Sitting in an empty visitor's room in a federal prison in Illinois, Charles "Duke" Tanner admitted he broke the law, calling it the worst mistake of his life.
This time last year, Tanner was being held in a maximum federal facility serving a life sentence after he was convicted in 2006 of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine, and attempt to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine.
"My heart was good, but I made mistakes," he said. "When I thought I was helping, I was hurting them. I wanted to pull everyone up, and I ended up getting pulled to the bottom."
About six months ago, Tanner's sentence of life imprisonment was reduced to 30 years because of changes made in 2014 to the federal sentencing guidelines. The amendment approved by the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced by two offense levels the quantity of most drugs.
Tanner was one of 218 people in Northwest Indiana who petitioned federal judges for a reduced prison sentence based on the change. According to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 182 petitions were granted, 36 denied.
Even with the reduction, Tanner, 36, still has about 14 years left to spend behind bars. His expected release date is Oct. 20, 2030.
His incarceration is in contrast to how he and others once envisioned his life when he was growing up in Gary. People believed in his future as a boxer so much they paid for him to attend Andrean High School, a private school in Merrillville. At age 24, his professional boxing record was 19-0. He was poised for a title fight before his arrest Sept. 1, 2004.
By 2009 when he was sentenced in the case, he thought he would die behind bars.
"That's a hard feeling, waking up knowing you're going to die in there," he said. "I was 24. I plan on living to 90 years old."
'I broke the law'
The government alleged that Tanner was the leader of the Gary-based Renegades street gang responsible for distributing drugs to Northwest Indiana, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Louisville. The gang bought crack and powder cocaine from a Mexican cartel.
Tanner was arrested in 2004 after Erbey Solis Jr., who had been arrested the day before, arranged to meet him in the parking lot of a Walgreens in Gary. Through phone conversations, Solis agreed to front Tanner 15 kilograms of cocaine that was estimated to cost about $18,000, according to court records.
Solis already was working with federal agents when he hammered out the details of the deal with Tanner.
In court records, Tanner was alleged to have told Solis he would have the money for him within hours. Solis told federal agents that he had sold large quantities of drugs to Tanner in the past.
U.S. District Judge Rudy Lozano stated during the sentencing hearing that he believed the trial evidence, including the quantity of drugs, showed Tanner was a drug dealer even if he hadn't been arrested before.
"The things you did and how you handled it — and I submit, Mr. Tanner, people don't give kilos of cocaine to somebody else to distribute unless, one, there's a high degree of trust, and two, they're able to do it," Lozano said. "They're able to distribute it."
Sitting in the visitor's room at Federal Correction Institution Greenville in southern Illinois earlier this year, Tanner carries with him a stack of documents and news stories he has annotated.
He cites the documents as he explains his story and his continued efforts to be released from prison. He balls his hands into fists and shakes his head as he recalls the details of what happened.
"Did I deserve to go to prison?" he said, wearing a khaki uniform. "Yes, I broke the law."
During his 2009 sentencing hearing, however, Tanner told the court he was innocent and said witnesses in the case lied to get a better deal from prosecutors.
Now he says the name "Renegades" existed, but he maintained it didn't mean what the government alleged it did during court proceedings.
Tanner envisioned the Renegades as something positive. He thought the group would create leaders who went against the culture of gangs. That ideology started to crumble once the group became involved in drugs.
"I had a voice, but I was not the leader," he said.
Around this time, many people believed he had money because of his local popularity surrounding boxing, but Tanner said his financial reality was much different.
He said he wanted to live like the Huxtables, referencing the middle-class African-American family portrayed on "The Cosby Show," but he didn't have the money to keep up the image. He tried to help people around him with money, though he couldn't actually afford to do that.
He clasped his hands together and then wiped his eyes as he recalled how he tried to get enough cash until the next big fight came around that would give him financial stability.
"I took a short cut trying to save everyone, and it cost me my life," he said.
Tanner said he knew the ripple effects drugs create. His father was addicted to crack cocaine until Tanner was in high school. He recalls several people in his neighborhood who either sold drugs or used them.
Reduction brings fresh hope
When Tanner learned about the 2014 changes that eventually led to his sentence reduction, he was being held at a maximum federal prison with other people also serving life sentences. At times, he recalled thinking, it would be easier to be on death row than to have to spend the rest of his life in prison.
When word began to trickle into the prison about the changes, Tanner said the mood changed among his peers.
"It gave us hope," he said as he clenched his fists.
He petitioned the court after spending time at the law library and exchanging notes with other prisoners as he worked to craft his petition, which eventually led to the reduction. It can be a slow process.
Even with access to the prison law library, offenders are limited to what they can look up on the internet, Tanner said. If they are trying to find a specific case or statistic to include, inmates write to someone on the outside who can more easily search for the answers online. Then they await the response.
Tanner said he was praying and felt like God told him to file his own petition to have his sentence reduced.
When Tanner was sentenced in 2009, the probation department calculated his offense level was 44, which is one point above the highest offense level. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission website, in rare cases a total offense level could exceed 43.
The commission advises, however, that any offense level above 43 should be treated as an offense level 43. The guidelines call for an offender to be sentenced to life in prison if the offense level is 43, despite their criminal history.
According to court records, the government argued Tanner's base offense level was 38, because Tanner was responsible for 1.5 kilograms or more of cocaine base. The government based this on testimony from several witnesses who were involved in drug transactions with Tanner.
The government argued for an enhanced offense level, because testimony indicated Tanner possessed at least four different guns during the period he was accused of dealing drugs. The government also argued that witnesses testified Tanner was the leader of the Renegades.
U.S. District Judge Rudy Lozano ruled in January that the amended offense level for Tanner was 42 after taking into account the changes to the sentencing guidelines, according to a court order. The guideline range for that offense level was 30 years to life. The government did not object to the reduction, because of the new guideline range.
Tanner believes his offense level should be 36, which would call for an even shorter prison term, because of his lack of criminal history and his good behavior in prison. According to prison records Tanner submitted to Lozano, Tanner didn't have any disciplinary history as of last year.
His hope for an early release comes in increments of 30 days, when he hears about the status of his petition to President Barack Obama for clemency.
He recalled once thinking he made the list after being called into the office of a prison official. Instead, he was told he was being moved to a lower-security facility. He's now being housed at a federal facility in Lisbon, Ohio.