Tadd Vassell will die in prison for selling drugs as a teenager.
Tadd has served 21 years in prison. Tadd will die in prison for a nonviolent drug crime that occured while he was teenager.
Tadd Vassell has been locked away in federal prison for over two decades and his sentence is unduly long.
Yet, he has never been convicted of any violent crime. Vassell’s crime was that, when he was just 16, he looked up to adult males on his neighborhood block in the South Bronx. Those men were providing for their families by selling drugs. Impressionable and immature as most are at age 16 and with no other male role model to turn to, Tadd turned to the streets and was quickly taken under the wing of adult drug dealers.
Tadd was arrested at age 18. He was the only one who exercised his right to a trial. He was the youngest and least culpable of 12 co-defendants all of whom were 5-15 years his senior. Tadd was sentenced to die in prison for 45 days of adult criminal activity. In 1997, the law required a mandatory life sentence and the judge had no discretion. All of the other co-defendants, including the two ring leaders and most culpable, received 25 years or less in prison. Tadd is now the only co-defendant who remains in prison.
Tadd Vassell’s mandatory life sentence is fundamentally unfair and if he were sentenced today for the same crime, he would likely receive a sentence of 135-168 months (11.25-14 years). A non-violent adolescent should not be permanently banished from our society for a first-time drug offense. In a historic ruling, the Supreme Court declared in Graham v. Florida: “The Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.” Less than one month after the Supreme Court’s Graham decision, on August 3, 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which was designed to reduce harsh federal drug sentences. In spite of the Supreme Court’s Graham decision and the Fair Sentencing Act, Tadd Vassell is still serving a life sentence in federal prison. However, with your help, we can urge the Pardon Attorney to allow Tadd a second chance at life.
“I realized I was not a victim. In an effort to right the wrongs I had committed, I had to look within myself and in doing so was like an awakening, not only to knowing better but also to doing better.”
I am a first generation Jamaican American born to a hard working single mom. My mom frequently worked 2-3 jobs doing housekeeping to support my sister and I. With no father to turn to, I looked to the streets of the South Bronx for guidance and direction. I gravitated to older young adults in my neighborhood who were flashy and appeared to be making a lot of money. At the immature and impressionable age of 16, they took me under their wing—5-15 years my senior. I looked up to them and was willing to do anything to impress them. At only 18, I was arrested along with 12 others and ultimately, my relationship with these men, led me to a life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime.
My journey to maturity has lead me to great reflection which has formed a foundation for remorse, renewal and rehabilitation—transformation. And yet, it will forever be ingrained in my mind that on May 16, 1997 I was given the second most severe penalty permitted by law; a sentence which is usually reserved for the most habitual adult offenders; a sentence which will give me no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society and more importantly, no hope for the future.
Although being young and highly impressionable are by no means an excuse, it does count for me being easily influenced. And if 18 is the point where society draws the line between childhood and adulthood, then the penological theory to justify life without parole for a juvenile, non-homicide offender ought to be brought into question.
In spite of it all, I have taken my adversity and turned it into ambition. And it is within my faith that I pray for my second chance, for, America is a country of second chances.
Tadd entered Leavenworth in 1997 angry. He was bitter and hard. Several phone calls with his mom, however, changed him. Her pain awoke in him the realization that the crimes he had committed were not “victimless,” nor was his behavior in prison. As his prison counselor said, “Your Mom makes it hard for me to be professional,” referring to how her despair was so moving to him. The magnitude of what he had done was overwhelming.
His change in heart and behavior took place almost overnight. He began to apply all his energy and skills to be productive in prison. In Leavenworth, he concentrated on getting his GED, which he achieved in 2001, enrolled in typing and parenting classes, and read extensively. In USP Lee, and then in USP Hazelton, he continued his education through parenting, finance, conflict resolution, and business management classes, took jobs, got subscriptions to the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal. He strengthened his relationship with his family, in particular with his son, Dwayne, and daughter, Nyasia, using all his wages to call and send letters to family and friends. He actively avoided trouble and troublemakers. To date, Tadd has completed over 57 courses, and spent 1,094 hours in the classroom.
At USP Hazelton in 2012, Tadd was selected, because of his “standing within the [prison] population” and his character as a “leader,” to participate in the Inside Out Program, an unprecedented educational opportunity for prisoners in a high-security prison. Inside Out is a class comprised of college students and inmates and led by the sociology department of the University of West Virginia at Hazelton Penitentiary. Together the “Inside” and “Outside” students learned about crime and justice, and developed initiatives for reentry training for inmates at Hazelton. Tadd’s family attended the celebration ceremony, where the warden told his beaming mother, “Your son is a good man.” He’s a far cry from the man he was when he entered prison. Today, Tadd is now the “inside” co-facilitator with Professors Jeri Kirby of Fairmount University and Lori Pompa of Temple University.
Now in his twenty-first year in prison, Tadd continues to participate in the Inside Out program as the co-facilitator of the program. His efforts led to the creation of the Bounce Back unit, a housing unit dedicated to assisting inmates preparing for reentry to develop the necessary life skills for success upon release from prison.
In 2018, he single-handedly created an electrician apprenticeship program, purchasing the test materials and study guides with his own funds. Inmates just sat for the first state exam certification. Formally and informally, he mentors other prisoners, promoting non-violence, helping them navigate life in prison and tutoring 1:1. He is regularly called upon by inmates and staff to mediate situations of conflict within the prison. He conducts courses on life skills in classrooms that Hazelton Penitentiary has reopened for his use after years of being closed due to violence in the institution.