There was a moment in the early morning hours of May 27 when Clyde Meikle could see the full moon and feel the cool breeze coming through his window for the first time in more than two decades.
“It amazed me,” the 50-year-old said. “It made me cry. It was a good feeling, but it was overwhelming. That was the first moment that I realized I have the opportunity to begin a new life.”
The day before, he graduated from Wesleyan University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy.
One day before that – his 50th birthday – he was loaded into a transport at Cheshire Correctional Institution to be driven to a halfway house in New Haven. It wasn’t a pleasurable ride, since he gets carsick, but he didn’t want to complain since he was on his way to freedom.
Arriving at the halfway house was “bittersweet,” Meikle said. “I knew I was leaving a worse situation,” he said. “And I was relieved that I was beginning a new journey.”
Meikle’s path from a 50-year prison sentence for callously murdering his cousin during an argument over a parking space in Hartford to a walk across the stage at one of the state’s premiere private universities, is a testament to his character, according to the dozens of supporters who filed statements with the court to help him obtain a rare sentence modification earlier this year.
“Mr. Meikle has taken advantage of every single opportunity for rehabilitation and growth during his decades-long incarceration,” said Frankie Hedgepeth, a member of the team from the Jerome Frank Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School which worked on his case, “and when there were no further opportunities or programs, he created them and led them for others.”
Meikle was granted the sentence modification by Hartford Superior Court Judge David Gold in January. He had served nearly 27 years. In his ruling, Gold said Meikle’s continued incarceration would not contribute to making him a better person.
“It would only serve to make him an older one,” Gold said.
The legal team of students from the clinic was led by Yale Associate Professor of Law Miriam Gohara. She said the students worked tirelessly, even during the pandemic. But ultimately it was Meikle who made the judge’s decision easier, she said.
“I think Clyde really achieved it,” Gohara said last week. “He didn’t have a single disciplinary ticket in many years and had earned a lot of respect. Some people from the state Department of Correction attended his graduation.”
Meikle grew up in the 1980s and 1990s on one of the most violent streets in Hartford. The 51-page memo to court authorities describes a two-year span when there were nine murders on Enfield Street, where his family lived. In 1994, at the age of 23, Meikle stood on the same street just a yard away from his 30-year-old cousin, Clifford Walker, a father of two, and shot him to death.
Meikle was expelled from Hartford’s Weaver High School in ninth grade for “insubordination and disruptive behavior.” He had been drinking since the age of 10 and started using drugs at 14. By 18 he was a “full-fledged alcoholic,” and at 20 was using crack daily.
As a child, his parents fought physically in front of him and his younger sister, the memo said. The children were often left to their own devices after his father, “a mean and angry alcoholic” left, forcing his mother to work two and three jobs at a time to make ends meet. By the time he was expelled at 15 years old, Meikle read at a fifth grade level and could do math at a seventh grade level.
When asked to draw a picture of himself by a state psychologist, Meikle turned over “a lonely stick figure, pathetically seated at a small desk.”
While awaiting trial and sentencing in Clifford’s death, from 1994 to 1998 Meikle racked up 17 prison tickets – disciplinary infractions – for fights, disobedience and “foul language.”
It was in 1998 that he began journaling, he said. One of his close friends in the prison had received three journals from his girlfriend, Meikle recalled. The friend handed one over – a prescient decision that helped transform Meikle from an angry young man to a scholar and respected mentor.
“Instead of letting emotions bubble up, I’d write them down,” he said. “Then I was able to look back and see what type of patterns were there.”
At the same time, he began working toward his GED which he completed in less than a year. With little to do in prison, he started learning the law to help his case, he said. “I grappled for two years with trying to read law cases,” he said. “Once I understood the law, I realized I could do anything.”
By 2004, Meikle started a discussion group giving prisoners the opportunity to talk about their responsibilities to each other and their communities. The “Lifers’ Group” he helped found in 2012 was based on those early discussions.
He jumped at the chance in 2007 to take classes with a community college program that offered inmates the ability to earn college credits. But there was no path to a college degree, he said.
In the fall of 2009 Meikle was one of dozens of inmates who applied to enter the Center for Prison Education program offered by Wesleyan in a partnership with Middlesex Community College. The center offered associate and later, bachelor’s degrees, to inmates at Cheshire Correctional Institution and York Correctional Institution, the state’s prison for women.
In 2014, Meikle wrote to James Rovella, the Hartford detective who investigated Clifford’s death and testified against him at his trial. In the letter, he asked Rovella if there was a way for the “Lifers’ Group” to help inmates who were reentering society to avoid gun violence.
By that point, Rovella was Hartford’s police chief. Rovella traveled to Cheshire to meet with Meikle and later arranged to have “Professor Meeks,” as he was known by his fellow inmates, taken to Hartford Correctional Center for a one-day transfer so he could talk to prisoners who were about to be released.
Rovella, who is now the Commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, provided a letter of support for Meikle’s early release.
In the “Lifers’ Group,” Meikle developed a curriculum that he and other long-term inmates could use to mentor and support other prisoners. The group laid the groundwork for the nationally acclaimed T.R.U.E. unit which pairs inmates doing life with younger men for mentorship, counseling and life skills training.
It was while working with the younger guys that Meikle said he came to understand what had motivated him in his early years to run the streets and wind up incarcerated.
The 18- to 25-year-old men whom he mentored were “caught up in the storm” just as he was, Meikle said. In the 1990s, gangs meant protection in prison and on the streets, he said.
“I went through all that but I never processed it,” he said. “The reality is, if you were on the streets, that’s how you operated. I was slowly unraveling. Looking back, the young brothers helped me process that. I was able to articulate what I was experiencing at the time. I just did things when I got scared, I reacted. I learned how to make things worse. What makes it different today is that I have the tools, and not only do I have the tools, I’m not surrounding myself with people who are on that trajectory.”
Dealing with the young men required that he forge relationships for the first time. It also gave him an opportunity to come to peace with how he came to be incarcerated.
“I got to look at my past and realize that I was like them,” Meikle said. “One of the greatest lessons I learned in order to deal with younger people is I have to stay in touch with who I was.”
He contends that other people first noticed his transformation from angry young man to respected scholar and mentor. “The corrections officers began to say, ‘You’re not the same person,’” Meikle said.
Gohara had heard about the T.R.U.E Unit and met with the mentors to find out what legal help inmates needed. She met Meikle in 2017. He never asked for help with his case, she said.
What struck her about him was his generosity, she said. “He was never thinking about himself,” Gohara said. “He was thinking about the younger guys. He never thought he was going to get out before the end of his sentence.”
She approached him in 2018 with the possibility of seeking a sentence modification. They are rarely granted, and he didn’t immediately agree with the plan, she said. “He had to take some time to consider,” she said. “Him and some of the older guys didn’t want to appear that they were doing something to gain something.”
The Yale law students assembled a 500-page presentation of Meikle’s good works to provide to Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Donna Mambrino. Mambrino worked with Rovella to prosecute and convict Meikle of murder, resulting in his 50-year sentence in 1998. Mambrino told Judge Gold at a hearing in December that after reviewing the materials and discussing Meikle’s transformation, she concluded that he deserved a sentence modification.
After prosecuting 47 murders including 12 capital felony cases, it was only the second time Mambrino had agreed to a sentence modification hearing. “This is the first time I’ve agreed to a sentence reduction,” she said. “It’s not a decision I’ve entered into lightly.”
Meikle made sure that Walker’s family was kept up to date on the proceedings. Leading up to the hearing, the DOC allowed him to call Natasha Walker, who was nine when Meikle killed her father. They both cried during the 45-minute conversation, she told Gold.
“It doesn’t matter to me if he comes home today, tomorrow, or after doing all 50 years,” she said to Gold. “I’m still going to be hurt.”
Meikle has not reached out to his cousin’s family since he was released. “I want to try to give them their space,” he said. Meikle cried when he told Gold how he felt about the destruction of his family he had brought on with the shooting.
“My actions that led to the death of Clifford are unspeakable,” he said before adding, “My presence will always be tinged by his absence.”
He’s still learning how to negotiate his freedom. While at the halfway house he’s expected to work and can earn passes through good behavior. He’s working with James Jeter, who also served time for murder and was released on parole in 2017. The two are hoping to start programming for young kids so they avoid the path to violence and prison.
Women are another story, he admitted with a laugh. He found himself getting nervous while talking to a woman the other day, he said. “I haven’t been with a woman in 26 years and seven months,” he said. “I’m still trying to navigate that. I want to understand how to negotiate relationships in a positive way. Twenty-seven years ago I was never afraid to speak to a woman. The greatest thing though, is that I am able to articulate what I’m experiencing.”
He wants to win the Nobel Peace prize by the time he’s 76, he said. He plans to pursue a doctorate in philosophy so he can teach at a major university. If he isn’t hired, he says he’ll seek a job teaching at a community college or start his own programming helping youth understand philosophy through hip hop music.
When he walked across the stage at Wesleyan on May 26, it felt like he was supposed to be there, Meikle said. It wasn’t until the next morning as he felt the breeze coming through an open window that he understood the enormity of what had happened to lead to his release.
He still gets up at 4:30 a.m. to drink coffee, exercise and meditate before he walks to Jeter’s office. He leaves around 5:15 p.m. and slowly walks back to the halfway house. He wants to learn how to deal effectively with people before he engages, he said.
“These relationships are new to me.” Meikle said. “I like to sit on my bed and reflect and try to process what’s going on with me. I try to sit in the feeling.”