How the First Step Act helped one Black man go from an incarcerated, former drug dealer to thriving MBA candidate
Robert Wood candidly tells his story and how he has become the best example of criminal justice reform.
Robert Wood knows that it’s possible to hope for something and to one day see it come true.
He was recently released from prison under the First Step Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump almost a year ago and introduced new reform measures and fair sentencing to our criminal justice system by reducing the chance that prisoners will recidivate upon their release.
Wood was sentenced to 25 years in prison for a gang-related drug and murder conspiracy. While incarcerated, he earned an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree and became a team leader for an at-risk youth outreach program. He just returned home last month and has already enrolled in an MBA program at San Diego State University.
With an opportunity to speak candidly about his experiences while incarcerated, Wood explains to theGrio about the powerful impact of criminal justice reforms, like the First Step Act and the next phase of the Second Step Act, which if passed, will continue to improve upon these efforts and help even more people change the direction of their lives forever.
My name is Robert Wood. In my teens, I was heavily involved in gangs, drug dealing, and everything negative in the streets of southeast San Diego. I was eventually arrested for a gang-related drug conspiracy and murder conspiracy under The RICO Act at the age of 36 and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
Upon my sentencing, I was inspired by my family, my sentencing judge, and from within to seek change while doing my time in order to get out a better man.
Once I got into the system, I encountered many obstacles. I found out that grants and financial aid weren’t available to me while incarcerated and that there were far fewer vocational programs available. Eventually, I found out about some educational opportunities and took advantage of them. In the 17 years I spent in prison, I earned two associate of arts degrees in General Studies and Sociology.
I graduated from these programs with honors and was inducted into an invitation-only National Honor Society. I also earned a dual Bachelor’s of Science degree in Small Business Management and Marketing and graduated Magna Cum Laude. After that, I started my MBA degree in Business Leadership. During my time in federal prison, I taught courses and tutored other incarcerated men, and was the team leader for an at-risk youth outreach program called the START (Start Taking an Alternative Route Today.) Unfortunately, some of the things available to me were not accessible to all federal inmates.
Too many incarcerated people lack access to meaningful rehabilitation and are left hopeless by the broken promises of previous legislative remedies. Their lives have ticked away in federal warehouses. They walk out of prison without the tools that rehabilitation could offer, which could make returning to their communities and families a journey of success and joy rather than one of frustration and stagnation.
The First Step Act has changed a lot of that.
The First Step Act was bipartisan legislation passed by Congress last year to make sentences for federal offenses fairer and more equitable while also moving the federal prison system toward more rehabilitative treatment. The new law will help incarcerated people gain access to the tools necessary for success upon reentering society and it sets the tone for future sentencing reform legislation.
One of the greatest things about this reform is that it actually addresses the need for rehabilitative remedies, like incentives for prisoner education and vocational programs. As a society, it assures us, upon release, reentrants will have demonstrated skills that are conducive to success.
But it didn’t just tackle the inside of our prisons. It actually included reforms that would reduce the amount of time people serve — and it provided critical pathways to freedom for people who are locked up.
Prior to the passage of the First Step Act, many people had been grossly over-incarcerated, including and especially those doing time on charges associated with crack cocaine.
My primary sentence was a crack cocaine-related offense which meant 10 years running concurrent (or to be done at the same time) under the RICO Act. If that sentence had been powder cocaine, which is the same chemical makeup as crack cocaine, I would have received a 15-year controlling sentence.
However, the controversial 1994 Crime Bill erroneously determined that crack cocaine was 100 times worse than powder cocaine and set sentences for it accordingly, creating a 100 to 1 ratio. The ratio allowed crack cocaine offenders, mostly people of color, to receive the same sentence for one gram of crack cocaine as they would for 100 grams of powder cocaine. 10 grams of crack cocaine became the legal equivalent of an entire kilogram of powder cocaine.
The ratio was ridiculous but eventually, the Fair Sentencing Act was passed in 2010 to reduce that disparity. Unfortunately, the law was never made retroactive and left many crack offenders feeling hopeless. Hopeless people often see no end in sight because they see no possibility of reentering society in enough time to reclaim their lives.
The Light of Hope
The First Step Act changed that feeling for people like myself. Releasing those who had been over-incarcerated due to unjust laws was the only fair thing to do. Time was up and the legislation was long overdue.
Robert and Dr. Davis at graduation and national honors society ceremony for Coastline Community College. (Photo courtesy of Robert Wood.)Now, people who have benefitted from the law can become productive citizens, role models, and mentors in our communities.
For too many years, our country ignored unfair sentencing and treated incarcerated people with no empathy or dignity. The incarceration industry continued to grow without taking into account the incredibly high cost of losing out on so many years of human freedom and damaging so many lives.
The First Step Act has marked an important shift. It was historic — not just for the policies that were in the letter of the law but because of the people who came together to get it done: an incredible coalition of advocacy groups, lawmakers, and unlikely allies from across the political spectrum. That bipartisan coalition named it the First Step for a reason.
There are, however, many more steps to come and a Second Step Act is sorely needed.
Since my release, I’ve worked with #cut50 a program of the Dream Corps to tell my story. #cut50 was one of the leading organizations that worked on the First Step Act. I’m proud to turn my pain into power and to put a face to the story of criminal justice reform. If my story can change a law, help someone gain their freedom or encourage those behind bars to better themselves, then I’m proud to share my journey.
We need to heal our nation from the incredible damage wrought by mass incarceration and repair the harm it has caused to individuals, families, and communities. Only then can we be the best version of America possible. I urge people reading this to find ways to get involved — from their local city halls to their state capitals, to the halls of Congress — and support these important issues.
Robert Wood is currently in the MBA program at San Diego State University and a Senior Social Media Advisor for The Prison Scholar Fund.