Jeffrey Calhoun has been shot seven times and sent to prison three. Had he not been granted clemency by President Obama, he would still be in prison today. But when asked which aspect of his experience he wants to focus on, his answer is unequivocal: trauma. Now an undergraduate psychology major, he is acutely aware of the role that trauma played in his life and those of others around him.
He grew up in Long Beach, California in a time of turmoil. In 1964, six years before he was born, California voters passed the blatantly racist ballot measure Prop 14 by a two-to-one margin, ensuring landlords could discriminate on the basis of race. In 1966, the US Supreme Court struck the measure down as unconstitutional. Discrimination continued anyway. Jeffrey was born into a neighborhood that was both poor and majority-black*—direct consequences of racist housing policies and hiring practices.
The birth of mass incarceration and the history of crack cocaine can be glimpsed through Jeffrey’s eyes. He recalls his childhood with a mix of sadness and nostalgia. “I was a square. I played football.” His mom never came to one of his games though, he laments. But she did go visit his older brothers in jail every time they got arrested, often dragging young Jeffrey along. He wondered if he, too, would need to get arrested to earn his mom’s attention.
Jeffrey witnessed domestic violence long before it was publicly acceptable to discuss. His stepdad was born into de jure segregation and de facto lynching as a black man in the Deep South, moving west to Long Beach in the 1950s. He was mean and violent, even more so when he was drunk, which was often. Jeffrey’s most salient childhood memories include watching his stepdad trying to kill his mom while he was too young to defend her.
Powerlessness, that taught him, was something to be ruthlessly avoided because it led to victimization. But Jeffrey speaks about his stepdad (the only dad he’s ever known) with characteristic compassion, emphasizing that he was a product of his environment and did the best he could with what he knew.
Jeffrey was one of seven children, and this large family provided other opportunities for positive relationships. “My brother was my major supporter, he was the only one who really came to support me, who was there visibly encouraging me,” he says. “His presence alone was enough for me. They came and told me he was murdered while I was at football practice. I was 12.”
“People are struggling and you see your neighbor getting money easy as that, and he ain’t gone to jail. Why not try it?”
He tried to pursue meaningful goals even after his brother’s death, deejaying and playing football. But when he looked around him, there weren’t many career options.
“It’s poverty all around you, what else are you going to do? At the end of the day, I’m going to eat. A lot of people are struggling and you see your neighbor getting money easy as that, and he ain’t gone to jail after two years. Why not try it?”
At 14, he watched one of his remaining brothers—the one who bought him lavish gifts and made sure his material needs were met—make $60,000 in five minutes. Crack cocaine was on the rise across US cities, leaving sensationalized media accounts and an invigorated War on Drugs in its wake. 1984 was a suitably dystopian year.
After that, says Jeffrey matter-of-factly, “I gave up sports and deejaying and went all out with it. I knew I would end up in jail.” He saw it as an inevitability, a rite of passage in his world.
“The culture I grew up in, let’s call it tribal,” he says. He shuns the word “gang.” But the attraction of a collective identity is something we can all relate to. Like so many of the men he grew up with, Jeffrey sought belonging and financial stability in one of the few ways available to him.
The arrests came swiftly. “The police had the foresight of coming through these communities and stacking up these charges, building up criminal history,” he says. A tactic that inflated his own record.
Soon enough, 18 years old and terrified, Jeffrey sat in jail facing a distribution charge. If he just pled guilty, they said, he could go home. Sure, he’d have a five-year suspended sentence and a felony record, but those things were abstractions to the teenager. “I just heard, ‘You can go home,’ so I signed.”
On a physiological level, adolescents placed in this position struggle to weigh short-term benefits versus long-term consequences. Yet in the United States, district attorneys routinely impose these impossible decisions on teenagers.
Two years and 11 months into Jeffrey’s three-year term of probation, Long Beach police found five bags of marijuana in his pocket. For that, he was sentenced to every day of his five-year suspended sentence.
Jeffrey Calhoun with his daughter and niece during his first prison sentence.
Although prison was a traumatic place, Jeffrey learnt to dodge most of its dangers. But a year into his bid, the prison chaplain gave him news that every incarcerated person fears. His brother had been murdered. At the age of 20, he grieved his second murdered brother in a violent California state prison, unable to even attend the funeral.
After five years and innumerable traumas, he was released. Determined to steer clear of the law, he eked out an existence, at first getting a job at an oil refinery but then getting laid off and denied other jobs because of his record. He worked sporadically in music and at clubs. But the economic pressures were unrelenting. You could scrape together pennies or you could pursue your dreams. “I didn’t rob, I didn’t steal. I thought drugs were better, safer.”
By the late 1990s, the War on Drugs was raging more than ever. The 1994 Crime Bill had been passed, California’s “three strikes” law was in full effect, and a federal sentencing disparity of 100-to-1 existed between crack and powder cocaine. These blights on American history became inexorable parts of Jeffrey’s life story.
Jeffrey estimates he has lost over 100 of his relatives, friends and associates.
He found himself facing another California prison term for a drug charge: two more years away from his family and his community. Precious human life seized as the cost of doing business in Long Beach.
After his second prison term, he saw his opportunities dwindle. Trauma, through loss and grief and their consequences, ravaged his neighborhood. Jeffrey estimates he has lost over 100 of his relatives, friends and associates to what he calls “tribal” killings, plus a few at the hands of police. “It’s fucking fratricide.”
On the day of his release, his wife was already facing an eviction. Locked out of the living-wage legal economy by having to register with Los Angeles County as a narcotics offender, he promptly returned to what he knew. Avoiding homelessness is powerful motivation. He sold drugs.
Jeffrey’s neighborhood was in turmoil for another reason. The city of Long Beach had begun a long and steady process of gentrification, bringing displacement and disruption to his already-strained community. As development dollars poured in, so did the police.
One day in 2005, an acquaintance of his from childhood that he hadn’t heard from in 20 years asked him for drugs. Something felt off, Jeffrey recalls. But deferring to their neighborhood bond and disregarding his gut instinct, he made the sale.
The man was a confidential informant working for the FBI. What began as a way to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence for a gun became a lucrative hustle when the FBI started compensating the informant for his work: setting up his childhood friends.
Jeffrey was arrested on federal charges of delivery of cocaine base. His life of struggles and traumas was reduced to numerical points, points that placed him in criminal history Category VI, the most severe federal sentencing category. He faced decades in prison.
“Mr. Calhoun, please do not make me give you life.”
At 35 years old, with two children and a pregnant wife, he fought back with everything he could. He fought jurisdiction from his jail cell for two years, insisting his crime had been a state crime, not a federal one. The feds refused to relent, so Jeffrey boldly opted for trial.
If found guilty, his sentence would have been life without parole. Imposing such a draconian “trial tax” has become the norm in the American justice system.
The judge herself pleaded with him, “Mr. Calhoun, please do not make me give you life.” His brother, recently released from federal prison himself, also begged him, “Please Jeff, don’t let them give you life. Take the deal.” The deal was for 20 years.
The morning of his trial, he accepted. He was given two extra years for not accepting the plea deal in a “timely manner.” His past convictions worked in tandem with the now-reformed crack sentencing scheme to condemn him to an unbearable 22 years in prison.
In 2008, Jeffrey watched from FCI Victorville as the United States of America elected a black man as president. Then, on his last full day in office—January 19, 2017—President Obama commuted Jeffrey’s sentence. He had served 11 of the 22 years. As a condition of his commutation, he was mandated to the Residential Alcohol and Drug Program (RDAP), the Bureau of Prison’s version of inpatient rehab.
Loath as he is to admit it, Jeffrey says he benefited from RDAP. It is the closest thing to psychological treatment offered in prison. It is less about drug use and more about cognitive behavioral therapy, admittedly Jeffrey’s favorite methodology. “But you have to be willing to be honest that something inside yourself needs to be corrected for it to work.” He attempted to heal; it is an ongoing process.
After his graduation from RDAP he was released to a halfway house. There, he met a woman who had just been released from prison for a white-collar conviction, her first arrest. A brainy academic, she recognized Jeffrey’s unpolished but overflowing intelligence. She nudged him out of Long Beach and towards a career in mental health.
The conflict de-escalation skills that ensured his survival in prison are now his greatest professional asset.
Avoiding the temptation of easy money, Jeffrey now drives so many hours for Uber that it’s paying for his undergraduate degree. He’s proud to be majoring in psychology. “Trauma is the foundation of recidivism,” he says. And to heal it, he believes, is to break the cycle.
The conflict de-escalation skills that ensured his survival throughout multiple prison bids are now his greatest professional asset. In addition to studying, he works as a peer support specialist for people with mental health diagnoses.
According to his original sentence, Jeffrey should have been in prison without parole until 2025, at a cost of over $36,000 per year to the American taxpayer. Instead, he is a vibrant member of his family and a boon to his community.
Jeffrey with his children in 2019.
While he visits rapidly gentrifying Long Beach often—before COVID-19 he drove his ailing mother to church every Sunday—he now lives and works in Los Angeles. A role model to others reentering society after incarceration, he aspires to specialize in black mental health. But nothing will return the years he lost to draconian laws, nor the family members and friends he will never see again. And he still has to register as a narcotics offender.
Now 50, Jeffrey is living proof of the callousness of American law.
COVID-19 has been particularly hard on him. It triggered his PTSD by reminding him of countless prison lockdowns and the powerlessness of his youth. He is working on redefining what “normal” means to him, but the spiraling unpredictability, lack of control and pervasive sense of danger are all-too-familiar for the formerly incarcerated.
Now 50, Jeffrey is living proof of the callousness of American law. Were it not for the belated benevolence of an outgoing president and a stroke of luck, he would still be sitting in prison today, largely forgotten by society.
His absence left a gaping hole in his family and frayed his relationships with his children. He is tirelessly working to mend them. Systemic racism, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration traumatize not just families but whole communities, through multiple generations.
*“Black” is not capitalized in this piece at Jeffrey’s request.
Photographs courtesy of Jeffrey Calhoun and family.