3-2-Action and Accountability
Tommy Walker’s Story:
While preparing our course on Preparing for Success after Prison, I had a conversation with Tommy Walker, III. Authorities arrested Tommy and sentenced him to three life sentences. He served more than two decades inside the walls of the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg before the First Step Act opened an opportunity for release.
With a reputation for holding some of the most volatile people in federal prison, Lewisburg could darken a person’s spirits. Tommy understood the bleakness of his sentence. The US Parole Commission did not have authority to release him. He would spend the rest of his life in prison unless:
- An appeals court vacated his sentence,
- The President commuted his sentence, or
- Congress legislated a new law that the President signed.
Despite those complications, Tommy chose to live productively. Living productively requires a person to have a plan, and to execute the plan with incremental action steps. Even if he had to spend his life inside of a federal prison, he could live with meaning, relevance, and dignity.
He could live for something bigger than his life. Instead of complaining about the sentence imposed, Tommy decided to become useful to others. He became a better:
- researcher, and
Over time, Tommy developed skills in learning how to use esoteric resources in the prison’s law library. He learned about the legal process, including decisions by District Court Judges, Circuit Court Judges, and Supreme Court Justices. He read about statutes, citations, and Court rules for Civil or Criminal procedure. Tommy became a master of the Prison Reform Litigation Act, administrative remedy process, and habeas corpus.
With those skills, Tommy served his community and he also served himself. Every day he could hold himself accountable, devoting hours to learning. Those actions kept him focused on becoming more useful to people in his community.
Through his work, Tommy helped many people file pro se motions that advanced prospects for their liberty. Although he didn’t know whether opportunities would open for him to walk out of prison, he created meaning by becoming more useful by helping others.
By studying law, Tommy understood the importance of keeping a pristine disciplinary record—free of any infractions. Since he had a purpose to work toward, he avoided behavior that could lead to problems with other people in prison, either staff or others serving time.
In 2018, after 25 years inside, Tommy Walker, III had built an “extraordinary and compelling” record.
When sentencing Tommy to serve three life sentences, the judge considered the prosecutors’ arguments. They focused on his past behavior. Tommy couldn’t do anything to change his past decisions, and the judge sentenced him for those crimes. Yet Tommy’s actions in prison, and his commitment to hold himself accountable, differentiated him from others.
When President Trump signed the First Step Act, a mechanism opened for Tommy to argue for liberty. Since he served a triple-life sentence for crimes that included violence, he did not complain that Earned Time Credits did not apply to him. Instead, he seized upon other opportunities that the law opened, such as compassionate release.
The First Step Act empowers every person in prison to make an argument for compassionate release. Before President Trump signed that law, people in federal prison had fewer opportunities to self-advocate for liberty. To become a better candidate for relief, however, the person should show an “extraordinary and compelling” adjustment record. People will advance their prospects for success with compassionate release if they can show that they’ve used their time to prepare for success after prison.
Tommy Walker III provides us with an example of excellence. He understood that he could not change the past. Yet through his behavior, he could build a compelling record that would persuade others to view him through a different lens.
Skilled defense attorneys told Tommy that immutable laws would block him from ever getting relief.
Despite those admonishments, Tommy believed in himself. He acted in ways that would reframe the narrative of his life. When a federal judge reviewed Tommy’s petition for compassionate relief, he didn’t only consider the history of violence or criminal behavior that led Tommy to prison. The judge also considered Tommy’s extraordinary and compelling prison adjustment. She granted his petition, allowing him to walk out of prison as a free man.
Besides developing skills while in prison, Tommy also earned credentials to become a certified paralegal. To live productively in society, he launched his own business: Second Chance 4 R.E.A.L, a paralegal service to help people in prison get relief from their sentences. Through his work, many people have gotten relief through administrative remedy, habeas corpus, and filings related to the First Step Act.
Like Tommy and Halim, I would have to live with a lengthy sentence. People like them, who had overcome severe hardship and injustice, taught me the importance of being deliberate and intentional. Although I didn’t know Tommy or Halim when I began serving my sentence, I could learn from other leaders by reading. For example, I learned a great by reading about Nelson Mandela.
Authorities in South Africa released Nelson Mandela around the same time that I transferred from the detention center to the penitentiary. Despite serving 27 years for the injustice of apartheid, Nelson Mandela lived without bitterness or anger toward anyone. He only wanted to use his life as a catalyst to help others. Like Halim Flowers wrote decades later, Nelson Mandela showed that love is the antidote to pain and suffering.
Other examples of excellence inspired me. The life stories of inspiring people manifested lessons I learned from reading about Nelson Mandela, Viktor Frankl, and Malcolm X. Their actions in prison led to massive contributions.
To find my path, I began with the end in mind, following the lessons that Stephen Covey taught in his opus, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
I could not change that:
I violated laws that prohibit people from selling cocaine,
A jury convicted me,
A judge sentenced me to 45 years, or
Prison administrators sent me to a high-security penitentiary.
To begin with the end in mind, I could think about how I wanted to emerge. Regardless of how much time I served, when I got out, I wanted to live meaningfully. I didn’t want to struggle through the trauma of homelessness, poverty, unemployment, or further problems with the criminal justice system. Like Halim and Tommy, I would have to take actions to prepare.
I began by thinking about the people I anticipated meeting:
- Future case managers,
- Future wardens,
- Future probation officers,
- Future employers,
- Future business partners or sponsors,
- Future legislators or prison administrators.
Write responses to the following questions in approximately ten minutes. If participating in a class setting, discuss verbally.
3-4: In what ways have you thought about the people who currently have influence over your liberty?
3-5: What action plans have you set to influence people who will influence your success in the years to come?
3-6: Describe accountability resources you created to stay on track with your action plans.