Angelo Daniels is one of approximately 600 D.C. residents who are eligible to petition for immediate release despite their indeterminate sentences, thanks to the District’s Second Look Amendment Act. His story portrays in very human terms both how individuals find themselves in a life of crime, and how they manage to rehabilitate themselves — despite a jungle environment and what seems like every effort to keep them down.
I was born Feb. 17, 1975, into a highly dysfunctional family. My pop was in the streets and he and my mom were on the verge of breaking up. Actually, I can’t recall a time when Mom and Pop were together in a relationship.
Most of the time I was growing up, Pop was incarcerated for using and selling drugs (and probably many more things). I didn’t see him much at all. When I was about 5 or 6, my mom was incarcerated as well (due to a combination of violence and drugs), and me and my siblings were sent into foster care.
I am the youngest of four kids. I had an older brother who died in 1994, just a few months before I was incarcerated. He died when he was only in his mid 20s, while in prison himself for crimes he committed under the influence of PCP and crack. To this day, I believe the prison staff committed medical malpractice. He called home for months, complaining of severe headaches. All he was given was Motrin. He didn’t get any real medical help until he collapsed and was taken to D.C. General Hospital. It turned out he had a tumor; he died handcuffed to his bed.
I have two older sisters as well, and they remain a great presence in my life. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have those two beautiful women in my corner, along with my nephews and great niece.
I don’t remember any of my foster care time. My siblings tell me it was crazy to be separated that way. I also don’t remember for how long my mom was incarcerated. But when she was released, she regained custody of her kids. I don’t remember how old I was then, but my main memory of the years that followed was “chaos.” My mom was an alcoholic and drug user. I grew up in an era when crack cocaine was the drug of choice and my mom, like so many others, couldn’t escape it. I watched her use and abuse it, just like alcohol. I felt embarrassed, ashamed and neglected when she was drunk or high. When my mom was sober, she was the best mother ever. But that was rare. (Later, though, she managed to kick her drug habit, and was clean for about 10 years before she passed away. We were really close, despite all the ups and downs.)
My mom was never abusive to me (other than hitting me on the head once in a while if I got out of order), but she was in a very violent relationship with her new boyfriend. They stayed together regardless, though. In fact, he was the only man I ever saw my mom maintain a relationship with. I grew up seeing my mom get drunk and then be beaten up by this boyfriend. I remember saying to myself, “I can’t wait until I get bigger because I’m going to beat him up just like he does my mom.” She fought back too; I saw her stab him one time and chase him out of the house.
Why did she stay with him? I don’t know, but she was also mentally unstable. My mom said to me often, “Son, if I kill somebody, I’m not going to jail. They’ll send me to St. Elizabeth’s because I’m crazy.”
I grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods of southeast D.C., Marshall Heights. I went to Fletcher Johnson elementary and junior high schools. It was a school without walls separating the classes. You could be in your classroom and look around in every direction and see other classes going on. I couldn’t even hear what they were teaching. It was chaotic and distracting. I had problems learning in that school and had to repeat the third and seventh grades. It’s always been hard for me to hold and remember information at test time. I still struggle with that today, although I am better now.
Still, I made it to the ninth grade — and that’s when I got kicked out for something I didn’t do. The administration claimed I shot a window out with a beebee gun, so the principal called the police to the school and they escorted me out in handcuffs, right past everybody in class. I was never formally charged, but while my case was passed around in court, no other school would accept me. My mother told me, “If you ain’t going to school, then you ain’t going to stay in this house.”
On the streets and into prison
I moved in with my grandparents, and once that happened, all restrictions were off. I was left alone to roam the streets. I was 16 and that was my last time ever in school.
That’s when my real journey into the streets began. I was selling drugs, carrying guns and doing whatever my peers around me were doing. My neighborhood was surrounded by the most deadly communities in D.C. In my ‘hood, if you didn’t fight, you were picked on. From a young age, my mom always told me, “Son, you better fight, no matter if you win or lose. I didn’t raise no punk, so you better not be one. If you don’t fight back, don’t bring your ass back in this house.” And that’s exactly what I did. I grew up fighting violence with violence because that’s all I knew. I became a product of my environment. Two paths opened up to me: the cemetery or the penitentiary.
I fought it for a while. At 19, I became a father for the first time when my beautiful daughter was born on July 26, 1994. That was the first time in my life when I knew what it felt like to love another person more than myself. But six months later, I was charged with first-degree murder; while I was locked up, awaiting trial, my son was born. And in 1996, I was convicted and sentenced to 30 years to life. I don’t want to rehash what took place, but I take full responsibility for my part. As a man, I now realize I lacked a moral compass to guide me. I believed that violence, which is all I saw in the streets and in my household, was a solution to solving my problems. I was like a lion cub who grows up in the jungle. I followed the path of the elder lions because I thought that was the way to survive. I never thought about the consequences of my actions.
Journey through the BOP gulag
Now, here I am a 46-year-old man trapped behind these walls, incarcerated for 26 and a half years. I’ve been behind these walls longer than I was on the streets. I’ve lost a lot and gained a lot. I’ve lost my mom, my grandmother, a few brothers and many more. I also lost out on seeing my two precious seeds grow up to be the shining lights they are to me. When I was incarcerated, my daughter was 6 months old and my son was still in his mother’s womb. Fortunately, I’ve stayed close to my kids’ mom, and she’s made sure we all stayed connected. I will forever be grateful to her for that. Today, my beautiful princess is going on 27 and has a college degree in social work. My son is nearly 26 and also completed college, with a degree in sports medicine (although his passion is music). I couldn’t be prouder. But my heart is sad because I missed out on seeing them grow up and become adults.
When you come to jail at 19 years old for the first time in your life and you’re surrounded by grown men from all walks of life who have committed all kinds of crimes, you grow up real fast. My first incarceration was at the D.C. jail. I did 16 months there before I was found guilty of my crime in 1996 and sent to Lorton (the District prison at the time). My stay was brief, because in 1997, D.C. signed off for Lorton to be closed. I went from being in prison 30 minutes away from home (and able to see my family every weekend) to being sent into a series of state and then federal institutions, all over the U.S.
First, they transferred me to a county jail in Virginia Beach, surrounded by dudes who were there for only a short time — sometimes just a weekend. It got crazy quickly and within three months, I was on the road to a federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland. There, I was on what they call a federal hold — meaning I was just there until I was moved again. In the meantime, I was put in solitary for six months.
From FCI Cumberland, I was moved to a new prison in Youngstown, Ohio. It was privately owned, contracting with BOP to house its prisoners. I guess you could say I was a prisoner for profit at that point.
In Youngstown, more happened in six months than in the previous three years. When there was a riot against prison staff, an officer got knocked to the ground and I was blamed because he said he saw me close to him. I was sent to the SHU (special housing unit, or solitary). When a murder occurred, we were all shipped out and I was sent to Mason, Tennessee.
At Mason, I was kept in the cell for 21 hours a day, with only three hours of rec a day. Even then, I was in handcuffs. Six months later, one of my homies got in a fight with another one and killed him, right in front of me. That incident made the staff tighten up the prison and transfer a lot of us out, including me.
This time I was sent to a supermax prison in Pond, VA: Red Onion State Penitentiary. It was on top of the second-highest mountain in the state and turned out to be the worst experience of my incarcerated life. We were treated as less than human. It was also the first prison where I experienced racism. I was called a nigger on many occasions by the white COs. I think the staff was 99.9% white and they acted like they had never seen a black person before, the way they looked at and tried to intimidate me.
I was on lockdown for close to three years straight: 23 hours in, 1 hour out, with only three showers permitted a week. Every moment out of my cell I was on a three-man hold. That means three officers escorted me everywhere I went: one holding one arm, one holding a dog leash connected to my handcuffs behind my back (while his other hand held a stun gun pressed against my side) and the third walked behind or in front of me. That was how they treated me very time I came out of the cell. I remember staying in my cell for six months straight, never coming out, because I was sick of the treatment. I took birdbaths and let my hair turn to dreads. I wasn’t able to talk to my family, and my mindset was pretty much “fuck the world.”
After close to three years of that misery, I was finally transferred into a series of federal government prisons — 10 to be exact — and it was a whole different world. In the previous private and state prisons, I was housed mostly with other people from D.C. But in the feds, D.C. inmates were disliked and feared. Before the D.C. contingent came in after Lorton closed, the white Aryan Brothers and Mexican gangs mostly ran the prison yards and they were feared by everyone — even the correctional officers. But when the D.C. people began arriving, they wouldn’t be intimidated and war ensued. Many people lost their lives, on both sides. And from that point on, “D.C. Blacks” have been disliked and feared.
This was my first time around White, Latin and Black gangs from around the U.S. It was a shock to learn that these gangs I had only seen on TV actually existed. In some respects, it was positive. I was exposed to people from other cultures and geographies; I met a lot of good men I now call my brothers — like Mutulu Shakur.
During my first 10 years in the feds, they allowed movement all around the yard. Programs didn’t take long to get into. There were sporting events. And work opportunities paid pretty good. In fact, you couldn’t be on the compound unless you had a job. You had to work or be sent to the SHU.
The great decline
But it all went downhill over the past decade, when a lot of money was diverted from the FBOP to fund our wars overseas. The quality of food declined and most of the good programs stopped.
We went from open yards with regular movement, to fenced-in, divided yards and limited movement. And that’s if we’re allowed to move at all, because the compounds are locked down a lot now. During an average year, the compound is often locked down nine out of 12 months. So, even if decent programs are offered, it’s hard to complete them because of the lockdowns. A five-week program might take six months to finish, if not longer. And if you have an indeterminate sentence like most D.C. Code offenders (with the option of life on the back end), the programs are hard to get into because the focus is on inmates with five years or less to serve. (The difficulty getting into programming accelerated after Donald Trump signed into law the First Step Act for federal prisoners. The programs that exist are focused more on those with lighter sentences — and most importantly, those who aren’t in for violent offenses. The rest of us are put on the waiting list — and typically never get in.)
Once you take away interesting, productive things for people to do, there’s nothing to look forward to and people end up with lots of idle time. That leads to tension and acting out. When you can’t go outside to play sports, go to rec to work out or go to programs to learn and build things, fights and all sorts of other trouble develop — one of the things that leads to lockdowns. Basically, USPs have become solitary confinement camps.
Another trend that has been building over the last decade or so is the hostile attitude of the officers toward us. In the past, one correctional officer would supervise 50 inmates at a time in the unit, while the rest of the prisoners were in programs or recreation. Now, though, with less rec and fewer programs, one officer watches over 100 inmates at a time in a unit. That gives him more power. And with more power comes a feeling of superiority, disrespect and outright brutality — which can spark violence in return.
The public is focused on police brutality. But C.O. brutality now is crazy. And just as police on the streets alter their statements about the truth, C.O.s do the same and more. C.O.s will grab or punch you and then claim on an incident report that you assaulted them. They’ll plant something prohibited, like a knife, in your cell and then claim it’s yours. We should be calling for defunding the FBOP.
Despite it all, I evolved
My personal turning point came when I got my last charge almost eight years ago. I got caught up in a fight with a few guys and almost lost my eye when I was hit with a lock. It was a moment when I took a good look at myself and understood that if I wanted to make it back to my family, I had to get control of my life and change the way I did my time. I stayed away from dudes who were out to make trouble. And I knew I had to seek out programming in any way possible.
In 2019, it paid off. I pressured the counselor who ran a reentry program called the Bounceback Transition Unit* so hard that he got tired of rejecting me and allowed me in, even though it was only for guys who had less than five to seven years on their sentence. Finally, I could be with guys who all wanted the same thing: to learn and grow. They wanted to see me become the best I could be, and that’s hard to find in the federal system. I completed more than 250 hours of programming and graduated from something for the first time in my life.
On September 29, 2020 — my 26th year of incarceration — my case manager informed me that on the next day (yes, you read that right), I would have my first parole hearing. He was new in his job and wasn’t familiar with parole procedures, since there aren’t that many of us who are eligible. I should have been given a few weeks’ notice so that my family and friends could submit letters of support, and I could arrange legal representation. I didn’t get the chance to have any of my supporters write to the board on my behalf.
However, since I had been infraction-free for more than six years and had earned close to 60 certificates, demonstrating my commitment to self-improvement programming, I went ahead with the parole hearing anyway. (The D.C Board of Parole regulations say that infractions committed more than three years prior to a hearing shouldn’t be used against a candidate.) During my hearing, I took full responsibility for my actions when I committed my crime so long ago. However, I was denied.
Today, I remain a man who is determined to succeed in a place that is designed to break you. The system has captured my physical being, but my mind and spirit will always remain free. God willing, my physical being will be free as well soon.
*Sadly, the unit was dissolved a year later.