Jessie Traylor knew what his outcome would be without having to hear it from a judge. In accordance with the three-strike rule for drug offenders, Traylor would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In 2008, Traylor was arrested and brought up on federal charges for the possession and intent to distribute cocaine. He was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010. During his trial in Illinois, he saw his children for the last time, including his son Jamari Traylor, a former Kansas basketball player.
“I was trying to hold back tears when I tried to explain it to my babies,” Traylor said of the last day he saw his kids at the trial. “They were crying so hard. It was a terrible, terrible feeling.”
While his father was in prison, in 143 games Jamari averaged 3.6 points and 3.2 rebounds for the Jayhawks from 2012-16. He is playing professionally for Austria’s Redwell Gunners Oberwart, averaging about 8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
In 2013, Jamari told ESPN,“I was just so sad for him. And I was sad for myself, too, because I wasn’t going to be able to see him anymore.”
Jamari was unavailable for this story.
In May, Jessie Traylor received a phone call with news that could change his life —and give him the opportunity to see his children again.
Cindy Johnson, chief investigator at the Federal Public Defender Office in Topeka, and Carl Folsom, an assistant federal public defender, learned about Traylor and his life sentence.
Earlier this year, President Obama’s administration announced it would seek clemency for hundreds of inmates. Folsom and Johnson knew they could help Traylor.
“I was excited,” Traylor said. “I thought, ‘I might have a chance.’”
During Jamari’s KU graduation weekend in May 2016, Johnson set up a meeting at the basketball offices with Jamari and his mother. There, they learned for the first time that clemency was an option.
“It was an emotional meeting, for us and for them,” Johnson said from his Topeka office.
Folsom and Johnson set to work creating an application to submit through the Clemency Project, an effort under the Obama administration to review all qualifying prisoners for clemency by the end of Obama’s term. Included in Traylor’s application was a letter of support from Bill Self, according to Folsom. Self did not want to comment for this story.
Should he receive clemency, Traylor could receive a shorter sentence or be eligible for immediate release, Johnson said. She said some prisoners have had their sentences reduced to 30-year minimums, while others are released at their 10-year mark.
To date, Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,023 prisoners, including 324 individuals who were serving a life sentence. The White House website reports that 50 percent of all federal inmates are serving sentences for drug charges.
When he first arrived in prison, Traylor said he felt it was the most dangerous place in the world. He said he has gotten used to it, however, it is still a very lonely place.
“You are behind a wall,” he said. “There is no life here. All we do is eat and sleep.”
Eight years have passed without a visit from his children, who live in Illinois and have never had the money to visit. Traylor has moved from Illinois, to Pennsylvania, to Mississippi where he is currently incarcerated at Yazoo City, a federal prison about an hour north of Jackson.
“They send me so far away that nobody can visit me,” Traylor said.
Several years ago he called Jamari, who was only 12 years old when his father went to prison. Jamari told him KU basketball coach Bill Self was in sitting on the living room couch.
“I said get out of here,” Traylor said. “I said tell ’Mari he is going to KU.”
Since Jamari’s basketball career at Kansas began in 2011, Traylor said he watched every game on TV. He said he felt as though he were living vicariously through his son as he watched him play.
If he receives clemency, Traylor said he would spend more time with his three other children, Jamani, Ronzel, and Latisha, and a grandson named Lucas, who he hopes will play basketball for Kansas someday.
Traylor’s application was submitted through The Clemency Project and he is currently waiting to hear a decision on his case.
The Clemency Project is comprised of a team of lawyers and advocates offering their services to inmates, pro-bono. Inmates qualify for clemency if they “likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today,” according to its website.
“In the late 90s and early 2000s, we had a war on drugs. Sentences kept increasing and drugs were treated differently when it came to sentencing,” said Alice Craig, an attorney in the KU School of Law. “Now, drugs are treated more equally. And there has been a large shift towards rehabilitation for these individuals that were maybe at the bottom of the drug trade, to get them out earlier.”
Traylor survives the solitary environment that has become his normal life on the hope that he might one day receive clemency.
“I can’t set myself up for disappointment,” Traylor said. “I would be grateful and happy to have a second chance. But if it doesn’t happen, I have to try and stay focused. Try not to get into trouble.”
In Yazoo City Prison, Traylor is employed as a cook and is paid $5 per month for his work. He said he enjoys cooking because it gives him a chance to create something. When he does find a free moment from his job in the kitchen, he enjoys playing basketball with other inmates. Although he can no longer dunk, he said he’s still a player.
“No one here can guard me,” Traylor joked.