Nearly two years ago this summer, in a heartfelt letter sent from a medium-security prison, Weldon Angelos said that if Koch Industries worked to release him, the company would never forget it.
“Either through clemency or legislation, you will never regret helping me,” Angelos wrote in the August 31, 2015, letter. “I will work hard every day to be successful and to be the best example for my family, my supporters, and society. I will be a productive person.”
Angelos, with Koch’s help, was released from prison exactly nine months after he penned his note to Mark Holden, Koch’s senior vice president and top lawyer. He served more than a decade of a 55-year sentence for possession of a firearm while selling marijuana to an undercover informant.
Weldon’s case, as a first-time nonviolent offender, is like many others in prison “who get these ridiculous sentences as first-time nonviolent offenders just because they had a gun,” Holden said.
“I’m not suggesting that people should commit federal crimes with guns, by the way. But if the one time no one’s harmed, no one’s hurt, no one’s shot, it wasn’t even brandished, you end up getting 50 years in prison for selling marijuana—55 years—it’s crazy,” Holden said.
Now, a year after his release, Angelos, a once-budding hip-hop producer, has hewed to the straight and narrow, but he is still fighting to reintegrate into a society that doesn’t make anything easy for people with a criminal record. Along with Holden, who he still talks to on a weekly basis, Angelos is now pushing to reform the criminal justice system.
“After the high of my release wore off, after a couple months went by, after all the traveling slowed down a little bit, I was just like, man, this is actually as tough as they say it is,” said Angelos in a recent interview. “I just thought opportunities would be coming at me from everywhere, as far as either in the entertainment industry or other places. I didn’t think it would be this tough to get established and to get stable.”
It wasn’t for lack of big plans. Angelos is filming a documentary about his experiences, planning to write a book and thinking about dusting off some previously unreleased tracks from the old days, including ones from Snoop Dogg and the late Tupac Shakur. He has reunited with his sons, who were children when he went away and are now adults, and is engaged to be married to a woman he dated before his arrest. But more often than not, he has struggled to find his footing on the outside, finding his criminal record a virtually insurmountable barrier to getting his life back on track.
While he has applied to numerous jobs, Angelos always hits a dead end on the online applications when they ask for his criminal history. He has found sporadic work as an electrician for a friend of his sister Lisa’s husband.
“I’ll work three days one week, one day the next week, then five days one week and then I’ll take two weeks off, so it’s kind of been tough,” he said.
At 37, Angelos finds that his body sometimes feels closer to someone who is 50 – further limiting his options.
“Sleeping on a concrete bed for 13 years and just, you know, not having access to quality medical has just been horrible,” Angelos said. “Some of the stuff I’ve tried doing— I had a part-time job doing home remodeling—some of that stuff was just brutal on me.”
Angelos has lived with his older sister Lisa at her home outside Salt Lake City since his release, finding that his criminal record is also a major obstacle to finding an apartment.
“If you want to live in a decent area, away from the city or crime, you can’t get there (with a criminal background),” Angelos said, adding that most full-time jobs he could get with his record wouldn’t pay enough to cover the bills. “It’s kind of got me in a messed-up situation.”
Those struggles have also been hard for his sister Lisa, who played an instrumental role in pushing for his release and helping to rebuild his life out of prison.
“I wish there was a manual for the family and for him when you get out, because you don’t realize how tough it is,” said Angelos, adding that while her brother is an adult, at times she felt like she had another child, in addition to her 5-year-old son.
In prison, Weldon Angelos lost his independence, and now out, making his own meals feels odd. He also hasn’t been exposed to the technology that modern life depends on – from iPhones, to push-button microwaves, to digital laundry machines.
Lisa takes no moment with Weldon in her house for granted. “Just the fact that we could yell down the stairs, ‘Weldon, dinner is ready,’ was an amazing feeling and took a while to believe it was real,” she said.
Weldon, his sister, Lisa, and her son, Nico, enjoy a summer evening together.
Seeing Weldon play with her son Nico, Lisa recalled, “warmed my heart.”
Thanks to the love and support of Weldon's fiancé, Jillyn, managing the stress that comes with adjusting to life on the outside has been all the more easier. Photo provided by Weldon Angelos.
Being able to walk wherever and whenever he wanted was another element of his freedom that his sister recalled, at times, felt like too much. After taking long walks with the announced justification of “because I can,” Angelos said her brother would often retreat to his room for a spell, just “because it was overwhelming to be able to do what you wanted.”
“It took a lot of time just to get adjusted to being able to go wherever he wanted and do what he wanted. It was hard to just have freedom, even,” Lisa Angelos said.
Angelos’ experience is not unique from others in that respect, according to Carrie Pettus-Davis, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis’ Brown School of Social Work, and the director of the Institute for Advancing Justice Research and Innovation. Another former inmate, Pettus-Davis recalled, likened reentry to being asked to assemble a complex 250-piece puzzle without an image of the final product.
People coming out of the system, Pettus-Davis said, “have been told that they are not welcomed by society, that they are not welcomed in society, that they are nothing more than an offender and that they will always be an offender.” When they try to present themselves as something other than an offender, she said, those on the outside can perceive dishonesty.
“People really struggle and are very rarely provided any tools to cope with stress, depression, having been traumatized just by the incarceration experience,” said Pettus-Davis.
On paper, Angelos concedes that his record doesn’t look great to potential employers. He has applied to multiple jobs over the last year, including some where friends have tried to help him secure employment. But, he said with a sigh, “they’re like, ‘well, your criminal history, bro, is not gonna help you here.’”
Holden says he keeps in touch with Weldon or his sister Lisa at least once a week, whether via text, email or phone call. Some of the communication focuses on Angelos’ documentary project, but it often is a chance for Holden to give Angelos a pep talk.
“It’s more trying to make sure that he understands that it’s important to get a job, find real employment,” said Holden, who has offered to serve as a reference for Angelos.
Challenges aside, there are still high expectations for Angelos a year after his release. Koch Industries’ chairman and CEO, Charles Koch, has emphasized the opportunity Angelos has to show society that people can benefit from second chances and that he could represent a “force for good.” Holden has often discussed with Angelos that despite Koch Industries’ support, the tide is against him, which is why the company is fighting for broader reform.
“There’s a lot of sick mother-you-know-whatters out there who want to see you fail, who don’t want to let people out of prison, who think it’s OK for people who sell pot to go to prison for 55 years. And they’re rooting against you, and it’s not fair, and it’s not right, and you’ve got all that on your shoulders. That’s a lot to bear,” Holden remembered telling him. “So, let us help, but you gotta realize that that’s out there as well.”
Weldon Angelos also has other people in his corner, including the judge that delivered his sentence. Mandatory minimum sentencing required U.S. District Judge Paul G. Cassell to sentence Angelos to 55 years after an informant testified that he saw a gun in Angelos’ car during the first marijuana transaction. While the federal statute at issue was intended to provide for three separate mandatory minimums based on separate instances of criminal activity over time, courts allowed all three federal mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in the same case. Accordingly, each subsequent gun conviction carries a sentence of 25 years, which must be served consecutively. And so, with two more gun charges related to the sale of marijuana to the same informant within the same short period of time, Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in 2004. Had he served his full sentence, Angelos would have been 80 upon release.
Cassell, in delivering the sentence, called it “unjust, cruel, and even irrational,” saying it was longer than the sentences given to a second-degree murderer with three victims and a rapist who assaulted three 10-year olds. Cassell petitioned then-President Bush for clemency after he imposed the sentence. When he retired in 2007, he wrote President Barack Obama for clemency, but Weldon was not one of the 1,715 sentences Obama commuted during his two terms.
Thanks to the persistence of his sister Lisa, Holden, and others in advocating for his release, Angelos finally received his second chance. He is now focused on advocating for others who find themselves in a similar place to where he was when he sat down to write his first note to Holden. Through those efforts, Angelos has met the likes of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and home-state senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee. Angelos counts Lee among his Facebook friends and contacts.
“It’s pretty cool that someone like that doesn’t look down upon me because I was in prison,” he said.
Neither does Holden, nor his boss, Charles Koch, who has warned of the unintended dangers of mandatory minimum sentencing.
In addition to the fact that there is no data that shows mandatory minimums reduce crime, given the draconian outcomes that are created by some of these laws, Holden wonders if we are only encouraging violent activity if someone fears a long sentence over a nonviolent act like selling marijuana.
“It makes us less safe, it doesn’t enhance public safety. So, that’s why we need these other reforms as well… to get this whole system fixed.” Koch, Holden said, “just doesn’t think that people who use drugs, [who] don’t hurt anybody and [are] not violent, they shouldn’t have their lives ruined.”
Photography by Chad Kirkland