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One of 1,715.

For Eric Alvarez, this number is personal. It represents the 1,715 people who received a second chance at life when President Barack Obama commuted their prison sentences. 

“It’s overwhelming,” says Alvarez, 50, whose prison sentence was commuted in 2016. “It’s like sometimes it don’t even feel real.”

Many of the commutations issued by Obama were for nonviolent drug offenders, such as Alvarez.

In 2000, Alvarez received a 30-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.  At the time, Alvarez, 34, was running a small drug ring between New York and North Carolina.

Alvarez admits he became a drug dealer because he was too easily drawn into living a “fast life.”

“I started hustling, I was thinking I was making everything better,” Alvarez said. “But in the long run I just made everything worse.”

Alvarez says imprisonment was devastating to him and his family. 

“All I could do was stand there and look out the window,” recalls Thomas Barber, Eric’s father. “But I told him, I’ll never leave New York as long as he’s in prison. As long as he’s up here in the New York state going from one prison to another we’re gonna stay here.”

Eric’s family traveled to five different prison facilities along the East Coast for 17 years, staying overnight in motels and taking turns to visit.

“You’re allowed to make mistakes in life not just one time,” says Anna Alvarez, Eric’s mother. “But the question is, are you going to be repeating those mistakes? And if you say no then the system should be able to work with you.”

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Eric Alvarez hugs his mother at their home in Harlem. Alvarez was released early after spending 17 years in prison. (theGrio)

One of their greatest heartbreaks during Eric’s prison sentence would come in 2003. Eric’s 14-year-old son, Eric Jr., was killed in a tragic subway accident.

Eric would not be allowed to attend the funeral.

“You know it’s hard to lose a child [when you’re] free,” says Alvarez. “But to be incarcerated- the blame that I had on me was just devastating.”

A shot at reclaiming his life came when Alvarez’s sister urged him to consider applying for clemency in 2013.  With the introduction of Clemency Project 2014, a non-profit working group of lawyers and advocates, he got connected with Raymond Tarlton, a trial attorney in North Carolina.

Tarlton and his team worked with Alvarez on his case and paperwork.

On June 3, 2016, Alvarez officially was granted a commutation.

“Its like you getting your life back,” says Alvarez. “It’s like getting a second chance. I don’t know what it’s like to hit the lotto, but I’m telling you I hit lotto that day.”

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Eric Alvarez shows Natasha Alford around the Harlem neighborhood he grew up in and has returned to after his prison bid. (Video still/TheGrio.com)

Government reports show high rates of recidivism across the country.

Data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016 found that about one-third of federal inmates returned to prison within five years after being released on community supervision.

Among state inmates, more than half returned to prison within five years of a probation release.

“Jobs and housing are the critical things,” says Baz Dreisinger, professor and author of the book Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World.  “There’s so much discrimination in terms of hiring practices. There’s discrimination in terms of housing […]. Those who have the most family support, tend to have the most successful reentries.  Family who is understanding of all of the challenges a person is facing when one comes home.”

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Eric Alvarez shows his commutation letter from President Barack Obama after spending 17 years in prison on drug-related charges. (theGrio)

As of late January, nearly 3,500 clemency petitions from drug offenders are still pending. It remains unclear whether criminal justice reform will be a top priority in the Trump administration.

President Trump has promised to focus on “law and order,” and Jeff Sessions, the newly-confirmed Attorney General, has previously argued the benefits of federal mandatory minimum sentences.

The Trump administration did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Alvarez hopes that President Trump continues Obama’s legacy of clemency.

“Hopefully he’ll do right and understand that there’s a lot of people that’s incarcerated that maybe deserve to be incarcerated, but not for the length of time that they actually got sentenced to […],” he said. “I’m working. I’m doing everything that I can to put my life back in order and this is just the beginning.”

Editor’s Note: Our video report incorrectly stated that Eric Alvarez turned himself over to face charges in 2000.  Alvarez had set up a meeting to do so, but did not appear.  He was eventually apprehended by law enforcement officials, signed a plea deal and was sentenced.


In this episode of True Story, we meet Eric Alvarez, a man who was released early from a 30-year prison sentence after receiving a commutation from President Barack Obama.

But under a new political administration, how will he and others in the system fare?

theGrio’s Deputy Editor, Natasha Alford (@NatashaSAlford) explores whether redemption truly has a place in a nation of mass incarceration in Episode 3 of #GrioTrueStory #ASecondChance.

Miss Episode 1 and Episode 2 of #GrioTrueStory? Check them out on our YouTube Channel!

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