost two years watching these clemency announcements happen without my name being included. Each of them came closer to Obama’s last months in office and I started to feel like my time would never come.

President Obama commuted my sentence on August 3, 2016.

I was called to the office and when I showed up my case manager was there, crying. I thought it must be bad news, that maybe my grandmother had passed away. She told me to have a seat and just said, “You’re going home. The president has just released you. You’re getting your ass home.”

This happened on my mother’s birthday. When I realized that, that’s when the waterworks started coming down. The feeling is unexplainable. Just thinking about it now gives me goosebumps. I truly am a believer in a higher source and that your prayers will be answered if you honestly believe them.

My first day of freedom was wonderful.

A bunch of friends were at my mom’s house waiting for me and we cooked a big breakfast. A few days later I decided to get my friends together and went to the beach to get baptized in Pacific Ocean. To feel the sand and ocean water again after ten years in prison was unbelievable.

There’s so much that I hope to accomplish now that I have this second chance.

I’m coming close to my first year of being out, I think I’ve already accomplished more than the average person who gets out. I’ve worked hard and people have been there to support me. I was really worried about getting a job because my resume has ten years of blank space on it. How do you explain that? But within my first week I was working on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica as the creative director of a popular shoe store that a friend of mine owned. I was able to get a car donated to me then got another job as a food driver for GrubHub.

But my biggest accomplishment is that I work for the city I love: Los Angeles.

I got a job setting up for events at the Grand Park right next to City Hall. It’s a beautiful place and my job is basically bringing happiness to people through music and community events.

I also host a YouTube show called LOUDLABS where I interview other former inmates who have accomplished a good life for themselves, as well as DJ’s, celebrities, and chefs. My dream would be to one day host my own television show.

There is no time machine.

One of the hardest things about being free has been catching up on everything that has happened, everything that I lost out on being a part of, because 10 years is a long time and there is no time machine. It feels like I have to live my life in double time. I only sleep four or five hours a day because I don’t feel like I have time for it. I have to make the most out of every day whether that’s working hard or taking the time to just enjoy a meal. Someday I want to build a family but I don’t have the time yet, and I want that to happen when the time is right.

I want to tell President Obama that I love him and that he is my hero. When you get a sentence as long as mine, you start to doubt that anyone thinks that people who have made mistakes deserve a second chance. President Obama changed that for me. He’s the G.O.A.T — greatest of all time!

Photos and story editing by Jon Perri Twitter

Keldren Joshua
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