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Aging in prison, but not losing hope

Sep. 4, 2019

This letter, written by inmate Wayne Pray, is part of USA TODAY's Lifers series, which focuses on people who will likely remain incarcerated for the rest of their lives for nonviolent offenses, despite last year's enactment of the federal First Step Act. The series is published in conjunction with the Buried Alive Project. Letters are edited for length and clarity.  

Excerpted, edited from commutation request letter

July 2019 

In 1988, I was incarcerated in a federal prison in Pennsylvania. I had committed a nonviolent drug offense. At the age of 41, I was sentenced to life, and was eventually moved to New York's Federal Correctional Institution at Otisville. 

After serving more than 20 years, in November 2013, I was given a glimmer of hope. 

At the age of 67, as an aging inmate, I had petitioned the Department of Justice for early release, and it looked like I was going to get my wish. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmate locator site reflected a change in my release date, from "life" to April 11, 2019.   

This news reverberated throughout the community and, more importantly, among my family members, who had been hoping against hope for this type of news.

Word of my impending release spread like wildfire to both inmates and staff. I was routinely congratulated by inmates. Some hardened convicts did so with tears in their eyes, stating that I could not be more deserving. An onslaught of well-wishers sent messages via social media. My children celebrated what appeared to be the long-awaited release of their father.

Administrators asked for verification of the release date. Those closest to me, having been advised of the possibility of a "glitch," checked for changes in the sentences of other known lifers in the BOP locator. They wanted to ensure that the change wasn't a computer error. They found none.

Four months passed. The BOP inmate locator system was upgraded, and still the date persisted: April 11, 2019. For those who were aware that a petition for commutation had been submitted, it seemed onIy natural under the circumstances to conclude that if not the court, then the Department of Justice would have had the authority to alter the system.

Then as suddenly and mysteriously as it appeared, after four months without an explanation, the release date on the inmate locator was returned to life, and I was informed that all of this was simply a mistake. No explanation or apology has been given. No one has yet to explain how or why a glitch of this magnitude could occur.

Since that day, I have not been able to muster the intestinal fortitude to tell my family, my children that all of this was some horrendous mistake and I am never coming home.

On June 21 of this year, I hit the 31-year mark in prison. During the course of this period in my life I have lost two sons, at the ages 14 and 23, to the virus that causes AIDS. I also lost another son who was the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting. 

I have chaired and run a mentoring organization in the federal prison system. I have letters of support from educators, teachers and school administrators, as well as former Mayor Kenneth Gibson and current Mayor Ras Baraka of my hometown of Newark, New Jersey.

It is my hope, no, it is my near prayer, in the autumn of my years, to spend my remaining time in the bosom of my family.

Wayne Pray; Otisville Correctional Facility, Otisville, N.Y.