Released early, ex-inmate now walks line between redemption, reoffending

Inmate released early: I broke the cycle for my son
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Story highlights

  • TeQuan Walker is one of 6,600 federal inmates released early to reduce prison crowding
  • Walker is stunned to see how his toddler son has become a boy, age 5
  • Walker pledges to live up to his new freedom -- if only to 'put morals' into his son

New York (CNN)TeQuan Walker is now a free man -- released early from his cocaine sentence under a reduction of crowded federal prisons -- and he feels overwhelmed by happiness, anxiety and fear.

Walker gained freedom in late October along with 6,600 federal inmates released before completing their sentence, and the stakes of his second chance hit him hard when he finally saw his son for the first time in two years.
While in prison those two years, Walker refused to allow the boy to see his father doing a 51-month sentence for conspiring to deal a pound of coke.
    His once-toddler son is now a boy of 5, and suddenly, the consequences of imprisonment materialized in the flesh and blood right before him.
    "That was a very emotional moment to see him. He looked at me like, 'You look like my father,' " Walker recounted in an interview with CNN after his release.
    "I just made a lot of poor decisions," Walker, 32, said. "The moment I was sentenced, I realized this is just not where I want to be at.
    "I really know that prison is not the way," he said.
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    Like many of the inmates released early, Walker's life now becomes a journey of teetering between redemption or reoffending.
    For now, Walker has steeled himself for a new shot at life, but he knows he faces stout odds. For example, one study of 2007 sentencing reforms determined how many crack cocaine inmates released early were back in prison within five years: 43.3%.
    Walker will be battling such odds as part of the first wave of 6,600 convicts released since late October under the biggest federal inmate release on record. About 25% are being deported.
    In all, more than 40,000 federal felons could be released over the next several years because the U.S. Sentencing Commission lowered harsh sentences for drug offenders, retroactively, under a reform to reduce prison crowding. About 16,500 inmates are expected to be released in the first year alone.
    New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the main problem will be finding adequate staffing to supervise the released inmates. Because of the budget resolution in Congress, the parole department cannot hire more parole officers, he said.
    "So who's going to watch these people when they go out on parole?" he said. "And that's effectively what's going on, they're going to be out on parole."
    Inmates released early don't reoffend at a higher rate than other inmates, the sentencing commission found.

    Making headlines the wrong way

    Sure, dealing drugs seemed like money.
    At first.
    "It wasn't that easy. I went to jail for it," Walker said.
    Walker's conviction made headlines in Maine where he was part of a trafficking ring that dealt oxycodone and cocaine shipped from New York City.
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    In 2013, Walker pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine, and he was imprisoned at the medium-security Federal Correction Institution in Berlin, New Hampshire.
    There he went through stages where "the reality of the situation hits you and then you start to miss what you had," he said. "It's hard to cope with reality."
    His fall began with smoking marijuana as a teen. Then he stopped playing basketball, his passion.
    "I think that just my main reason for getting involved (in drug trafficking) was straying away from a positive lifestyle, straying away from playing basketball, straying away from going to school, keeping something else to look forward to as opposed to just using drugs and hanging around the wrong people," he said.
    In May, he was transferred to a halfway house in New York to prepare for his eventual freedom. There, Walker was still a federal inmate while in the transition residence, said Michael Fitzpatrick, chief U.S. probation officer in New York.
    It's also where Walker laid eyes on two people now giving him the strength for a different life: his mother and his son.
    "Family support, that's like everything. That's your assurance that you're not dead, that you're not just thrown away," he said.

    Old acquaintances from criminal life

    Last week, Walker had only been out of jail a few days when acquaintances from the old neighborhood came around to possibly draw him back to a life of crime.
    Walker knows they saw him, but "it's about how you carry yourself," he explained.
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    "If I carry myself like I miss this place, I miss being around them, they're going to invite me," he said. "It's about staying away."
    While in prison, Walker enrolled in a voluntary drug program that "teaches you how to change that type of thinking and lifestyle, eight positive attitudes of change including caring, honesty, gratitude," Walker said.
    His biggest challenge, he says, is "basically living a whole new lifestyle."
    That means he's willing to work for $8.75 an hour, and if he wants a better wage, he'll just have to work for it, he said.

    'No room for anything else'

    Walker worked selling T-shirts while at the halfway house, but since "T-shirts don't sell too well in the winter," he told his probation officer he's got to find something else. Walker's early release is being supervised by a federal probation officer, though Walker isn't technically on probation.
    The job hunt won't be easy.
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    Even though New York has adopted a "ban the box" measure that prevents job applications from asking about an applicant's criminal background, he has concerns that employers may ultimately ask him about an old conviction of unlawful temporary possession of a handgun, which makes him a violent federal felon.
    Walker emphasizes there were no victims in that weapons conviction and adds he's not a violent person. But it's an issue he may have to address if ultimately asked, to prove the label doesn't show who he is today.
    "Being that I have two felonies, one violent and now one drug, I do understand there is no room for anything else," Walker said.

    Busy probation officers

    Fitzpatrick, the chief probation officer, said his staff has been especially productive the past week. Typically, 500 federal inmates are released in a normal week. Last week saw 13 times that amount.
    To manage the workload, probation officers focus first on the higher-risk cases, he said.
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    "It's difficult for anybody to get a job these days, but they face particular problems," Fitzpatrick said of the released inmates.
    "Many of them have been away for a long time. They don't have that employment history. They have to indicate if they've ever been convicted of a crime" in many job markets, Fitzpatrick added.
    For his part, Walker also wants to coach youths.
    "I want to give back and coach because basketball was constructive," he said. "When I had basketball in my life, there was no room for anything else so I know that can be something positive to look forward to.
    "It teaches structure," he said.
    What scares him most?
    "I'm concerned about being able to provide fully for my son," he said. "My way of breaking the cycle is to just be there for him and to show him everything of what should be done also to show him what shouldn't be done. That way I feel I can put morals in him at a young age.
    "So my fears are more for him than for myself," he said.