RI clemency recipient speaks out for first time about his past and future

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — John Barnes never gave up on his claim that a 20-year federal prison sentence he received 10 years ago was unfair, but it took several letters “from the heart” to gain his freedom as one of 72 inmates who received clemency in December from President Obama.

“This is her,” Barnes said, pointing to a picture of his daughter on his phone. “This was in 2004. She was the focus of what I wrote. It came from the heart. I needed to get out for her, for my children.”

In 2006, Barnes was convicted of two counts of  possession with intent to deliver a substance with a detectable amount of cocaine, and he’ll never forget the moment he heard he was going to prison for 20 years.

“Oh man,” he said with a deep sigh. “It’s a time that I’ll always live because I was thinking of the tears that were coming out of my kids. It really hurt, and it still hurts them to this day.”

Barnes was one of hundreds of inmates across the country who received mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. When sentencing guidelines changed, Barnes said he requested a sentence reduction but was denied his request about two years ago.

He settled into life in the federal prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey, perfecting his carpentry skills as the head orderly and also joining the prison choir, where he learned to sing gospel music.

He also spent time reflecting on what got him where he was. While he thought the sentence was unfair, he admits he wasn’t an angel during his time growing up on the streets of Providence.

“I saw the older guys with the cars and the money and I wanted to be like them,” he said. “I had a loving family. But I had a hard head.”

Barnes went to prison. Many of his friends had it worse.

“Their backgrounds vary, but only a few made it out,” Barnes said. “98 percent didn’t. They got strung out on drugs, killed. And gun fights. Some didn’t make it out from doing time.”

Barnes was determined to not become one of them.

Last summer, he and his family members started writing letters, asking for clemency.

Months later, the news reached Fort Dix very unexpectedly.

“They called me on the prison intercom,” he recalled. “Barnes report to unit T. So I’m thinking I had to wax a floor. And I was like 30 seconds late. And they were like, ‘where you been?'”

He remembers everyone in the room acted angry. Although, as he tells the story, he smiles, recalling that his clemency case manager was on the phone.

“Now, when she said she had good news, I’m thinking that it made it to the president’s desk or something like that,” Barnes said. “That [the President] just read it.”

He acknowledges that just the letters making it to the Oval Office would’ve been a victory of sorts. The president reading them would mean even more.

Then, as Barnes sat among a group of correctional officers, he heard the real news: He was going to be free.

His next move was to call home to Rhode Island, where his mother and wife were on the line.

“They gave us the clemency,” he remembers saying, as he relived the moment with his hands waving in the air. “They gave us the clemency. And [my mother and wife] just went wild.”

Barnes was free weeks later for the first time in a decade, although he has to wear an ankle bracelet to track him through the beginning of May.

Now, as he works as a carpenter for an old friend, he hopes to use his past to help young Rhode Islanders avoid what he didn’t.

“It’s much more dangerous now than before,” Barnes said. “But kids want to listen. They need to hear from people like me, who lived it. What I wanted, to be like the older guys, wasn’t good. It’s not an achievement.”

Email Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com to find out more about getting John Barnes to speak as a mentor for your school or organization.

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