As he shuffled from one maximum-security facility to the next, Albert Reed Jr.’s quarter-century-long journey through America’s prison system provided him with a window into the system’s failures: violence, substance abuse, the lack of opportunities for rehabilitation.
And he came away with a bracing message.
“We have to get to the roots, to uplift the people inside who are serving these sentences,” says Reed, who was among the 2,200 inmates released from prison following the December, 2018 signing of the First Step Act.
“There are a lot of people in there who do want to come out and be productive, who realize the error of their ways. I can honestly say that.”
He told his story in an extended interview with The Crime Report.
Like many who end up in the criminal justice system, Reed was faced with tragedy early in life.
He grew up in a middle-class family in Greenburgh, N.Y., but things took a turn for the worse when Reed’s family moved to White Plains, an adjacent town in New York’s Westchester County. Reed’s father died of cancer in 1976 when he was seven years old. The loss of income forced his family to move into a nearby housing project.
Reed’s mother, who struggled to raise three kids on her own, turned to drugs. She would eventually pass away 10 years later.
With no one else to rely on, Reed began selling drugs to provide for his two sisters.
‘The Walls Were Closing In’
“I felt like I had no options,” he recalls. “The walls were closing in.”
At the age of 19, he was charged with his first offense in 1989, for selling $20 dollars’ worth of cocaine to an undercover cop.
His second offense came in 1991 for cocaine possession, while he was attending Denmark Technical College in South Carolina. Reed would actually win class president during his time there, but dropped out after he received his second charge and was put on probation.
Reed’s third strike came in 1994. He was now 24, and was caught in possession of 193 grams of crack cocaine and two Ziploc bags of marijuana.
That year, the same year as the birth of Reed’s daughter, the Three Strikes Law came into effect as part of President Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Prevention Act. The provision was one of several controversial aspects of the bill, which mandated life sentences for a third serious violent or drug trafficking offense.
Instead of taking the plea deal, Reed went to trial.
“I didn’t want to take a plea deal and get 30 years,” he recalled. “At that point, it seemed like a lifetime to me. “
Reed lost the trial, and received a life sentence.
Reed says he’ll never forget what the judge told him after the trial.
“He said, ‘Work on your case while you’re in there, and they may change the laws one day.’ I thought he was joking,” says Reed. “This guy just gave me a life sentence!”
After arriving in prison, however, Reed quickly realized that the judge’s advice may have been his only hope for survival.
Reed was sent to the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa. He was shocked as the reality set in that he would be there for the rest of his life. Once he reached the general population after about a month of an arduous screening process, he immediately took to the law library.
Reed says it was a painstaking process, going through legal texts regarding topics like possession and illegal searches and seizures.
After a few months at Lewisburg, Reed says he witnessed a stabbing, in which the officer in charge did little to interfere except tell the inmate to stop.
“It was gruesome…It was an eye-opening experience. It made it that much more prescient for me to get up out of there,” says Reed.
Poor Conditions, Unsafe Environments
It’s difficult to get accurate data on U.S. prison violence because of the lack of a unified national database. But recent reports have indicated poor conditions like overcrowding and understaffing at certain facilities are creating unsafe and even violent environments, including incidents of guards failing to help inmates under attack.
After a month of being separated from the general population without being told why, he was charged in a prison setting with a murder he said he didn’t commit.
He was then transferred to the ADX maximum security facility in Colorado, where he would spend the next six years.
“I had this thing follow me the rest of my time in my prison bid, where I’m looked at as a killer. It affected my ability to seek educational opportunities,” says Reed.
Even if Reed hadn’t received this alleged erroneous charge, the 1994 Crime Bill effectively eliminated funding for Pell Grants for inmates in both Federal and State prisons.
Throughout his incarceration, Reed’s requests to be transferred to lower security facilities, which had better educational opportunities, were denied multiple times.
Undeterred, however, Reed tried to make the best of his time. He was a frequent visitor to the prison law library, and as he read books his family sent him, he gave himself an education, expanding on the GED and limited college education he obtained before being incarcerated.
“Learning about all these topics, philosophy, history, political science, when you’re faced with nonsense at every turn, that’s what kept me sane,” says Reed.
Participating in whatever meager educational opportunities the prisons had, Reed saw the transformative effects education can have. It showed him the will that people have to better themselves, which he describes as life-altering experiences.
“I’ve seen guys who can’t read, who didn’t know their ABC’s, struggle and actually accomplish something by becoming literate, or getting their GED, things we take for granted.”
When the prison had no budget, the inmates would set up their own classes, and pull the lessons from online, and get the curriculum approved by the prison’s Education Department. Reed taught GED classes himself, covering topics like budgeting, banking and checking.
Despite these workarounds, educational facilities were often hard to access because of prison lockdowns. Reed recalls that at the last facility where he was confined—the U.S. Penitentiary in Pollock, La.,—the prison never stayed open for more than ten days at a time. The prison’s Education Department was only open for about a month of his five-month stay.
The chance to self-educate helped Reed survive the grim realities of life “inside.” Gang culture, drug abuse and horrific living conditions made daily existence a struggle.
K2 was the drug most widely used by the inmates, according to Reed. Reed, who never used drugs himself, says when he was in the United States Penitentiary at Big Sandy, Ky., “Every day was lockdown. Guys would smoke and trip out. The prison had to shut down just to stop guys from having to go to the infirmary or put in restraints.”
To Reed, it felt like living in a mental hospital—but one with few facilities to deal with inmates’ troubled mental health. Despite a 2014 initiative by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to expand mental health programs, quality of care remains grossly insufficient, according to a recent report by The Marshall Project.
A Letter Opens the Door
Reed’s luck would finally change 23 years into his sentence, when he received a letter from the Buried Alive Project, a criminal justice reform organization working together with The Decarceration Collective to lobby against harsh sentencing legislation such as Three Strikes Laws.
The letter promised to use the just-enacted federal First Step Act to secure his release, and requested all Reed’s documents. Reed was finally able to make contact with attorney MiAngel Cody, who founded The Decarceration Collective. She filed a motion for his release in March.
Later that month, an officer came to his cell telling him he was going home.
“He said, ‘You ready?’ I said ‘yeah I’m ready!’ Other inmates were banging on the doors in their units, yelling ‘Al’s going home!’”
His first night out of prison in a quarter of a century was memorable. Reed was picked up by his older sister, and they went to see his younger sister, who was shocked and brought to tears when she first saw him later that night.
Reed was able to attend his daughter’s baby shower, and he became a grandfather a month after his release.
Reed, who recently turned 50, lives with his older sister in a house in Gaithersburg, Md., and has reestablished a former relationship he had with someone before he was sent to prison in 1994. After working as a basketball camp counsellor this summer, where he was able to share his story with the kids and parents there, he realized a new mission: counseling at-risk youth who are buffeted by the same forces that led him astray when he was growing up.
Reed directs most of his energy, however, at getting his consulting firm off the ground. He wants to help former inmates and others pursue their dreams by providing connections to future employment before they are released from prison.
Such connections increase the odds that the often bumpy path towards integration into society will be successful—odds that are usually against most individuals in the U.S. prison system, Reed says.
But before launching his new life he had a more solemn duty to perform. Returning to White Plains for an aunt’s funeral, Reed visited the cemetery where his mother was buried—and put flowers on her grave.
“I finally felt,” he says, “like I made it home.”
Dane Stallone is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.