As the clock ticked down on the last night of Donald Trump’s presidency, Rufus Rochell anxiously checked Facebook from inside his sister’s home.
He had lived there since being released from prison in April having been deemed a non-threat and with fears mounting that he could contract Covid-19. For weeks, he was convinced that the outgoing president would give him a pardon or, at least, clemency. His case had gained national attention, not just because of the advocacy he’d done around the dangerous conditions of Covid-infested prisons, but because, frankly, he had a key friend in a high place.
At the Coleman low security prison in Florida — where he had been for 32 years — Rufus took a liking to Conrad Black, the famed financier who went to jail for several years for flagrant misuse of company funds, mail fraud and obstruction. And Black, in turn, took a liking to him. The two worked together in the education department. They talked about history. They managed to find subtle humor in the humbling elements of prison life.
When Rufus’ biological father died, it was Black who sat with him and prayed. When Black needed someone to vouch for his character as part of his petition for early release, it was Rufus who he turned to. And when Black received a pardon from Trump in 2019, the expectation was that he’d talk to the president — a man he knew and had done business with — in hopes of returning the favor.
But the pardon never came. Not after Rufus spoke to members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in the spring about how the pandemic was ravaging prison populations; not after his case became featured in the Wall Street Journal; not after he built up a small following on Facebook Live in his efforts to gin up support for criminal justice reform; not after he became featured by leading conservatives (including former Attorney General Matt Whitiker) as a clear-cut case for clemency; and not on the night of Dec. 23, when Trump pardoned John Boultbee and Peter Atkinson, two financiers who had been convicted as part of the fraud scheme involving Black.
And so, Rufus, at the age of 69, sat there, the last night of Trump’s presidency, checking Facebook, hoping his pardon might finally come. Until, he realized, it hadn’t.
“I feel that certain things transpired,” Rufus said this past week. “My name was up there and I got passed over for ones that — you know as well as I know — some of them that got it, and I understand, I’m not upset or anything like that, I’m not mad, I just feel like most people feel that I should have received clemency based on the things I have done, being out here and advocating for others.”
By this point, I’d spoken to Rufus dozens of times over more than a year, both when he was inside prison and out. I’d first heard about his case when I went looking for a prisoner to profile early in the Trump years, when the presumption was that the then president would continue a tough-on-crime posture even on matters of pardons and commutations. I wanted to know if those waiting for a presidential intervention had given up hope. Rufus had most certainly not. He would email frequently and call regularly whenever he had the money to do so. He would always talk through the 15 minutes of allotted time, eager to walk me through the particulars of his case, his friendship with the guards, and the reasons why he knew — just knew — that his time was coming soon.
He was one of the most preternaturally positive human beings I’d ever encountered. But for the first time last week, I could detect a pang of sorrow in his voice.
“I’m doing everything that’s right,” he said, “even on the outside.”
Upon leaving office, Trump issued pardons and clemencies largely to politicians, white collar criminals, the well connected and the famous. His on-again, off-again adviser Steve Bannon received one. So too did his former top fundraiser Elliott Broidy. Albert J. Pirro, Jr., the ex-husband of Fox News host Jeanine Pirro got a pardon. So did rapper Lil Wayne, one of the few Black celebrities to endorse Trump; former congressman Duke Cunningham, who was convicted of almost comical levels of public corruption; and Ken Kurson, the friend of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner who was accused of cyberstalking.
The response was almost universally negative, with even Republicans calling it a grotesque abuse of presidential power. Lost in the condemnation, however, was discussion of the other byproduct of Trump’s actions. A swath of people that advocates say clearly deserve a presidential reprieve were now forced to wait weeks, months, or potentially years for Joe Biden or future presidents to give them consideration. The Department of Justice says more than 14,000 pardon and clemency requests were pending at the end of the last year. Trump had a chance to change their lives and, effectively, punted.
Within that universe, Rufus considers himself one of the fortunate since he is out of prison. But life still has its challenges. He doesn’t have a source of income. He must wear a tracking bracelet on his ankle. He can’t go past the end of his yard without clearance from his halfway house. Any time he wants to go to a grocery store or the bank, he has to submit a form to his supervisors on a Sunday night in order to get clearance.
“I have to look at it positively,” he said. “I’m in a lot better shape than the ones I’m advocating for. I’m out here. I’m home with my family. And many of the ones I’m advocating for, they would love to be in my shoes even with the braces around their ankle, just to be out of prison with Covid-19 inside the prison.”
Rufus grew up in Dania Beach, Fla., at a time of lingering segregation and with a biological father with a drinking problem. He didn’t get into trouble until after high school, when he was busted for stealing a car and, then, larceny, theft and possession of marijuana.
Those were minor crimes though. The one that landed Rufus at Coleman, he insists he never did.
In the late-80s, the University of Florida’s athletics department was rocked by allegations that members of its basketball team had been using cocaine. This was in the shadow of Maryland basketball star Len Bias’s death from a cocaine overdose and the launch of Ronald Reagan’s tough-on-drugs campaign, and school officials and law enforcement pledged to get to the bottom of it. They followed a tip that the team’s dealer went by the nickname “Ice,” which, in turn, led them to a man named Willie “Ice Bird” Reed as well as three others. One of those three was Willie’s cousin: Rufus.
Rufus was found guilty for conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of crack cocaine and possession of more than 50 grams of crack. He was given a 40-year sentence with no chance of parole. To this day, he says he never sold crack. Roughly a year later, six men were found guilty of conspiring to sell drugs to athletes at the University of Florida. Among them was a man named Eugene Scott, who went by the nickname “Ice.”
When Rufus was sentenced, he was 36 years old. His fiancée Michelle was pregnant with a child he imagined he’d never see outside of prison. Over time, he began to make the most of it, taking classes on photography and Spanish and learning drug-related criminal law, which he would teach to fellow inmates. Then, in 2008, Black showed up.
The ties between the two were genuine, each insists. Rufus called Black one of his best friends. Black, in turned, described Rufus to me as “an optimistic and brave person who thinks life is basically good and that perseverance is rewarded.” Earlier this year, when Black penned a column in The Epoch Times advocating for criminal justice reform, it was Rufus’ case that he spotlighted.
On the night in December when Black’s two ex-associates were pardoned, I called Rufus again.
“I’m expecting it tonight,” he said, relaying that Trump was “supposed to sign off on it, on some clemencies.”
Had Black told him that? “He is supposed to call me,” Rufus replied. “He said he’s tried to call me on a couple occasions but couldn’t get me on the phone.”
There was no semblance of doubt in his voice that his friend from prison would come through. And, sure enough, at the urging of Amy Povah — a well known prisoner advocate who has helped push Rufus’ cause — Black did write an email to Jared Kushner, the ex-president’s son-in-law and top adviser, pleading Rufus’ case. It arrived at 9:23 am on the day before Trump left office.
“As you know, the U.S. criminal justice system is essentially a conveyer-belt to the bloated and corrupt prison system and the prosecutors are not accountable for their frequent extortion and subornation of perjured inculpatory testimony. Rufus has never had any money and it is a difficult enough challenge for those few of us who can afford to pay $30 million for usually indifferent legal advice to navigate through it,” Black wrote. “I know how preoccupied you all are at the unjustly premature interruption of your fine administration, but knowing the facts of this case as I do, as a friend of Rufus wen (sic) we were in prison together and as a sponsor of his commutation, I dare to try to put this before you.”
Black told me that Kushner did not return his email.
“But in fairness,” he added, “he was very preoccupied and I don’t really know him.”
Before Trump’s final clemencies and pardons were issued, he gave Rufus a call. “We both expressed hopefulness on the point,” Black said.
Later that night, word came that Rufus’ name was not in the last batch.
Though he did not get clemency, Rufus says his future is far from bleak. He has his family around him, including his brother Richard Williams who, himself, was released from prison because of Covid-related fears. He has a cause as well, for which he’s earned a considerable amount of media attention: doing regular broadcasts on Facebook Live to advocate for criminal justice reform.
And though Rufus has limitations on what he can do and where he can go, he still has opportunities to rediscover and enjoy life beyond bars; like the moment he stopped at a Boston Market for his first post-prison meal: barbeque chicken.
“I thought it was a supermarket,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was a restaurant. It was extremely good.”
And yet, it’s not all that clear how great things actually are. Though he doesn’t expect to go back to prison when the pandemic ends, Povah said that it is very much in the realm of the possible that he’s forced to do so. Action from the Biden administration would prevent that, of course. But Povah notes that, traditionally, a new president takes time before issuing commutations and pardons. Trump acted largely on whims. Biden seems likely to adopt the more customary route, which is to let the process work through the Office of the Pardon Attorney inside the Department of Justice.
“I wouldn’t even guess how long that could take [for Rufus],” she said. “I want to say they will be responsible. But in the back of my mind I have concerns.”
As he waits, Rufus still internalizes the indignity of being a man convicted, of wearing an ankle bracelet, of being told—implicitly—that he remains a threat to society. He knows he’s no such thing. In the end, however, he just needs the president of the United States to understand it too.
“I have been rejected at times. I’m kind of used to that rejection,” Rufus told me. “So I don’t get upset. I went out and did my Facebook Live the following day and I told individuals who didn’t get it, families that didn’t receive it, don’t get discouraged, stay positive, and various good things will happen. I firmly feel that.”
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