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01.26.09

First Day Out of Prison

After seven years in captivity, musician John Forte walked free last month when George W. Bush commuted his 14-year sentence. In a Daily Beast exclusive, Forte writes about greeting his mom, playing music with his old friends, and the new taste of freedom.

PLUS: Listen to an exclusive new song by Forte.

Morning One, December 22, 2008

The dorm was dark and quiet except for the intermittent buzzing of a faint snore or more. I lay there in my bunk; half awake, I tried to settle my thoughts regarding the unknown. I drifted off.

Tap! Tap! Tap!

Startled from my semi-sleep, I opened my eyes to see Tee, my friend and big brother of sorts, sitting in the chair next to my bed. He asked me if I knew what time it was. I recalled the sounds of keys and footsteps a little while before that and assumed it was the last count of the early morning.

Exclusive: John Forte's New Video, Life Has Just Begun

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“It’s 5 a.m.,” I said.

“Nope. It’s 5:30,” he corrected me.

“What’s the difference?” I muttered, knowing that I couldn’t leave the premises for at least another two hours.

“My alarm is set for 6:30,” I told him.

“I don’t care about that,” he said. “You have to get up now.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ve been counted for the last time. And you have what the rest of us want—the chance to get outta here. So you can’t just lie there, waiting for your alarm to go off. It’s disrespectful. Get up and get ready to go.”

Tee was right, dead right.

In 2001, I was convicted of “possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute.” Shortly thereafter, I was sentenced to 168 months (14 years) in a federal prison. Following a string of unsuccessful appeals, my sentence was finally commuted by President George W. Bush. On December 22, 2008, after serving seven years and four months, I was released from captivity and walked free from the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix, New Jersey. A part of my spirit has relived the morning of my release—Morning One—ever since.

Tee walked away and I got out of bed. I showered and washed my hair…

Each dorm had a bathroom with eight showers—vinyl-curtained, stainless-steel stalls. Washing and conditioning the hair that had grown below my waist added an extra 30 minutes to an already lengthy process, but I had become dependent on those hour-long showers. There was a therapy in the solitude, solutions to problems in the water, the only private time that truly existed in that place. Well, that and sleep.

My property locker was bare, nothing more than a toothbrush, deodorant, and lip balm. I dressed into a pair of shorts I wore primarily for exercising and an equally threadbare sweatshirt. Finally, I slipped on a pair of blue “bus shoes”—the types of soleless and flimsy shoes that were issued to new inmates on the first day of their arrival, a signpost to everyone watching (and everyone was always watching) that new blood, for better or worse, was in the building.

I stripped my mattress of its none-too-soft linen, so that whoever came after me would have the courtesy of a fresh start. I deposited the sheets, pillowcase, and blankets into the laundry room and returned to my bunk’s side. With no additional tasks, I sat down and stared into my open, empty locker. My heart pounded with equal parts excitement and fear.

There were two dorms in the prison, a little more than 200 men on each side—wall-to-wall bunk beds for as far as the eye could see. At 6:30 every morning, the officer on duty turned on the overhead lights. The morning I said goodbye was no different. When the noisy fluorescents lit up the room, I was still sitting next to my bunk, hyperconscious of my being—wanting to appear neither too nervous nor too cool. That morning I simply wanted to be until I could become, as so many others had before me, a memory.

One by one, my old friends stopped by the bunk to wish me well and send me on my way. We hugged and exchanged quick anecdotes. The emotion was familiar to me, having said goodbye to hundreds of guys over the years. That morning, however, it was my turn to be the one walking out the door, all the while knowing that as happy as so many were for me they also wanted to be in my shoes—those flimsy blue bus shoes.

One by one, my old friends stopped by the bunk to wish me well and send me on my way. The emotion was familiar to me, having said goodbye to hundreds of guys over the years.

Exit Stage Left.

On the coldest day of winter, I left the building in which I lived for four-and-a-half years, and walked a couple of hundred yards to R&D—receiving and delivering, in order to be officially discharged. I shivered in the tiny waiting area, as I waited for the officers to deliver the box of clothes my family mailed to the prison more than two weeks prior to that morning. Had the adrenaline not flowed throughout my body in such a torrent, I might have felt the effects of the heatless room even more.

A little more than an hour and a half elapsed before my package of clothes was brought over by a couple of corrections officers. They were kind, made a couple of jokes at which I did not laugh; my nerves were still frazzled. I brought the bag of clothes into an adjacent bathroom and breathed a sigh of relief upon realizing that they did, indeed, fit me. The two officers who delivered my clothes were also the officers who escorted me to the SUV that awaited me in the parking lot.

“Good luck,” they said, almost in unison.

Did they practice that? I wondered.

“Thanks.”

My manager jumped out of the vehicle and gave me an enormous bear hug.

“We were worried,” she said, teary-eyed, motioning for me to enter the truck. “We’ve been here for more than two hours. Waiting.”

“Ah,” I reminded her, “’tis the nature of a bureaucracy. Everything is a process.”

The driver pulled out of the parking lot and we all sat in silence. I wanted to believe that I was really leaving, that it was not a dream, or some cruel (un)practical joke. There was no need to express that sentiment. Everyone in the slow-moving vehicle felt something similar. The morning air contributed to the mood, which complemented the RPMs of the motor and the sound of heat pushing through the vents. VRRRRRM followed by SHHHHHH and again unto VRRRRRRRM.

It was not until we reached the highway that my manager handed me a bag of treats.

“The contents,” she instructed, “vary from what you might need to what you might want.” Gadgets!

I left the “free world” prior to BlackBerry addiction and iPod accessorizing. I learned how to use that multifunctional phone in the car ride, dialing a half-dozen people who fought tirelessly in my defense over the years. The calls were all similar in words, yet unique with each connection.

I am in the car…Thank you…I’m coming home…

After a prolonged absence, there were many elements that required some getting used to. My loved ones finally had the option to call me as they wished; and we could speak for more than 15—uninterrupted and unmonitored—minutes if the spirit moved us to do so. I had forgotten how quickly life moved on the other side of captivity. The speed of traffic (i.e. cruising at the speed limit) almost made me throw up.

The first stop I made that morning was to see my mother. Before I could ring the doorbell, the door opened from the inside. She, quite obviously, expected me. We hugged for longer than usual.

“Come on in, out of the cold,” she said.

The place looked and felt smaller than I remembered. Granted, I thought I remembered it fairly well, having spent a year there under house arrest (between my arrest and my trial). The smallness of her home notwithstanding, it never felt encroaching. Rather, it was warm and safe—like a velvet-wallpapered tree house in autumn. The smells were familiar. They always are. And every room was immaculate, even the tiny bedroom where I slept. She managed to find enough room to store the many boxes of books, letters, and papers I mailed home from prison over the years; and she did it tastefully, contributing to the genuinely pleasant aesthetics of her surroundings. We sat and talked for a while.

The clock moved, and I with it. One of the conditions of my commuted sentence left the terms of my supervised release intact. I had 72 hours to report to the Federal Bureau of Probation in my designated district. But it was December 22—72 hours would have been Christmas Day. The last thing I wanted was to fail on a technicality. I hugged my mother goodbye and made my way into New York, in order to meet my probation officer.

The building was downtown and unassuming, not at all what I had envisioned. The most unnerving part of the visit was the palpable force of ascending quickly in an elevator, a sensation I had almost forgotten. My probation officer seemed decent, respectful, and fair. Admittedly, I anticipated a continuation of the attitudes and dispositions I experienced from more than one employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons when I had a federal identification number glued to my green clothing. The officer read me the terms of my supervised release and asked if I had any questions. When I said I did not, he grabbed some latex gloves, a small plastic cup, and stood up.

“Can you go?” he asked.

“On command,” I replied. Giving urine samples became second nature over the years. It was never personal, just protocol. We walked to an empty bathroom, one of many, that lined the office halls. I whizzed into the cup, washed my hands, waited for my green light, and wished the officer a good afternoon.

Following a quick lunch at a familiar restaurant, we made the final stop of the day, at the recording studio. The facility belonged to my dear friend, JK. We co-produced “I, John,” the album I recorded during the year I was under house arrest—I had a curfew, but the judge allowed me to travel into the city for work. The studio was impressive and intimidating. The technology had clearly changed during the time I was away. The computers were sleeker, the machines were less noisy, the lights were more blinding. There was one thing that did not change about recording facilities in my absence—the power of the live instrument. I asked JK if it was cool for me to play one his acoustic guitars. ( There are many guitars and they’re all breathtakingly beautiful.)

“This is your home now,” he said. “Play.”

I cautiously picked up the instrument, strummed a few chords, closed my eyes, and sang. I sang one song, then one more, and another. When I finished I opened my eyes and saw that more people had entered the room. They applauded. They cried. I was home.

John Forte is a Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and producer from Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, Forte is a classically trained violinist who is known for his work with the multi-platinum group, The Fugees. Forte was granted a commutation by President George W. Bush on November 24, 2008 after having served more than seven years of a 14-year federal prison sentence for a first time, non-violent drug offense.