MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Rudolph Norris walked out of Morgantown federal prison two weeks ago carrying a duffel bag like no other. First, he had spent six months hand-stitching it himself from dozens of mottled leather scraps, symbolizing the shards of his life he longed to piece back together. Then he unzipped it and pulled out his invitation to try.
“Dear Rudolph,” the letter began, “I wanted to personally inform you that I have granted your application for commutation.”
It was signed “Barack Obama.”
Mr. Norris’s 22 years behind bars over with the stroke of the president’s pen, he showed off the letter to his receiving crowd of siblings, in-laws and, mostly, his all-grown-up daughter, Rajean, who had wondered if she would ever again see her father out of an orange jumpsuit. (“That’s my daddy!” she said as he came into view, sounding like the 8-year-old she had been back when he was sentenced.) Mr. Norris hugged and cried and fist-bumped.
Then the former inmate, a newly minted symbol of second chances, rode the family’s rental van from West Virginia back to Maryland.
Mr. Norris, 58, was one of 22 federal prisoners released on July 28 through a continuing bipartisan push to shorten the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who, during the war-on-drugs fervor of decades ago, received punishments far lengthier than they would have drawn today. The mass incarceration of those days crowded prisons at great expense, and was found to have disproportionately penalized minority crack-cocaine offenders like Mr. Norris, who was convicted of possessing and selling the substance in 1992 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The commutations, announced on March 31, preserve the conviction but end the sentence.
One commutation went to a 65-year-old Kentucky man who had drawn a life sentence for running a massive marijuana farm; six others were freed from life sentences for cocaine-related offenses. President Obama announced another round of 46 commutations on July 13 — prisoners must wait three months for their actual release — and is considering more.
Mr. Norris’s winding, six-prison path to freedom followed early resentment over his long sentence, fatalistic acclimation to a middle age lived behind bars, and then 10 years in which he spent dozens of hours a week in prison libraries learning federal drug law and pursuing legal avenues to release.
His efforts foundered before Mr. Obama’s clemency initiative saw his case routed to a George Washington University Law School clinic and a student who received it as a class assignment. Their serendipitous work together, culminating in Mr. Norris’s release, led prisoners and wardens alike to call him the Miracle of Morgantown.
During his first days of freedom, Mr. Norris delighted in slurping his first chocolate shake and fixing his granddaughter’s Barbie playhouse. He goggled at technology he had never used, from the Internet to hands-free bathroom sinks.
But he also recognized the challenges that so many recently released prisoners face: finding work despite his criminal record; getting his own home rather than crashing in his brother’s basement indefinitely; and generally convincing a skeptical society that he is a changed man.
Not everyone will fly the yellow happy-face balloons that greeted him at his big sister’s welcome-home party the afternoon he arrived.
“He’s going to be fighting for his life,” said Courtney Stewart, the founder of the Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, a volunteer organization based in Washington that helps recently released prisoners pursue employment, housing and mental health services. “It’s going to be hard as hell, but he has to be willing to do whatever it takes. It’s not going to be up to him what that is. He won’t decide how long he’s going to have to do it. He’ll have to have some faith.”
Mr. Norris immediately called his parole officer to learn his responsibilities and pledge to follow them. (His clemency does not vacate the eight years of probation to which he was originally sentenced.) He applied for food stamps and, because all he had was his Morgantown inmate card, pursued a more marketable driver’s license.
His commitment to playing by the rules was so strong that he avoided a day-labor landscaping opportunity because it paid in cash, and he wanted to pay taxes like everyone else.
“As I navigate my way back to society and begin a productive life,” he wrote to Mr. Obama in April, “one of the first and foremost thoughts on my mind will be my solemn commitment to prove to you that your faith in me was not at all misplaced.”
Mr. Norris fit the requirements of the Obama administration’s clemency program almost perfectly: He had demonstrated model behavior while serving at least 10 years for a relatively low-level, nonviolent drug crime. The court’s 1993 presentencing report stated flatly, “There was no victim in this offense.” Still, sentencing standards of the time called for 30 years in prison.
Not that Mr. Norris’s record had been exemplary before that. A lifelong resident of hardscrabble northern Washington, D.C., he had been convicted of seven crimes since he was a teenager, from possession of marijuana to check forgery to robbery; none involved violence or a weapon. He was in and out of prison until the mid-1980s, when he held legitimate jobs — painting and rustproofing cars, delivering water bed mattresses — but also made $7,000 a month dealing crack cocaine, a drug so pervasive that even Washington’s mayor, Marion S. Barry Jr., was caught smoking it.
In 1992, police officers targeting Mr. Norris found 291 small bags of crack totaling 29 grams in his Chrysler LeBaron convertible.
“I wasn’t addicted to the drugs,” Mr. Norris said during his van ride back to Maryland, adding that he has not used any illegal substance or alcohol since 1983. “I was addicted to the lifestyle.”
Having had discipline issues during several earlier incarcerations — including a fight in which he stabbed an inmate with half a pair of scissors — Mr. Norris, now in his mid-30s, committed himself to clean time and the development of work skills. He took a 4,000-hour course as an electronics inspector, worked jobs like making furniture and packaging recyclables, and had only three minor disciplinary violations in 22 years, according to prison records. His behavior earned him a 2012 transfer to the minimum-security prison in Morgantown.
Ribbed by younger inmates there as “Old Gangsta,” Mr. Norris spent several hours a day in the law library, poring over the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and case law that might suggest some way to shorten his sentence. (He said he received tutoring from a fellow inmate, Matthew Kluger, a corporate lawyer serving 12 years for insider trading.)
In April 2014, when the Obama administration announced its clemency initiative, he sensed an opportunity.
But federal public defenders were not allowed to handle clemency applications, so the lawyers who had represented Mr. Norris forwarded his case to George Washington University Law School’s Neighborhood Law and Policy Clinic, which allows 10 students per semester to assist inmates for class credit. A third-year student, Courtney Francik, got the assignment last fall.
Ms. Francik, a 27-year-old Harvard graduate from the Baltimore suburb of Cockeysville, had heard from friends who had gone to law school that their most valuable experience came from handling real cases in a clinic, she said in a recent telephone interview. She signed up and soon found herself engrossed, taking the unusual step of staying on for the spring semester as well.
“I almost moved into the clinic building for Mr. Norris’s case,” Ms. Francik said. “I couldn’t wait to get to the clinic building in the morning and start working.”
Working closely with two lawyers at the clinic, Ms. Francik prepared 182 pages of legal and personal material to support Mr. Norris’s clemency application. Her enthusiasm and confidence during their one face-to-face meeting at Morgantown, in November, along with phone calls and numerous letters, so encouraged Mr. Norris that he began sewing the leather bag he hoped to carry out of prison.
His application was submitted in mid-February, joining thousands of others from inmates nationwide. They were evaluated by Department of Justice attorneys, who then recommended top candidates for White House officials to cull. Mr. Obama reviewed information on each finalist, a White House spokesman said, before using his constitutional authority to commute their sentences.
In the early afternoon of March 31, a White House lawyer called the clinic to say that Mr. Norris had become one of 22 people who would be getting letters of congratulations from Mr. Obama. Ms. Francik received a text and bolted from her class — Professional Responsibility — to join the phone call alerting Mr. Norris, who naturally was in Morgantown’s law library. He burst into tears.
“I’m not going to die in prison,” he recalled saying as he cried once more. “I’m on my way home.”
Mr. Norris spent the three-month wait for his release making sure he did nothing to jeopardize his good fortune. (Although most inmates were happy for him, a few resented his special treatment and tried to provoke altercations, he said.) On the morning he left for good, he told a crowd of hundreds of inmates seeing him off: “I’m not better than you. I just had to grow up.”
Walking toward his family in the parking lot, Mr. Norris wore heavy gray sweatpants and heavier gray whiskers, some pounds having migrated from his barrel chest to his belly, but still with the muscular shoulders of his distant youth. (His brother-in-law remarked, “Man, he looks good.”) Mr. Norris’s younger son, Raymond, who could not travel to the reunion from New Mexico, received Mr. Norris’s first phone call and a promise: “It’ll be my last game of basketball — I’m going to show you what Daddy’s got left and then retire.”
The five-hour ride home, during which he took 34 calls on six different family cellphones, included crucial stops for a Wendy’s chocolate Frosty and some outlet-mall sneakers. Having never used a cellphone, he officially entered the 21st century when spotty reception on Interstate 68 caused him to plead, “Can you hear me now?”
Family members fought over who would buy him a wallet, a watch and a jersey of his beloved Washington Redskins.
“Don’t buy anything for me — wait till I work, I’ll buy it for myself,” Mr. Norris pleaded. “I don’t want to be no burden. I been y’all’s burden for 25 years.”
At the welcome-back barbecue among two dozen family members in his older sister’s backyard, Mr. Norris destroyed a crate of hard-shelled crabs brought just for him. He met his daughter’s three children, including 2-year-old Zuri, whom he hoisted on his shoulder and told: “Can I have some sugar? I’ve been waiting to see you. This is all your family. It’s my family, too.”
Mr. Norris’s younger brother, Bruce, brought him back to his house in Upper Marlboro, Md., where a new, full-size mattress and several sets of clothes awaited in the made-up basement room he will use until he gets on his feet. The next morning, he showed that his playful side had survived prison; he phoned Bruce and said frantically, “I messed up the alarm and the police have me in cuffs outside the house!” only to bellow in laughter afterward.
Mr. Norris then met his probation officer to learn the terms of his supervised release: He may not leave the District of Columbia, Maryland or Virginia for 60 days, must check in with her regularly, and is subject to drug testing. A violation could bring its own punishment, which could include jail, but would not affect his commutation.
A growing number of state and federal officials from both parties are supporting measures to decrease the prison population by lightening punishments for some drug-related offenders, who according to federal data make up roughly half of the 1.5 million federal and state prisoners. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 eliminated the five-year minimum sentence for first-time possession of crack, and decreased higher mandatory punishments for dealing crack with a prior criminal record.
The day after visiting the probation office, Mr. Norris met with a social services agent who briefed him on more than a dozen state assistance programs, including ones that offer free interview clothes and health exams at the Wellmobile, a clinic on wheels that drives around Maryland. Applying for food stamps meant his first attempt at a technology forbidden in prison: the Internet. “I feel like a 5-year-old trying to learn this stuff,” he said, poking hesitantly at a keyboard.
As for the critical job hunt, the social services representative told Mr. Norris that he has more skills than many people in his position. Besides his experience painting cars and delivering packages, she said, his electronics-inspection classes and exemplary work record in prison would encourage potential employers willing to look past his incarceration.
The question is how many of those there will be. Mr. Stewart, of the association that assists former prisoners, said that initial job searches typically last between nine months and two years and tend to lead to work that is custodial, or related to the restaurant or lodging industries. One of Mr. Norris’s brothers-in-law is a shuttle-bus driver for a local hotel and will try to get him a job there, while another is looking into some gardening work.
“I’ll take the lowest honest job out there — I just want to get started,” Mr. Norris said. “Society doesn’t owe me anything. I owe society for dealing drugs.”
A few nights after his release, Mr. Norris phoned the person he credits most for his coming home: Ms. Francik, the law student with whom he had not spoken since she delivered the news of his clemency three months ago. She graduated in May and just started work as a public defender in Shelby County, Tenn.
“Miss Courtney, y’all kept telling me I was a primary person the clemency was about,” Mr. Norris told her. “I kept hearing how confident y’all were. That’s what made me make it. Y’all were the vessels to get me home.”
“It was an honor, Mr. Norris — it really was,” she replied. “I believe in you.”
“I’m trying to get gainfully employed in a hurry,” he said, “so I can be able to provide and get my own place. I have the freedom to do what I want to do as long as I do it right.”
The two spoke for an hour. As the conversation wound down, Ms. Francik told him, “I’m going to be back in a few weeks and the whole clinic team wants to take you out to dinner. Wherever you want.”
“I’ll be dressed, pressed and at my best,” he said.
Then he paused for drama, as if his story lacked any.
“But one thing,” he said.
“I’ll have a job by then,” he vowed. “And I’m paying for you.”