Protestors Gather in Support of Donald Clemons


Keshav Kundassery, Senior Editor

On April 12th, a group of Nashville residents, including members of the Vanderbilt Prison Project, gathered in front of the Davy Crockett Tower to demand the release of Donald Ray Clemons, who, since shortly after his sixteenth birthday, has been incarcerated for over twenty-five years. 


In 2011, Clemons’ story caught the attention of then-governor Phil Bredesen, who decided to commute his sentence and make him eligible for parole in 2012. However, the Board of Parole has turned down his release five times over the past nine years, citing the “seriousness of the offense.”


Clemons was involved in a house robbery in 1996 that resulted in the death of the homeowner. He was not in the room where the homicide occurred, nor was he involved in planning the operation. He was allegedly coerced into participation by two adults that used vulnerable teenagers as instruments to carry out crimes. More details about his case and rehabilitation during his time in prison can be found on a website dedicated to his release.


While awaiting his release, he has completed his GED, taken university courses, and earned a number of vocational certifications that he plans to put to use once he is welcomed back into the community. This is especially notable since the Higher Education Act of 1994 eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners, reducing participation by 50%. When asked how he understands his past, Clemons replied, “I am truly sorry for the pain, anger and frustration that my actions caused. The victim’s family, my family and the community as a whole have suffered life-altering experiences and that is something that I will always carry with me.”


On April 16th, the Board of Parole announced that Clemons would be granted parole, bringing a close to a nine year battle and delivering a victory to the community members and groups involved in the protest. The protest was organized by Unheard Voices Outreach (UVO), a Nashville-based organization dedicated to transforming the criminal justice system and ending felonism, a neologism that refers to the discrimination experienced by ex-felons once they are released. Rahim Buford, the founder of UVO, met Clemons in prison while they were both studying cosmetology. “Over the years we became friends and landed at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in 2002. While there, he and I founded Project: New Beginning, a prison organization that helped prisoners investigate their prior lives and create life plans. We both promised to help one another make it back home to our families if one of us got released before the other,” said Buford. This decades-long pledge was fulfilled last month.

Pictured: Rahim Buford, the founder of Unheard Voices Outreach.

Buford maintains that he could not have done it without the Vanderbilt Prison Project (VPP), whose members were also present and coordinated transport for other Vanderbilt students. Jin Heo, a leader of VPP’s involvement with the Clemons case, described their involvement as follows:


“We first heard about Don’s story through [Buford]. He reached out to us last February if I remember correctly and told us about two people who had received clemency from Governor Bredesen back in 2011 but were still in prison. One was Shawnda James and the other was Don. We wrote letters to Don and Shawnda formally introducing ourselves and the organization and started to learn more about them. Over the course of the summer, we started gathering and drafting material for the website and petition and we launched the campaign formally with the website and petition a week before fall semester.”


Terrance Akins, a local activist affiliated with No Life, Youth, or Community Wasted, gave a speech to the group before leading the chants. He emphasized that our focus should not just be on the time people like Clemons have lost in prison, but on the promise that their release holds for the future. “Donald Clemons was one of those youths whose life was taken away by the system, and not given a second chance by the parole board. So I’m here to fight for him and for all of our youth who have been thrown away by this criminal injustice system. Our mission is to empower our youth and give them a second chance at greatness,” said Akins in an interview after the event.


Dr. Eric Ritter, a lecturer in the philosophy department at Vanderbilt, was also present at the protest. Dr. Ritter reflected on Don’s story and on its significance to the broader topic of mass incarceration:

“Don’s story–charged with homicide at sixteen years old, isolated in solitary confinement until his 18th birthday, sentenced without regard to his youth, and then growing up in a prison environment designed to make those who are incarcerated feel less than human in countless ways–unfortunately illustrates larger patterns in Tennessee and in our society more broadly. Our prisons turn people, including young people, into “inmates” and “felons,” words with a whole history of imagery and implicit meanings behind them. Don has persevered against all odds and become a thoughtful and thriving human being–I know because I spoke to Don at length as part of a research project interviewing adults in Tennessee prisons who were sentenced as children. What happened in Don’s case was undoubtedly a tragedy: someone was killed. He is the first to admit that we need a societal response, even a form of punishment, in such cases. But the question we need to be asking ourselves is why we are invested in systems that respond to loss and pain by amplifying and increasing that loss and pain, rather than aiming for healing and transformation.”

Moving forward, UVO, VPP, and allied groups will look to shift their attention towards Shawnda James, as well as other prisoners in a similar situation. This battle may have been won, but the fight lives on.