By Rio Lacanlale Las Vegas Review-Journal November 8, 2020 – 11:18 am
Michael Russell’s final moments to make his case to the Nevada Board of Pardons were a blur. He remembers only the clammy feeling in his palms and his racing pulse.
And then, all at once, his case was up for a vote, and in a flash, he heard Gov. Steve Sisolak say through a computer screen in his attorney’s office: “Motion passes unanimously. Congratulations Mr. Russell.”
Just five years out of prison, the 41-year-old man was granted a full pardon on Wednesday morning for his 2012 conviction for burglary and identity theft, crimes that stemmed from a longtime drug addiction. Russell and his attorney, Kristina Wildeveld, bumped fists and then he hurried outside to his pickup truck, where he sobbed for what he said felt like an eternity.
“I just knew this could change my whole life,” Russell recalled the following evening during an interview in his mid-century-style home. “It opens up so many doors for me, but this wasn’t just for me. It’s for everyone who has been behind bars and isn’t sure they can turn things around.”
Russell’s pardon, which restores all of his civil rights, was a rare move by the board. The suggested “waiting period” for a class B felony conviction to be considered for a pardon is eight years from the completion of a sentence, though most felons typically have been out of prison for decades before their cases are even heard. Alongside Russell, 19 others were considered for a pardon this week. Their crimes date to the 1980s through the early 2000s.
“It doesn’t happen a lot,” Nevada Supreme Court Justice Mark Gibbons, who sponsored Russell’s application, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “But I was ready to make the case for Michael. I felt, because of the merit of the case and the extraordinary circumstances of it, that he warranted consideration by the board.”
‘History in the making’
In the relatively short time Russell has been out of prison, he has managed to make a significant mark in Nevada.
About three years after his release, in June 2018, Russell charted a path for others like him when he became the first felon hired by the Nevada Department of Corrections — the same entity that twice held the former drug addict behind bars. The Review-Journal, which was the first media outlet to share his story of rehabilitation, continues to follow Russell as he rebuilds his life after prison.
His boss, Elizabeth Dixon-Coleman, has said Russell’s employment sparked a long-needed change to the department’s culture.
“It’s history in the making,” she told the Review-Journal last January. “We’re working toward being more rehabilitative and giving people more opportunities.”
Since then, Russell has completed a one-year probationary period with the department as an at-will employee, has gone back to school to complete his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and has earned national certification to train other department employees who want to teach Moral Recognition Therapy. He credits the 16-step behavior modification program as the catalyst for change in his life during his last prison stint at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs.
“It was a victory to get this pardon granted for Michael and for the board to recognize the work he has done on behalf of not only the re-entry community but also the inmate population he works with,” said Wildeveld, his attorney. “He is an example for the population he works with and a reminder for those he works beside of the ability for one to rehabilitate and that we should never be defined by our worst act.”
Wildeveld — who also secured a presidential pardon for Hope for Prisoners founder Jon Ponder, a man convicted of robbing a bank who now helps the formerly incarcerated with re-entry into society — began advocating for Russell’s pardon a year ago, when she submitted his application to the Nevada Board of Pardons. The board consists of the seven state Supreme Court justices, the governor and Attorney General Aaron Ford.
Currently, the governor has the final say in a pardon, but preliminary general election results point to Nevada voters passing a new measure that would shift the process to a majority vote.
As a program officer for the Department of Corrections, Russell teaches two classes to inmates at Casa Grande Transitional Housing, a Las Vegas facility that houses nonviolent, non-sex-crime inmates who are within 18 months of parole eligibility. Some of his students were incarcerated with Russell during his most recent prison stint.
Over the years, he said, his students have told him: “You’re my inspiration. You’re my mentor. You’re who I want to be when I grow up.”
“I get goosebumps just thinking about that,” Russell said, “because some of these people are habitual criminals who have done 10, 20 years. To know I’m inspiring them to finally break this cycle, that’s huge. I know I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.”
Still, the last few years weren’t without challenge and even pushback from other department employees. Because of his criminal record, Russell had needed supervision for computer access to some of the department’s programs. He’d seen opportunities for promotions come and go. And, despite earning the certification to train his colleagues on Moral Recognition Therapy, his record had blocked him from entering some of the department’s facilities to conduct training.
What he’ll do next isn’t clear. The possibilities are endless now that his record can no longer hold him back. But in the future, Russell said, he hopes to work with youth offenders and help steer them clear of the kind of life he lived for so long.
For now, he’s walking taller and smiling more.
“When I saw him again after the pardon, he looked different,” his mother, Jill Drysdale, said Thursday. “He looks lighter. He has a skip in his step, like a weight was literally lifted from his shoulders.”