Sam Edmonson was working as a clerk in a prison factory (at a rate of about $.85 per hour) when the call came — he was summoned to the warden’s office.
Unsure what he had done and concerned he might be in trouble, he went. The warden asked several peculiar questions — what Edmonson would do if he were freed, if he had family on the outside.
It was a moot point for Edmonson — having been sentenced to two life sentences without the possibility of parole for a nonviolent drug offense, he knew he’d never breathe free air again. He’d been imprisoned for about 19 and a half years and would remain behind bars for another 19 and a half more for all anyone in the prison system cared, as far as Edmonson was concerned.
He’d exhausted all his appeals. Though he’d won his case in the Supreme Court, he‘d merely been remanded back to the District Court for resentencing where the same life sentences he’d had before were handed down a second time.
But he answered the warden’s questions honestly.
Then the warden turned the screen of her computer around and Edmonson saw the face of then-President Barack Obama staring out at him.
The President had called to pardon him — one of 22 other prisoners in similar situations with similar offenses who received pardons March 21, 2015.
Obama read Edmonson a letter, telling him his sentence would be commuted.
“It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change,” the letter read. “Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances.”
The letter reminded the pardoned prisoner he had the opportunity to make good choices — better than those that had landed him in prison to start with.
“By doing so,” the letter said, “you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future. I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong. So good luck, and Godspeed.”
According to Edmonson, the President told him he’d been pardoned in part because if he’d been sentenced in modern day for the crime he’d committed, he’d have done hardly any time at all. Obama believed Edmonson had the ability to turn his life around, according to the letter he’d been read right before the President of the United States put pen to paper and set him free — the answer to many prayers.
“From then on, it was tears all day,” Edmonson said.
His road to freedom had been long and difficult.
A Junction City native, he said he became involved with drugs in part because he felt there was nothing else here for him — no good jobs, no opportunity.
“That was the norm here,” Edmonson said. “Everybody was in drugs here. This was a bad town.”
Partying led to dealing — something to supplement his work in factories.
Even after he moved away from Junction City — away from Kansas — the habit stayed with him.
While living in Arkansas, a friend asked Edmondson to pick up his cousin, who was stranded in the Dallas airport.
Edmonson, not knowing his friend’s cousin was a police informant, agreed.
Because Edmonson was driving, he was arrested on a drug charge — his third.
In those days, there was a “three strikes, you’re out” rule. Because he had two prior convictions, he was sent to prison for life.
Though all Edmonson’s offenses were nonviolent, his sentence led to him being sent to one of the most violent maximum security prisons in the federal system — what he calls “Bloody Beaumont.”
“I’ve seen stabbings, I’ve seen fights, I’ve see guards shoot and kill inmates out of gun towers, and I’ve seen a guy get his head cut off — the only thing that was holding his head on was a little bit of skin on his neck,” he said. “We’d go on lockdown for three, four, five weeks at a time. It was awful.”
Edmonson spent roughly 15 years there in a living hell, trying for a transfer to a lower security prison and depending on his faith to keep him alive from day to day.
“Once you get your number, that’s all you are is a number,” he said. “The government, they give them money to keep you warehoused in a prison and that’s all they care about. They don’t want you to get out of there because they’re making money off of you. It’s an industrial (complex). It’s big business.”
God deserves the credit for his survival above anyone else, Edmondson believes.
He eventually achieved a transfer to a medium security prison in Illinois — the one from which he was released — but prison took its toll. Having been incarcerated almost 20 years in a cell smaller than the bathrooms of some houses made it hard for him to live on the outside.
Edmonson spent time in a halfway house in Topeka where he enjoyed the mind-blowing freedom to walk down the street.
“Just opening up car doors — I broke my brother’s handle off his car door,” he said. “Just grabbing it and pulling it — not opening a car door for 20 years.”
He’s still adjusting.
Sometimes, Edmonson said, he worries about children he fears may be going down the same path he traveled and does what he can to steer them right.
“Some of these kids — these kids gotta open up their eyes, they gotta get their education ... they gotta look and see what’s ahead of them because these streets ain’t no good. Ain’t nothing on these streets but death,” he said.
Edmonson tries not to dwell on past misfortunes.
These days, Edmonson has everything he needs. Not always what he wants, but he’s past the point where this matters to him. In a previous life, he may have craved fancy cars and big houses.
Now, though, a $3,000 house he and his brothers remodeled and his motorcycle — a 1983 model he bought new back in his drug dealer days — which he fixed up this past winter are his priorities.
He’s disabled — a back injury leading to three major surgeries back in his factory worker days — but he finds ways to help his community. Edmonson volunteers three or four times a week at the Geary County Food Pantry.
When his church — the Junction City Church of the Nazarene — holds dinners, he enjoys helping out.
It’s his way of paying his debt back to society and trying to earn his way back in to the world’s good graces.
Edmonson enjoys hunting and fishing and has even won two angler awards from the state. He spends time with family. His mother still lives in Junction City — after leaving prison, eating dinner at her house with his entire family was one of the first things he did.
Though he was gone for so long, Edmonson has a close relationship with his daughter and is expecting a granddaughter early this July.
“Life goes on, life’s good,” he said. “I ain’t in prison any more — I ain’t planning on going back.”