Living in Exile

Federal prisons are filling up with people whose only crime is the possession of a gun.

• In 54 cases, the sole felony on the record of the defendant was possession of a controlled substance. And the most common scenario in which an Exile defendant has been in possession of a firearm is during a search of his house for illegal drugs (43 cases). In this regard, Project Exile is functioning as a new offensive in the War on Drugs. It has put far more small-time drug dealers and addicts in prison than it has armed robbers or carjackers.

"The message of Project Exile sounds great: 'Combat gun violence.' Who could be against that, right?" says Mark Mauer, spokesman for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates "humane alternatives to incarceration." "But when you have a program of such magnitude that is putting hundreds of people in federal prison for long sentences with no chance of parole...you need to go beyond the message and take a long, hard look at the underlying assumptions. The underlying assumption in this instance is that putting a lot of people in prison for the unsanctioned possession of a firearm equals out to combating gun violence. I'm not convinced that assumption is correct."

James Allison is. And because Allison is the leader of Project Exile's team of federal prosecutors in Colorado, what he thinks matters a great deal to any felon caught with a firearm.

Rudo Thompson, now serving fifteen years in prison, is the Project Exile poster boy.
Rudo Thompson, now serving fifteen years in prison, is the Project Exile poster boy.
Sidney Allen Smith is serving three years for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Sidney Allen Smith is serving three years for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

"I appreciate that a person who has been convicted for murder or for aggravated robbery who is walking around with a gun, the odds are higher they're more dangerous than a person who has a conviction for mail fraud," he says. "But that doesn't mean I want the person who has a conviction for mail fraud walking around with a gun.

"Regardless of where you stand on Second Amendment issues, we all know guns are very dangerous things. They kill people," Allison continues. "And while the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to posses them in this country, which I do not argue with, it clearly creates a situation where people with bad judgment who have a gun are more inclined to hurt and kill people. And from my observation, people who have felony convictions, whether they're forgery, writing bad checks, stealing or doing anything else that's nonviolent, they have bad judgment. And I agree with Congress that if you're going to limit the possession of firearms, let's start with people who've been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have exercised very poor judgment. And that's one class of people that I have no problem saying should not be in possession of a device which can so easily kill other human beings."

But under Project Exile, "possession" has become an elastic term.

In one Exile case, for instance, a man with a Texas burglary on his record was prosecuted in Colorado for possession of a firearm after a Denver Police Department officer saw him helping his girlfriend pick out a gun in a pawnshop. In another case, a woman with two five-year-old felony convictions for theft and possession of a controlled substance was prosecuted for posing naked with several handguns for photographs taken by the professional photographer who owned the guns for use as props. The woman was charged with illegal possession of a firearm after the photographer posted the images to a pay-per-view Internet porn site and her estranged husband saw them and turned her in.

One of the first individuals prosecuted under Project Exile was Cameron Joseph, who will turn 28 later this month inside the Federal Correctional Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Before he became a Project Exile case, Joseph had a single felony on his record, having pleaded guilty in 1997 to attempted distribution of a controlled substance. Joseph served a little over a year in state prison before entering a supervised release program.

On November 6, 1999, Joseph had just come home from his job at a Starbucks in Colorado Springs when he answered a knock on the front door of his girlfriend's apartment, where he was staying. It was Joseph's probation officer, come to pay a surprise visit. During a search of the apartment, the probation officer saw the handle of an unloaded 9mm pistol protruding from a box on a shelf in a spare bedroom. Joseph was arrested on the spot. He later pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a firearm and was sentenced to four years in federal prison. Like any federal prisoner convicted since Congress passed the Federal Sentencing Act in 1987, he has no chance for parole. And once he gets out, he will have a second felony on his record, ensuring that even a misdemeanor charge in the future could land him back in prison.

"It was a very stiff sentence, and I'm still not sure how it served the public interest," says Martha Eskesen, a criminal defense lawyer and former staff attorney for the United States District Court who was appointed to represent Joseph. "I remember that around that time, Tom Strickland was having Project Exile T-shirts and hats made up for all the prosecutors, and I was wondering what baseball caps had to do with reducing gun violence. It seemed like a big PR campaign for Tom Strickland."

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