Prisoners Helped by First Step Act Turn Their Lives Around

September 18, 2020 Updated: September 22, 2020

When Congress passed the First Step Act in 2018, Clover Perez was an inmate at the women’s federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. Reactions were strong among the inmates when they heard the news—some fell to their knees and cried out. 

Perez was quiet on the surface, but the impact on her was just as great. “I went outside and thanked God—not for my freedom, but for the people that he used to make this happen,” she told The Epoch Times. 

First Step was hailed as one of the most substantial criminal justice reforms in decades; it aimed to cut unnecessarily long sentences and focus on rehabilitation. It sailed through Congress with bipartisan support and President Donald Trump signed it into law on Dec. 21, 2018. 

By July 2019, about 3,100 inmates had earned early release because of good conduct. About 2,500 who were convicted of crack-cocaine-related crimes had their sentences reduced. 

First Step retroactively reduced the disparity between crack- and powder-cocaine sentences. An offense involving five grams of crack cocaine used to be punished as severely as one involving 500 grams of powder cocaine. Incarceration for crack cocaine has especially impacted black communities.

Perez is 1 of 3 convicts who recently talked to The Epoch Times about how they turned their lives around in prison, and how they resumed their lives on the outside early because of First Step. 

After about nine years behind bars, Perez returned home with a new take on life. 

She judged others less harshly, having endured the shame of being a convict, and having gotten to know the troubled women in prison. She repaired her relationship with God. She shed the paralyzing burden of her shame. And she followed a calling to continue helping other women behind bars.

‘A Healing Balm’

Perez, originally from Jamaica, ran an immigration services business in New York for 25 years. In 2012, at the age of 45, Perez was found guilty of immigration fraud related to the services she provided her clients. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a federal judge. 

She felt ashamed and alone. “I’m the only one in my family who’s been to prison, and [I] just did not want to deal with the stigma or even address it,” she said.

At the time, she was still reeling from the grief of her eldest son’s death. About a year before she was arrested, her son, 23, was killed by a stray bullet while attending a birthday party. Prison life gave her a lot of time to dwell on it. 

When he died, she had turned away from God. In prison, she found no one to turn to but God. 

“I broke down and I just surrendered myself,” she said. “I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. … If this is what you want me to go through, you have to carry me through.’

“When I was so transparent with him about how I felt, that’s when he actually came in and was able to help me to get along to deal with the environment there.”

Talking with the other women in prison—many of whom were there for drug-related crimes—Perez frequently heard stories of abuse, whether by parents or partners. Many of the women had used drugs to cope with the trauma, and they ended up in prison for drug-related crimes.

Unlike them, Perez had lived a sheltered life in a loving household. She was raised to be independent and believed only a weak woman would get herself trapped in an abusive relationship.

But, Perez said, in talking with the inmates, “you hear the reason why they do certain things … and that judgmental feeling [goes away].”

Perez started helping the other inmates any way she could. 

One inmate in her early 20s had very low self-esteem and often cut herself; she said it relieved her emotional pain. She felt so ugly that she couldn’t bear to look in the mirror.

Perez encouraged her to look at herself in the mirror once a day and find one thing that she liked about herself. At first, she cried a lot. Gradually, she changed. 

“Once [she] started loving herself, she could not put that mirror down,” Perez said. She became like a daughter to Perez, and comforted Perez amid her grief for her son.

“As much as I was helping her, she was also helping me.”

In the last two years of her prison time, Perez started a program to help fellow inmates openly share their stories and heal their traumas. 

She read every self-help book in the prison library, she said, and created a curriculum to help cope with trauma. Faith also had its part. Perez felt God was helping her, telling her “I’m going to use you as my mouthpiece.”

The program was called Girls’ Talk. “For the first time, they shared their stories. It was a healing balm for them,” she said. 

Perez also invited guests from outside the prison to come hear the stories of the inmates. That made them feel that “we matter” Perez said. 

“As I was helping them, I was helping myself, too … because we drew true strength from each other,” Perez said. “The shame just slowly disappeared.”

She decided she would continue this work after leaving prison. She told herself she would be “the voice of the voiceless.”

On March 7, 2019, Perez left prison. With the help of the organization Dream Corps, she has founded a nonprofit named A Beautiful Heart Ministries to help women behind bars.

She also works as an office manager at a law firm in New York. 

The First Step Act helped her get out of prison four months early because she had earned Good Conduct Time credits. These credits can strike up to 54 days per year off a sentence, up from 47 days before the act.

Epoch Times Photo
Gerald Tarboro was released from prison on March 21, 2019, four years early under the First Step Act, on the birthday of his fiancée who had waited 11 years to reunite with him. (Courtesy of Gerald Tarboro)

Another First Step beneficiary, Gerald Tarboro, had his sentence for selling crack cocaine reduced by four years. 

He told The Epoch Times about his journey through two different worlds—from his predominantly black neighborhood where crack cocaine abounded, to his college days among mostly white friends who wanted powder cocaine. 

Then came a whole other world—prison.

How to Win the Drug Game: Don’t Play

Tarbor was born and raised in the Marvin Pembroke neighborhood of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. From a young age, drug deals on street corners were common sights for him. 

“It was as raw as it gets,” he said.

Nearly every boy in the neighborhood knew how to make crack from powder cocaine. Tarboro’s father was addicted to crack. He saw what that did to his father’s health and temperament, and he resisted all the invitations he had to sell drugs.

He went to college with scholarships, but he couldn’t afford a computer or car, or many of the things his classmates had. When he went to East Stroudsburg University, “it was almost like a foreign place,” he said. 

Yet, one thing was familiar: Many people there used drugs. When they heard Tarboro came from an “open drug market,” as he called it, they urged him to get drugs for them. They wanted powder cocaine. 

They offered a good price, and he knew he could make a lot of money. He resisted at first, still feeling a strong aversion to drugs. But, he told himself, he could buy a car, a computer, some clothes, then stop. 

Soon Tarboro was making thousands of dollars a week—and becoming increasingly addicted to the money. 

In 2007, about a year after he graduated, his conscience started to weigh heavily on him. He hated what drugs were doing to people. “Look what I’m doing … I’m living a contradiction,” he told himself.  

He had sleepless nights, worrying about being robbed or arrested.

When he talked about not selling anymore, people urged him not to stop. “No, you can’t, we need you,” his customers said. “Are you crazy? Look at the amount of money you’re making,” some said. 

In May 2008, a long-time client who usually bought powder cocaine asked Tarboro for 100 grams of crack cocaine. 

Tarboro tried to talk him out of it: “Listen, I don’t sell that. … If you ever get caught with this type of stuff, you’ll get in big trouble.”

At that time, the penalty was 100 times greater for crack cocaine than the same amount of powder cocaine. In 2010, the difference was decreased by the Fair Sentencing Act, making crack cocaine penalties only 18 times greater than those for the same amount of powder cocaine.

But the 2010 change only operated on new convictions; it wasn’t until First Step that sentences were changed retroactively. 

Tarboro gave in and got his client the crack. The client turned out to be an FBI informant. 

Tarboro was arrested right after the transaction, and later sentenced to 15 years in federal prison—10 years for trafficking crack cocaine and another five years for illegal gun possession. 

He was first sent to Hazelton, a maximum-security federal prison in West Virginia. The inmates called it “Misery Mountain” and “Gladiator School,” Tarboro said. At least four inmates were stabbed to death during his three years there before being moved to a medium-security prison in Cumberland, Maryland. 

Tarboro said good manners helped him survive. “Please, excuse me, and thank you are a very big deal in these types of places. Pay respect to people, and you’re going to get it back,” he said. 

Epoch Times Photo
Gerald Tarboro, who spent 11 years in prison but was released four years early under the First Step Act. (Courtesy of Gerald Tarboro)

Inmates also respected him, he said, because he taught General Education Development (GED) classes in prison.

At the Cumberland prison, Tarboro met an inmate named Kevin Jones who impacted him profoundly. 

Jones taught a critical thinking class in prison. He could easily quote Macbeth, and could explain complex ideas in a few simple words. He could capture the interest of inmates and make them want to learn more. 

“He is smart on a level that I just have never seen before,” Tarboro said. He thought, “Wow, this is how I need my mind to be.” 

One piece of wisdom from Jones that has stayed with Tarboro as summarizing much of his experience was about drug dealing: “The only way to win this game is, you don’t play it.”

“Even now it gave me goosebumps, because it’s the most truthful statement that I have ever heard,” Tarboro told The Epoch Times. 

Tarboro had heard about the decrease in sentencing for crack cocaine in 2010, but knew it didn’t apply retroactively to his case. The First Step act changed that, and he was released four years early, on March 21, 2019. It was the birthday of his fiancée, who had waiting eleven years for him while he served his time.  

“I can only say [it was] a divine intervention,” Tarboro said. “I hit the ground running like I did not look back. I wanted to get back to work, a job, and just feel normal again.”

He now works as a welder and is thinking of writing a book to warn young people about the dangers of getting involved in drugs. 

Robert Wood of San Diego, California, also had four years taken off his crack-cocaine-related sentence. Wood told The Epoch Times it was the words of his sentencing judge that struck Wood’s heart and encouraged him to become a better person while serving his time. 

Words of Inspiration

Wood’s parents tried to keep him, the eldest of their nine children, away from gangs. They bused him to a high school outside of his neighborhood. But, “as soon as I got out of the house, I was right back at it,” he told The Epoch Times.

“Once you got involved in the gang at a young age, those become your friends. Those are the people you know, and that becomes your social circle.” He first went to prison at the age of 21 for a gang-related shooting, and when he got out, he had more respect from his friends for it. 

In 2002, at age 36, Robert Wood was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for dealing crack cocaine and on a charge of conspiracy to murder.

Wood sent The Epoch Times the court transcript, including what the judge told him: “Mr. Wood, It is … unfortunate that you got yourself into this circumstance. You are obviously a very intelligent individual.

“You probably have talents that will allow you to write, at least, while you are incarcerated and put it to good use and maybe further [your] education. Then, when you do get out, you will be a productive member of society.”

Wood could feel the sincerity behind those words. 

He had seen his share of judges over the course of nearly 20 years of gang life. None had taken the time to say a few inspiring words like this judge did. “I don’t think he realized how far that moment of inspiration was going to go,” Wood said. 

At federal prison in Hollywood, Pennsylvania, many inmates spent their time playing cards or dominoes, but Wood read as many books as he could.

Epoch Times Photo
Robert Wood (C) stands with his pastor, Cornellius Bowser (L), and a photographer during the filming of a documentary about prison sentencing reform in October 2019. (Courtesy of Robert Wood)
Epoch Times Photo
Robert Wood (L) stands with the dean of student affairs at Cal State University at a conference on incarceration where Wood was a speaker on one of the panels. (Courtesy of Robert Wood)

He read a lecture called “Acres of Diamonds” by the Baptist minister Russell Herman Conwell. It centers around an anecdote Conwell attributed to an Arab guide who helped him during his travels in the Middle East. It’s about a man who wanted to find diamonds and so sold his property and left in search of them; but the new owner of the property he left behind found a wealth of diamonds there to be mined.

“In most cases, you have what it takes to live the life you want,” Wood said. “[Yet] you are constantly grabbing for the next thing.” That’s what gang life was about for him, always looking for more. 

Wood studied for an associate degree in prison. Later, he wanted a bachelor degree but had no money to pay for it, so he sent out a dozen applications for scholarships. The Prison Scholar Fund granted him one. 

He had submitted an essay titled “Universe” with his application. Wood quoted it: “The universe is a place where the knowledge of our brightest minds, wisest people, and biggest supercomputers are but a grain of sand on an infinite beach.”

Wood also taught GED classes in prison, and convinced other inmates to get GED certificates or college degrees. He also participated in a prison program that involved him speaking to young people on probation about avoiding gang life in the future.

At his first talk, he told them he was looking at 25 years in prison, but he was determined to turn his life around. 

He said: “When I look at you, I see the future. You guys are bigger than the situation. You’re bigger than what you did. It’s not too late to turn it around.”

Many wanted to meet him personally afterward, one of the organizers told Wood. One young man, however, was unconvinced and obviously didn’t worry about the consequences of sticking with the gang.

Wood said to him: “You think you’re really tough, don’t you? You think you are smart and you are cool. … When you get to prison, you are going to find out nobody is tough. The little look you’re running around giving these people, you’ll get stabbed [in prison].

“You are going to miss the girls. You are going to miss the family. People are going to forget about you. They’re going to stop accepting phone calls. Eventually, you’re going to be in there all by yourself. So you think about that, Mr. Tough Guy.”

After Wood finished, the young man said nothing. Toward the end of the program, he began to open up and talk to Wood. Later, he followed Wood’s advice and joined the military.

On Sept. 26, 2019, at the age of 53, Wood was released from prison, about four years early. 

“To me personally, the First Step Act is an opportunity to right the wrongs, to make the Fair Sentencing Act [of 2010] retroactive,” Wood said, “If it’s the law, it should be retroactive, especially a law like that designed to reverse inequality.”

Wood said he wants to see a Second Step Act that would completely eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

He is currently enrolled in an MBA program at San Diego State University and plans to open his own business.