Interview with Mel Reynolds

Several days after his transfer from the Federal Correctional Center at Butner, N.C. to a halfway house on Chicago’s near West Side, former U.S. Rep. Melvin J. Reynolds talked to The Chicago Reporter’s Carlos Hernández Gómez by telephone about his federal case. Reynolds’ 78-month sentence was commuted by President Bill Clinton on Jan. 20. Just over a week later, he spoke with Hernández about the federal correctional system and his 1995 sexual misconduct conviction in state court. U.S. District Judge Charles R. Norgle Sr. presided over Reynolds’ 1997 federal trial. The following is a transcript of the interviews. Ellipses are used in instances where the tape was inaudible.

Jan. 25

Chicago Reporter: So what about your federal trial, did you get a fair trial?

Mel Reynolds: I remember the on the first day Judge Norgle told me, “Mr. Reynolds in this courtroom you will get a fair trial,” nothing could have been further from the truth.

…Because if they are not fair, then our court system is disrespected. And really it is just that simple. [He said] “I’ve got to sentence you by these guidelines” and the prosecution said that was what he was going to do.

Reporter: Well actually I did read the transcript yesterday and I think you mentioned about how you voted against welfare reform and that you were worried, you were concerned that would affect your family… .

Reynolds: Well, but also.

Reporter: And then he, then Norgle said there is no room for discretion in the guidelines.

Reynolds: No, no, I was a co-sponsor of, I wrote the gun law and I had been threatened by the state prisoners and was being sent off to a federal… . There is a case, a former governor of Arizona, Fife Symington. Fife Symington was convicted in federal court and then he was overturned and then Clinton pardoned him so he wouldn’t try him again, but when he was convicted they gave him a bond so he wouldn’t go to prison. And the reason they gave him a bond–as reported by The New York Times on Feb. 3, I think, 1998–the reason they gave him a bond basically was because they said that he went to federal prison and because he was a former governor he would have difficulty, but they, so in, there’s a piece I wrote, did you see the piece I wrote, in the Chicago Tribune on… “No Justice at All for Some?”

Reporter: No, I don’t think I saw it.

Reynolds: You should take a look at that because it really lays out this case. It lays out my arguments in total, in great, in good detail, I think. It was October the fifteenth, 1998. I talk about my federal case, I talk about my federal case, and I talk about Norgle, and I talk about how Fife Symington was treated. And for the same reasons that they said Fife Symington shouldn’t go to federal prison, that he should pay a fine. When I gave that, I gave that same reason to get a fine, they said I can take care of that when you get to prison.

And so when I got to prison and the first threat I got, an anonymous threat I got, they put me in solitary confinement. And that was very uncertain for my safety. But I said I was a federal elected official and they still didn’t think I should be out while my case was being appealed. We had to go back to the same prison until my case was being done. You know what I mean? They wanted me to go to the federal prison right away.

Reporter: Now did you follow the Santos case at all while you were in jail? [Miriam Santos was convicted of mail fraud and attempted extortion on May 3, 1999.]

Reynolds: Yes, I followed it an awful lot.

Reporter: Now you who know the prosecutor was? [Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Krulewitch served as lead prosecutor in both cases.]

Reynolds: The same, the same everything. See, these prosecutors, they make their names off the backs of people who can’t defend themselves and then they go work in fancy law firms. I think he is at a big law firm now, isn’t he?

Reporter: Winston & Strawn.

Reynolds: Yeah, well see, Winston & Strawn. [I] also had [former Cook County States Attorney] Jack O’Malley, and you know these people they make their living and make their reputation off the backs of people who can’t defend themselves, and then they go and defend wealthy people for white collar crimes against the government. They make their reputation with the government and then they go make a million dollars defending people against the government. There seems to be an unholy alliance, and they have a right to make a living I’m sure. But I wonder if any of the prosecutors in my state case as well as my federal case and especially the federal case, if they ever think about the fact that my children were homeless at times.

My wife tells me that not one prosecutor, even people that she, you know, initially helped the prosecution, they never once called her to help her with our children when they were homeless, when they didn’t have any place to go. They were the cold heartedness people that ever lived.

When, when this guy [FBI mole John] Christopher, whatever his name was, the alderman, they gave him over 300 and some thousand dollars. Now I’m not suggesting that they should have given my wife any money but they should have at least been sensitive. She wrote a letter to the judge, judge Norgle, begging him to allow me to go to a halfway house so I could help her with the children. She never even, he never even paid her the common decency to write her back. She wrote [U.S. Attorney] Scott Lassar asking the same thing. He wrote her back saying, well, you know these are, this is misfortunate, misfortunate, and the, the children have to be the, have to suffer, but he didn’t offer any solution. So, you just wonder perhaps they think it is normal for black children to suffer, I don’t know.

And I’m not making any excuses for Mel Reynolds as far as what I did and what I didn’t do and the mistakes that I made. I made mistakes and I regret those mistakes tremendously because, the real reason that I regret those mistakes is because they brought a lot of wrath down on my family. My three babies had to suffer and had I not made the mistakes that I made they would not have suffered. But once a person makes a mistake he does not lose his right as a United States citizen to be treated fairly. And race and poverty should not come into any punishment when it comes to someone who had made mistakes. I think in my case it came into it. And it’s not fair.

Reporter: What about the loans in the federal case?

Reynolds: I did not make one call or anything saying I need a loan. Every single one of them was interested in getting close to a freshman superstar who had just been the only freshman out of a hundred and ten freshman chosen to serve on the [U.S. House] Ways and Means Committee, black Rhodes Scholar, the sky’s the limit. And they wanted to get close to me and that’s just how it was. And so therefore there was no crime committed because… .

Reporter: Because you contend they weren’t defrauded.

Reynolds: Well, the fact is in order to prove that there is a crime you have to have tricked them into giving you a loan on false pretenses. Like the only reason they gave me the loan was because they were tricked or deceived. That’s the thing about it. OK? The fact of the matter is that they would have given me those loans if I had a million dollars debt and they know it. How do you give a person a loan, a $50,000 loan, without even asking them to fill out a blank application?

Feb. 5

Reporter: Tell me about youir encounter with racism in the federal prison system.

Reynolds: The people making decisions have to be non-African Americans, from the director of the federal bureau of prisons, to the regional director, to the warden, to the camp administrator, to the captain of security, all the people who can make the decisions without having to check with somebody, are not African American. We really have to address these issues in a well-thought-out and balanced manner. We have to address these issues because a society that psychologically brutalizes its own people or a prison system that psychologically brutalizes its own people and then releases them. The prison system becomes a threat to society because the people in jail are not stupid. They see this stuff going on. You know what I mean?

Reporter: So you agree with a common argument that people say that they are almost creating new criminals by doing that.

Reynolds: A guy goes to jail for the first time and has nothing to do with the prison system. But when a person starts to go back and forth and back and forth, at some point you have to say, “what’s going in prison that this guy keeps going back and forth?” Now, are you saying that it is too soft and needs to be harsher? No, because we know that people even at the highest security levels are recidivists. The most brutal levels are recidivists. Well, are they getting properly trained? And the answer to that is, no they’re not. The Federal Bureau of Prisons takes the approach that we don’t have to rehabilitate anybody anymore. That is not our approach anymore. We have given up on that. Now they have no measuring stick. If they have a higher recidivism rate, who cares? Before they had a higher recidivism rate and they were supposed to be doing rehabilitation, they had failed.

Reporter: And not all black inmates are like you and have advanced degrees.

Reynolds: No, but you’d be surprised at the number of black people who are in federal prisons who have some problems, or have been in prison or who have gotten themselves together while they were in prison and gotten degrees who are just sitting there. Who are just sitting there with nothing to do. With these outrageously long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, first-time offenders. I’m not saying these guys are angels but I’m saying that our, we don’t do anything but destroy the society when we take fathers out of the community for such long times. And the majority of these fathers are African American.

It’s all part of the whole system of frustration and hate and discontent, and they breed that over and over and over. Send the guy [to] prison for five years who didn’t hurt nobody, who didn’t kill nobody, give some good time if he does a drug program or gets an education so he can get out early before five years.

And try to give him programs while he’s there so he can be a better person, and that’s the way the prison system ought to work. When you put a person in jail for beyond five years–10, 15, 20 years, for nonviolent offenses–you’re not doing anything but destroying communities. And some might think that that’s the reason for it in the first place.

Say I get arrested and they find 20 grams of crack cocaine on me. OK, well most people in their right mind, or most lay people who are not into criminal justice, they say, well, you are going to go to jail for that 20 grams or 25 grams of crack cocaine, wherever that sentence is in the guideline, mandatory minimum, you’re going to get that. But that’s not how it works. What they do is, and it’s deliberate and sinister, they’ll take 10 people and say, “you’re in a conspiracy,” and so not only do you have to serve time for the 25 grams of crack cocaine, you’re going to take the whole conspiracy number, that’s 500 hundred grams so you’re gonna get a sentence that reflects that.

So instead of getting 60 months, you are going to get is 300 months. That’s where it is and that’s what people are talking about, how the conspiracy laws are being applied. They’ve got guys–and it’s hard to believe and if I wasn’t there I would probably be in the same position as you–they’ve got guys serving 20 years, 15 years, 30 years for nonviolent crack cases where they found no drugs, where they found no gun, where they found no money laundering, where they didn’t find any evidence other than somebody trying to get out of a more brutal sentences themselves testifying, three of four guys testifying against this guy saying that he’s involved in a conspiracy.

It’s hard to believe but it is true and there are so many people in prison where there is no evidence other than somebody’s word. Somebody who is trying to get out of jail, somebody who trying to get their life sentence reduced to 30 years or 20 years, and so that’s where the crack laws [come in]. It is not just the conspiracy. That’s wrong, but it is the conspiracy in the way the crack laws, I’m going to be talking to several people of the Congressional Black Caucus. I’m laying out exactly how the laws work as opposed to just fighting this whole notion of crack versus powder. It is a bigger problem. It is a much larger problem in how the prosecutors decide to charge. A federal judge downtown said that he has less power when it comes to these crack cases than a guy in his second year out of law school that’s prosecuting downtown.

Reporter: That is something else our story talks about. We talked to federal judges who complained about the lack of discretion. So you are definitely not done with public life?

Reynolds: No prosecutor has the opportunity to see this from both perspectives and some would say, the intelligence to look at this in a hard, substantive manner. You have almost have an obligation to be involved in this and to point this out. I can talk about things in a manner in which very few people can. I got a letter from a guy that’s still at the camp yesterday, it was mailed out Friday, but I didn’t get it ’til yesterday. It said he was thinking, looking back, because so many people really forget about the pain, the suffering, the struggle, and most of all, the friends they left behind. Those were his exact words. And I promised him that I wouldn’t do that because someone has to speak up. Someone has to show that we are spending huge amounts of taxpayers’ money for nothing. We’re not solving anything.

Prisons are supposed to protect society from people who are a threat to society. That was what prisons were originally set up for. It was not set for having people sitting there on nonviolent paper cases, nonviolent drug cases, just sitting there wasting taxpayers’ dollars and their lives. You got a guy in prison who is costing 25 thousand a year or 30 thousand a year, plus his family’s on welfare, plus they’re getting subsidized housing plus they’re on food stamps and all of this other stuff and so you start talking about somewhere in the 100 thousand range that’s being, that’s going to his family. Now, the guy’s in jail for 25 years or 20 years so you’re spending two or three million dollars to incarcerate this guy. It don’t make any sense.

I guess it says more about the person than it does about my situation and how they react to me and how they react to my ability to re-enter the community. My reception in the community that I lived in, worked in, and did things in like job fairs and all kinds of other things, 100 hours in constituency service hours a week. My reception in that community has just absolutely been overwhelming. I wouldn’t say that it has surprised me but it has definitely made me, energized me, it’s just been unbelievable. I wish that you and I could just walk down the streets you know, somewhere in the Belleville community.

As a reporter, perhaps, it would surprise you, but it doesn’t surprise me as I worked very hard. I think that people who are downtown and who have a different perspective, they can think that things like the state case have some merit. No, they have nothing to do with it. They might have some merit on how people accept, well that says more about you than it does about the case itself. Everybody in this town knows what the facts are. Everybody in this town knows what the facts are. They were hashed out live and living color on television.

Nobody is naí¯ve. Everybody knows that whatever of you think of me, or my guilt or innocence. Everybody knows that O’Malley locked up somebody who is supposed to be a victim and held her in jail for 13 days until they forced her to testify with people yelling at this woman if you don’t testify you’re going to be in here soon. That’s what she had to go through and they finally brought her over and she said exactly what they wanted her to say. And the Tribune wrote an editorial about that, right after they brought her over to the court room saying how can anything she say be believed then after they forced her to testify. Now [Chicago Sun-Times columnist] Steve Neal writes that Jack O’Malley misused his power of his office by pursuing this case.

Reporter: [The late Tribune columnist] Mike Royko did that every day then, didn’t he?

Reynolds: Yeah, Royko did but no one else did. But Neal writes this big article, I think it was the Saturday before the commutation came out, two Saturdays before the commutation came out, and he wrote this huge article about how Jack O’Malley had abused the power of his office. He didn’t write that then. And [Mayor Richard M.] Daley comes out, I guess they think like Neal. They said they wouldn’t have prosecuted the case, [Cook County States Attorney Richard] Devine, said he wouldn’t have prosecuted the case. But you know that’s neither here nor there. I start work tomorrow.

Reporter: Now, where are you going to be working at?

Reynolds: I work as the director of the Hope Community Development Corp., which is a part of the Salem Baptist Church. I also work for [the Rev.] Jesse Jackson as a resident scholar on the criminal justice system.

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