Tony Lopez

Antonio Lopez was a nonviolent drug offender when he was received a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. He served 17 years before receiving clemency from President Obama on August 03, 2016.


My uncle was my best friend.

He was involved with methamphetamine and owed people money. I made a deal with those people to help him. I had a job and was doing well for myself but I offered to sell meth to my uncle’s customers and pay off his debt. Of course, I started using it and I became addicted.

From there, my dealing took off because I always wanted to have meth. Even after the debt was paid I kept selling. The money I made I mainly used on my own drug use. I knew the federal government was looking at me and trying to get people to set me up but I was at the height of my addiction and I just thought I was smarter than they were.

On the day I was arrested, Grand Prairie Police Department kicked in my door and raided my house. They didn’t find any drugs or any money, aside from about $800 in my wallet. Really, I didn’t have much money, it was all going to drugs or to supporting my wife and daughter. I had a house but it wasn’t paid off.

I never left county jail after I was picked up because they labeled me a flight risk. That was just a ploy. They figured if they kept me in there long enough and treated me poorly, I’d cooperate to get out.

Part of me was relieved that I was arrested. My addiction had taken over and I needed help.

They offered me a plea deal but I didn’t accept it. I was asked to turn on a guy I barely knew and I’d only get 5 years. They didn’t care how well I actually knew him just that I’d testify against him to help them get a bigger conviction. That’s how all these conspiracy cases work. It’s almost like a game. I refused, assuming that they would come back with a different deal but they never did. They hit me with a superseding indictment which means they put more people in my conspiracy and now I was facing a 10-to-life sentence.

There were people in my conspiracy I didn’t even know testifying against me in exchange for reduced sentences. They started throwing out huge numbers of drugs, amounts that I had never actually dealt with. My attorney told me it would be best if I plead guilty.

One week before the trial was scheduled I decided to plead out.  

In 2000 I received a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years. The first prison I was sent to was Three Rivers Federal Correctional Institution. I remember it was the last bus and just I felt thrown out there. I had no idea how to do time. I was out of my element.

The scariest thing about going to federal prison for the first time is not knowing what to expect. Are people going to hurt me? Will my family be okay? Will my parents be alive when I get out? I was alone. I didn’t know anyone in prison. My uncle was on my conspiracy but he was sent to a different prison.

The first thing I had to do was try to forget about my family.

Doing time with family is hard. My seven year old daughter and my now ex-wife, it was hard to think about them and not be able to see or hold them. I knew I wouldn’t be out until 2025 and by that time my daughter would be almost 40 years old. What kind of a dad could I be? Would I be a burden on her? It was an awful situation.

I had some support, my dad would send me $20 or $40 every few weeks. He was retired and that’s what he wanted to do. My mom would come visit and sometimes bring my daughter. Those visits were great but hard. She would cry and when she walked out those doors, I would worry about who was taking care of her, would she be okay? She was my only child and I was protective of her. It really almost drove me crazy.

Keep yourself busy or time will drag.

I was a little aggressive when I got in. Over time I decided to get on the right path so I would be released with a skillset. I earned my GED and in 2002 I got my HVAC EPA license with a 4.0 average. For me that all came pretty easy because all I did was study.

I got a job at UNICOR starting off in the factory and moving into the office. I was in the office most of the time learning skills like Word and Excel, accounting, and doing the human resources work for the staff. I worked that job for 13 years. Physically, I worked out a lot to stay healthy and in good shape. Since I was spending most of my thirties and forties in prison with a release date in my fifties, I knew it was important take care of myself.

Until 2015, I never had an incident report. That year I got caught drinking wine around Christmas time with some other inmates and was put in the SHU for 90 days. I missed Christmas, the Super Bowl, and they took 27 days good time from me.

In 2014, the clemency initiative started being advertised in prisons.

I checked my eligibility and seemed to meet all the requirements so I filled out the online form but I never heard back from The Clemency Project. Then I met a guy whose codefendant had received clemency and he suggested I shouldn’t wait to hear back, and instead I should file my own clemency petition.

I had been mentoring younger inmates for years and around this time had become friends with a guy named Nicholas Aguila. He introduced me to his sister Rita, who I started emailing with and we really connected. Rita helped me with writing my clemency petition. She edited it we sent it back and forth and made a beautiful packet. She became my strongest advocate and was always trying to find someone to hear my story and help.

About one year after submitting my petition, a UNICOR staff member called for me and another guy named Jimmy Collins. When I saw Jimmy he told me that he submitted a petition for clemency too. Right there I thought, this must be it. We got to the office and they told us we need to wait until after lunch.

I was so nervous I couldn’t eat. I was walking around the compound and saw Jimmy again and I could see he didn’t know what to do either. We heard our names over the intercom instructing us to come to the case manager’s office. I had been in that prison for 7 years so everyone knew me and was cheering me on, hoping it was clemency. That just made me more nervous.

We went to her office and the Case Manager, Unit Manager, Warden, and Associate Warden all came in. What the Warden did to me was really messed up. He looked at me and asked, “Do you know why I’m here? Did you write a letter to the President?”

I said no, but I sent him a petition for clemency.

“Well they said you wrote him a threatening letter and the FBI is coming to pick you up.”

I looked at him like, I know you’re joking because of course I never did that. I waited for him to tell me he’s joking but he never does. He told me to leave the office. I was so upset I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t funny. They call me and Jimmy back in and the Warden says, “Congratulations both of you got clemency.”

He never even addressed his previous comment. He ruined this beautiful experience for me.

Once I was walking out the prison gates, that experience with the warden didn’t matter much.

I was free and being given a second chance to live my life. I got a job as a plumber’s helper and will be applying for my apprenticeship soon. I am spending time with my granddaughter and enjoying building my relationship with Rita.

The biggest challenge I’ve had since coming home is starting over. I have to build a new career from scratch and tried to continue in my last career as a sales person but couldn’t get anyone to hire me.

Prison taught me to never take freedom for granted. It was really easy to get 18 years of my life taken from me but nearly impossible get it back. I have so much appreciation for my freedom now.

I want President Obama to know that I will always appreciate what he did for me and my family. I will not take this blessing for granted. He will never hear about me throwing away this gift. My goal is to work hard to show him and his critics that he did not fail by giving me a second chance.

Photography and story editing by Jon Perri Twitter

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