When Dorian Bandy, a 30-year-old bank research analyst, goes to visit her boyfriend, Charles Scott Jr., at the federal correctional institution in Terre Haute, Indiana, she passes through a metal detector. Officers pat her down. They point a flashlight in her mouth and ask her to move her tongue from side to side, checking for contraband. Her two young daughters and Scott's granddaughter also have their mouths inspected by guards. When she sits at a table with the man she's been with for 12 years, there are rules.
"Sometimes you can hold hands…sometimes not," Bandy tells Reason. "No open-mouthed kissing or anything like that."
Bandy says that the kids adore him. "He's a beacon of light. Really funny, loves kids. They love him a lot."
Scott has spent 22 years in prison. He was sentenced to 51 years for allegedly taking part, when he was 22, in three robberies with a group of other men, during which he had a gun. The federal statute 924(c) imposes mandatory minimum sentences in offenses involving a firearm. Federal law requires that the lengthy sentences for possessing a gun while committing a crime be served back-to-back instead of concurrently, even though state laws tend to be much more lax: In Indiana, where Scott was caught, robbery is punishable by one to six years in state prison, with a recommended time of three years. Scott's original offense, the robberies, account for a little more than six years of his sentence—the other 45 years were from the 924(c) charges. Scott's draconian sentence is actually lighter than others snagged under the same statute—there are people sentenced to centuries in prison because of 924(c) even if their underlying crimes would have earned them far less time than multiple human life spans.
As of 2016, 14.9 percent of the federal prison population—or 24,905 people—was incarcerated due to a firearm offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, according to the Federal Sentencing Commission. Criminal justice reform advocates believe the law wrongly conflates gun violence and crimes where the perpetrator carries, or even just owns, a gun.
"Mandatory minimums around firearms are some of the most frustrating cases," says Kevin Ring, the executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a criminal justice reform organization. "In a country with 340 million firearms, the idea that someone is not going to happen to be in possession of a gun if they commit a crime…the law does not distinguish between someone who uses a gun to commit a crime, and someone who happens to be a gun owner. It's a frustrating, stupid law."
Scott did have a gun during his part of the robberies. But he didn't shoot his firearm. No one was physically hurt. Nevertheless, he got half a century in prison. In contrast, murderers get far less time; the average sentence for murder is slightly over 20 years.
Although Scott and his family hope for federal clemency, his case isn't a neat fit for today's political climate. Democratic lawmakers brand themselves as advocates for gun control, and so don't have a lot to gain from showing mercy to people who break gun laws. Most Republicans still tend to campaign on tough-on-crime platforms that don't leave a lot of room for second chances.
"For Democrats, mandatory minimums for guns can be a plan B for gun control," says Ring. "And for Republicans, for too long, people resisted the idea that people who own guns…some of those people sell drugs. To fend off gun control, they like to hammer people who have a gun when they commit a crime."
Although President Joe Biden has walked back his tough-on-crime rhetoric, his reform proposals are hardly radical. His main pitch was support of former President Barack Obama's clemency initiative, which freed a record number of people but overlooked thousands upon thousands of eligible inmates, including Alice Marie Johnson, whose case further scrambled political alignments when Obama's successor Donald Trump granted her freedom.
"It's an inconsistent, schizoid view," Ring says. "The left looks at guns like the right looks at drugs—they don't know what to do with it."
* * *
Scott's brother, Carl Buggs, is also serving half a century in prison after being caught with a gun while selling cocaine to police informants. The brothers were incarcerated soon after a family tragedy; a car rammed into the family van, killing their little sister on the spot. "Before we could properly grieve and process the loss from our little baby sister being killed in a tragic accident…our family was further torn apart," their other sister, Saraya Scott, says. "Just soon after, our only two brothers were ripped from our lives and sentenced to 50-plus years in federal prison under a law that has since changed."
The FIRST STEP Act reduced penalties for drug and gun offenses, but it doesn't apply retroactively. Prisoners like Scott must rely on the federal clemency process, a labyrinthine and opaque system where the president decides to grant freedom only after the Department of Justice (DOJ) deems a petition worthy of landing on his desk.
Scott and Bandy thought Obama would grant Scott clemency, their hope buoyed when Scott didn't receive a letter of denial. But clemency didn't come. Four years later, in the final days of the Trump administration, the family once again hoped for a reprieve, since, once again, they didn't get an official denial. "We had hope up until the last hour of his presidency that he would get his relief…both fell through," Bandy says.
"When I was looking for a chance at clemency from Obama first, then Trump second, I was real hopeful," Scott says. "I knew I had put the work in, I felt like my sentence was one that fit the terms 'unjust and draconian' and made me a perfect candidate for a second chance," he adds. "I spent hours in front of the television looking at names of those I didn't know, celebrating their success but praying for my own."
Tammy Allison, a clemency reform advocate who served as senior DOJ attorney under the last three presidents, points out that 924(c) stacks charges in a way that obfuscates the severity of the original crime.
"In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court held [in United States v. Davis] that 924(c) was unconstitutionally vague," says Allison, one of the few black members of the National Rifle Association; she's currently running for office as a Democrat in Texas' 6th Congressional District. "This is a separate firearm 'offense' on top of an offense when there's a 'crime of violence or drug trafficking.'"*
Another black woman, Marissa Alexander got 20 years in prison after she discharged a gun in a warning shot to her abusive husband, who had threatened to kill her. She was released on a plea deal after three years.
Data show the federal clause is used disproportionately against people of color. According to the Federal Sentencing Commission, in 2016, black offenders who got mandatory minimums accounted for 52.6 percent of people sentenced under 942(c). In cases where the Armed Career Criminal Act (which allows for enhanced sentencing for repeat offenses) applied, black offenders made up over 70 percent of mandatory minimum sentences.
After failing to get clemency under multiple presidents, it's hard for Scott—who has had a spotless disciplinary record in prison—not to lose hope. "When it fell through and I didn't get it, I was broken. I felt that everything I was doing was in vain, I felt that I would never get the chance not because I wasn't deserving but because I didn't know anybody famous, or I didn't have enough money to make a big enough noise to be heard, and this was just another time where privilege wins and disadvantage loses."
* * *
DeVon Moss worked in a bank for years, so she understands that some grocery store employees, convenience store clerks, and bank tellers might be traumatized by robberies. "Absolutely I can understand how petrified a person could be, that this trauma would be with them," she explains. But she still doesn't think a person should get a virtual life sentence for a crime in which no one was physically hurt.
Moss runs a nonprofit devoted to highlighting cases where gun charges were stacked, leading to decades—in one case, centuries—in prison. Her site, Mercy Me 924(c), profiles people serving long sentences because gun charges were stacked on top of their original crimes.
Marcus Major was sentenced to 743 years and three months, after his involvement in a string of robberies. He was convicted of 30 robberies—which is a lot, but seven centuries in prison seems excessive, given that no one was killed (he did wound a liquor store clerk who survived). Major got 24 counts of violating 924(c) in addition to six charges of discharging a gun. Moss had been collaborating with Major's mother to bring light to his case, but his mother died of cancer last year.
Ian Owens, who helped launch Mercy Me 924(c) with Moss, was charged with four robberies, a carjacking, and five counts of violating 924(c). Even though no one was hurt, he was sentenced to 117 years in prison. Adam Clausen, found guilty of robberies and carjackings after a seven-day jury trial, got 213 years in prison, thanks to stacked charges from 942(c). The site profiles 16 cases of virtual life in prison for 924(c) stacking. There's no telling how many cases there are at the state level.
* * *
Michael Thompson, 70, is lucky in the sense that his 40–60 year sentence was commuted by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, last December. He came home at the end of January, meeting his grandson for the first time. But he's profoundly unlucky in the sense that he spent 26 years in prison, for a pot crime in a state where the drug is now legal, because he was a gun owner—even though he wasn't armed when he sold the drug to a police informant.
Thompson's clemency petition was denied by outgoing Governor Rick Snyder in 2016. It took a massive campaign, employing the likes of left-wing activist Shaun King and reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, to promote Thompson's bid for freedom. Until his case got widespread attention, Thompson didn't even have a lawyer.
"Well, they stack the charges on you. Doesn't matter if the guns have nothing to do with it," says Thompson, who had a spotless disciplinary record on the inside and counseled younger inmates. He can no longer do that, since the conditions of his parole forbid contact with incarcerated people, including friends he's had for decades.
"It's more proof the system is broken. Truly broken," he adds. "And, the ones who could do something about it, the politicians…they don't care."
"They can be cold when it comes down to showing humanity to another human being."
*CORRECTION: The original version of this article contained a characterization of Allison's reasons for gun ownership that has been removed.