FREE AT LAST
Due Date: March 10, 2000
The first time I met Chris Clemente was at Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security men’s prison in New York. Hours after our meeting, he wrote me this letter on February 29, 2000:
“A funny thing happened to me a little while ago. For the first time since I was arrested 10 years ago, two C.O.’s [Corrections Officers] came in and did a special cell search looking for some kind of specific contraband. I’m still wondering why it transpired… I hope I haven’t gotten into any trouble unawares. I’ll definitely be praying about this and asking God to see me through,” he wrote.
Chris didn’t need to turn to a higher power for an explanation. It was all my fault. I was the reason for the frightening and invasive cell search. While trying to tell his story, I had unintentionally put Chris Clemente—former Ivy League undergraduate turned Inmate #91-A-1577—in harm’s way. It’s been more than two decades since I received his letter and I still feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach every time I read it. How could I have made things even worse for him? The unfortunate combination of my hubris and my inexperience had put Chris in jeopardy.
My documentary partner Kelly Reardon and I had traveled to Green Haven to research our master’s project documentary for Columbia. We were barred from bringing our camera inside, but we figured we could shoot exterior video of the prison from a side street after our visit with Chris. Minutes after stopping for the video, we were pulled over by police and escorted back to the prison for questioning.
I was shocked and intrigued by Chris’ story: how had an Ivy League undergrad, someone on the same academic path as mine, wound up in state prison for more than a decade?
Back inside Green Haven for the second time on that mild February day, Kelly and I called our Columbia Journalism School dean for help. The school confirmed for the prison authorities that yes, the two 22-year old women who had been busted filming a state prison were graduate students at the school. Yes, we were the same people who had requested an on-camera interview inside the prison with two inmates and were denied by the New York State Corrections Department. Guilty as charged.
The Corrections Officers and State Police were eventually convinced that Kelly and I were not trying to break Chris out of prison. We had not provided him with any contraband to help him escape, though they would later search his cell looking for it anyway. Other than some stern conversations with our academic advisors, we faced no significant consequence for our transgression. We were never arrested. We were never charged. I wish the same could be said for the man we were there to visit.
I walked down the pedestrian walkway in Washington Heights, scanning the cafe tables for him. Newly-minted Class of ’21 graduates brushed past me in their academic regalia. Doctors and nurses in hospital scrubs were out enjoying lunch in the May sunshine. And then I saw him, standing and waving at me from a table next to the bookstore. A 50-year old man in a pinstriped suit and gold tie. His university ID on a lanyard around his neck. His daily workouts at the gym evident even in business clothes.
“Chris!” I called out. As I approached his table, he came out from behind it to give me a big hug.
“Look at you Jen, all grown up,” he said, laughing.
“You look pretty different from last time I saw you too,” I responded, smiling.
Less than three miles from where we were sitting on that gorgeous spring day, more than three decades ago, Chris Clemente was home on winter break from his sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a student at the prestigious Wharton School of Business, where he was studying finance. Both of his parents had attended college, but Chris was the first person in his family to earn a coveted spot in the Ivy League.
Throughout his first semester sophomore year, Chris says he was distracted. He frequently spent weekends back at home in Harlem, taking the Amtrak train late Thursday afternoon from Philadelphia and spending the weekend with his brother Henry and his friends before heading back for classes Monday morning. His grades were slipping and the 19-year old felt his concentration waning. His report card in December of 1989 was the first in his life that wasn’t all As.
The night of January 9, 1990, Chris was in his brother’s apartment on West 112th Street in Manhattan with his brother’s girlfriend, Leah Bundy. They were waiting for Henry, who had recently returned home from the hospital after surviving a shooting. Chris says his older brother was his best friend, a charismatic leader who could be caring one minute and conniving the next. Chris says his brother was a drug dealer and represented the life Chris tried to leave behind when he walked through the iron gates at Penn.
The unfortunate combination of my hubris and my inexperience had put Chris in jeopardy.
The police knocked before they barged in. Prosecutors would later say there was time for 2000 vials of crack and a loaded handgun to be thrown out the window into the courtyard below. But not enough time to get rid of the 214 vials of crack and a loaded machine gun that police found in the apartment. The NYPD also said they found a drug ledger with Chris’ name on it, a bulletproof vest, and $11,000 in cash. Leah and Chris were arrested and he was charged with 12 counts of gun and drug possession. The New York Post headline screamed “Ivy League Crack Dealer” with his photo blasted on the front page.
“The guns and drugs didn’t belong to me and it wasn’t my apartment,” Chris says. “I thought that would be enough to get me out of trouble.”
Chris was wrong. He spent eleven weeks at Rikers Island waiting for his family to post the $75,000 bail. He was stabbed while in jail and hospitalized in critical condition. He was finally released with the help of close to $20,000 that student leaders at Penn had collected on his behalf. After Penn administrators suspended him for four weeks for “threatening campus order,” protests erupted on campus. He wound up missing the entire Spring 1990 semester.
Civil rights defense attorney of “Chicago 7” fame William Kunstler and his young associate Ron Kuby took Chris’ case shortly after he was arrested and promised a vigorous defense. Chris says he was offered a plea deal: one to three years in prison to plead guilty. He says he was following the advice of his lawyers when he turned it down. Kuby remembers Chris was also concerned that he couldn’t return to Penn if he took the plea.
“We believed it was a triable case that we could win,” Kuby says. “I’m not sure Chris understood the full ramifications. And Bill [Kunstler] didn’t push people to take pleas if they didn’t want to.”
While out on bail, Chris returned to Penn in the fall of his junior year. He tried to put the reality of his impending trial in the back of his mind and focus on his academics. Since he was no longer leaving campus to go to New York City every weekend, his grades improved. He went to trial in late 1990 and the jury verdict came down on January 16, 1991. Guilty. Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Chris was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 16 years.
Leah Bundy was also sentenced under the Rockefeller Drug Laws to 15 years to life and was separated from her young daughter. A year after she and Chris went to prison, Henry Clemente, Jr., the owner of the apartment, the drugs, and the guns, was murdered. Chris was not permitted to leave prison to attend his brother’s funeral.
Chris was always a voracious reader and while at Green Haven, friends would send him books to help him pass the time. Giving away most of the donated books ingratiated him to his fellow inmates, but Chris held onto the finance and accounting textbooks and read them like novels. He worked in the law library, helping other inmates research their cases and possible avenues for appeal. He turned to God, becoming a born-again Christian and eventually leading Bible study groups and Sunday services behind bars. And he answered dozens of letters, including one from a group of three aspiring reporters and Columbia Journalism students who wanted to make a documentary about his case and the harsh sentence he received under New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws.
Chris taught me a humbling lesson about respect for the people I cover on the news. Not everyone is racing to have their private lives featured on television, even if it is for the lofty purpose of exposing a controversial law.
In the fall of 1999, Kelly Reardon, Marysol Castro, and I had been reporting on Rockefeller Drug Law protests in New York City and we had learned about Chris after being introduced to his father. Henry Clemente, Sr. was one of a dedicated group of family members committed to freeing their children. They partnered with prison reform advocates who had been lobbying lawmakers for years, appealing to them to overturn the laws that mandated unduly long sentences for drug offenses. Chris’ dad suggested we write to his son at Green Haven if we wanted to feature his case in our documentary, Fifteen to Life. I was shocked and intrigued by Chris’ story: how had an Ivy League undergrad, someone on the same academic path as mine, wound up in state prison for more than a decade?
In his first correspondence back to us on December 11, 1999, Chris taught me a humbling lesson about respect for the people I cover on the news. Not everyone is racing to have their private lives featured on television, even if it is for the lofty purpose of exposing a controversial law. “Your ‘intrusiveness’ into my private life without my permission is kind of offensive to me,” Chris wrote. “You could never understand how I feel… for the last nine years I’ve been living in a fishbowl,” he continued. “I cherish the tiny amount of privacy I still have and only share ‘me’ with people that I know and have become comfortable with.” He was right. We had extracted information from his father and other people involved in his case without being sensitive to Chris’ wishes or even waiting for his consent.
By his next letter, Chris agreed to participate in our project but noted that the truth was complicated. He wrote on December 22, 1999:
“If you are attacking the severity and inequality of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, then I’m for it. But if you are expecting some unspotted, crystal clean angel then I don’t perfectly fit the build… had I known then what I know about the law now, I would have most certainly pled guilty.” After chiding us for invading his privacy, he also conceded that “there aren’t too many people who sincerely want to fight injustice where they are not directly affected by it.”
Passed in 1973 and signed by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were designed to enact stiffer penalties for drug dealers and users. Back in the early 1970s, the argument was that if you just threatened people with enough time, they would stop dealing and using drugs. The laws provided little to no discretion for judges— if the person was convicted, the draconian sentence had to be handed down, even for first-time offenders.
By the late 1990s, the number of drug offenders in New York State prisons had multiplied by five times since the Rockefeller Drug Laws were passed, up to 23,000 people. The number of prisons built to house them had quadrupled and the Department of Corrections was the largest employer in six Upstate New York counties. Incarcerating people was big business and the impact was felt deeply in certain communities.
The laws provided little to no discretion for judges— if the person was convicted, the draconian sentence had to be handed down, even for first-time offenders.
“The law disproportionately affects people of color,” we wrote in 2000. “While more than half of drug users are white, 94 percent of drug prisoners are black and Latino.”
By 1999, when we started our research, we discovered that even some of the Republican lawmakers who crafted the bill in the 1970s had concluded that their ‘War on Drugs’ was a failure. We sat down in Albany with State Senator John Dunne, the former Chair of the Prisons Committee.
“So it was out of a sense of frustration, the greater the punishment, the greater the deterrence to criminal activity,” Dunne said, explaining the thinking behind the laws.
“Do you think the laws have accomplished those aims?” I asked.
“No, not at all,” Dunne answered.
In 2004 and 2005, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were amended to allow Chris and his lawyers to file a motion to shorten his lengthy sentence. Sitting in the same courtroom in front of the same judge who had sentenced Chris in 1991, defense attorney Ron Kuby told the court that he had made “one of the biggest mistakes of my career” by taking the case to trial and not counseling Chris to take the plea deal. Kuby says Chris’ case is still the cautionary tale for all his young clients. “Deciding whether to take a plea or take a case to trial—I’m trying hard to mitigate damage. I’m terrified of these monster sentences,” Kuby recalls.
Judge Richard Lowe, who had corresponded with Chris through letters while he was in prison, agreed that Chris had served enough time and pointed out that the Rockefeller Drug Laws made it impossible for him to have discretion to allow a lesser sentence earlier.
Chris was released on March 31, 2005. As he describes it, he hit the ground running. He was hired as a university test proctor within two weeks of returning home, got a job working at a drug rehab center, and worked as a bouncer at a sports bar in Queens on the weekends. Examining his paychecks a few months after he was released, he was convinced the government was withholding too much money for his taxes. When he saw a sign for free tax classes a year later, he signed up and soon started working at Jackson Hewitt preparing tax returns. He had returned to his roots as a “money guy,” the same natural ability that led him to Wharton’s finance program almost two decades earlier.
He says of all the years he spent in prison, those 240 days were the worst. He was released in February 2011 and vowed to never go back again.
Chris considered going back to Penn, but the cost of attending the prestigious institution was insurmountable, even with financial aid. He enrolled in Baruch College in Manhattan, first earning his undergraduate degree in accounting and then a master’s in taxation. He continued to work while attending classes. He had his own apartment. It seemed like everything was going well, and by his own account, he faced very few adjustment issues despite his 14 years as an inmate. But as Chris tells it, the worst was yet to come.
At first, it seemed too good to be true—free MetroCards. Commuters in New York City use the plastic cards to swipe through turnstile gates to ride the subway and to pay the fare on city buses. A friend of Chris’ had surreptitiously discovered a glitch in one of the automated machines that sold and dispensed MetroCards in Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan. By using a debit card from a faraway bank, she found she could “buy” MetroCards without ever being charged. By the time the MTA discovered the ruse through a routine audit and subsequent surveillance video, the scam had reportedly cost the transit agency 800-thousand dollars. Chris was arrested and charged with grand larceny, accused of selling the ill-gotten MetroCards and pocketing the profits.
This time, he wasn’t taking his case to trial. “It was worse than the first arrest because then I was only 19,” he remembers. “This time, I was devastated, so disappointed in myself. I had tried to restart my life but I had faltered again. I thought I was better off dead.”
On July 1, 2010, Chris pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, served eight months on Rikers Island, and agreed to pay back $5000. He says of all the years he spent in prison, those 240 days were the worst. He was released in February 2011 and vowed to never go back again.
Chris kept that promise. He is working two jobs now: one at a large university medical center, managing the finances for a nonprofit that supports children with cancer and their families. He organizes fundraising events, helps families with sick children with their medical, rent, and utility bills, and ensures that the organization is running smoothly. On nights and weekends, Chris manages his own accounting firm. He helps people with their tax returns and guides them through the paperwork to start new businesses. The same person who devoured accounting textbooks behind bars is translating that knowledge to his own success three decades later. In May of 2021, after a series of four tests and multiple interviews to explain his former felony convictions, he was officially licensed as a Certified Public Accountant. He signs his audits and tax returns with pride: Christopher Clemente, CPA.
Chris credits his faith in God for being a guiding and stabilizing presence in his life. He and his wife Vevzaida are both deacons at the Manhattan Grace Tabernacle Church. Giving testimony about his own life’s challenges, Chris leads the Celebrate Recovery ministry. The 12-step Christian self-help program is designed to help people overcome their addictions through a strong faith in God. He even goes back to Rikers Island to minister to both people who are imprisoned and the corrections officers. Back to the same place where he was jailed twice, stabbed, and critically injured. “I hear the heavy metal doors doors close behind me and I’m not scared,” Chris recently told me. “I know I’m in there to do the Lord’s work.”
Chris tells people who are struggling that he remembers being a ten-year-old boy watching his stepfather sell heroin out of the family’s apartment. He knew he didn’t want to grow up to be like the addicts who came to buy the drugs. But as much as he tried to be a “school kid” and focus on his grades, he couldn’t ignore the reality of what was happening around him, the financial success and enviable status that the drug dealers in his own family achieved. “This is a spiritual struggle,” Chris says. “And I pray every day for the help of the Holy Spirit.”
Chris told me a story about a contractor who recently came to his house in Westchester County to check on a gas line. The person walked though his picturesque suburban home and yard and said admiringly, “You are living the American Dream.” Chris thanked him and responded, “I also lived the American nightmare.”
Editor’s Note: The Rockefeller Drug Laws were repealed in 2009.
Excerpted from More After the Break: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories by Jen Maxfield. Copyright © 2022. Excerpt adapted with permission from the publisher. Available from Greenleaf Book Group Press.