On Wednesday, outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted the prison sentence of Maryville man Kenny Melton, reducing his sentence from 15 to 11 years, making him eligible for parole on Aug. 15, 2012.
Melton is serving a felony drug sentence and has spent most of his prison sentence since 2001 at the Blount County Justice Center.
A profile of Melton, written before the pardon, follows:
The cocaine Kenny Melton sold to an undercover officer was about as much as you would find in a headache powder.
So far it has cost him his freedom for about a third of his life.
Melton is a big man with a 3XL-sized reputation for cooperation and hard work in and around the Blount County Detention Facility, the place where he spends half of every day in a cell.
The rest of the time, Melton, 32, does maintenance work and performs general labor at the Blount County Justice Center, where the jail is.
While most prisoners convicted of state crimes serve their time in a state facility, Melton has spent the majority of his incarceration since 2001 in Blount County. In fact, Melton is one of about 100 nonviolent prisoners the state pays Blount County $35 a day to house.
Melton’s movements and activities around the justice center are assuredly and perpetually monitored, said Marian O’Briant, public information officer for the Blount County Sheriff’s Office, just as any other inmate’s would be.
But the confidence level that Melton will be where he is supposed to be and do what he is tasked to do is exceptionally high, making this prisoner’s relationship with his jailers outside the norm. He even accompanies BCSO personnel to help out on non-crime-related excursions away from jail.
Melton, who says he was “kicked out” of Maryville High School in the 10th grade, sold six-tenths of a gram of cocaine and some Dilaudid tablets to an undercover officer in his home and was arrested in December 1999.
Because the sale occurred within proximity of a school, Sam Houston Elementary, Melton ended up getting a harsher penalty - 20 years - plus a concurrent 10-year term for the pills. He said it was his first felony. He did not sell any drugs to or around the children at the school, he said.
He said “95 percent” of the reason he sold drugs was to facilitate his father’s habit.
“He was a hardcore user,” Melton said in a Justice Center interview, adding that he sold the drugs “to keep Daddy high. He did anything you could stick in a needle and shoot up.”
Melton said his father died Oct. 9, 2003, from complications related to heart surgery that were exaggerated by his long-term drug use.
“I grew up in a drug environment,” he said. His mother, he said, “left when I was a kid” and he has no contact with her today.
Melton said he “tried everything you could think of” in the way of drugs but never “got hooked” on any of them.
“And I never used a needle,” he said.
Following a jury trial, Melton began his sentence Aug. 15, 2001, at age 23. He spent a brief period in prison in Nashville before returning to Blount County’s custody.
Melton said he received his GED in March 2002 and applied to participate in the work program at the jail the following May.
“I have been doing restaurant work since I was 13,” he said. His first job was packing prepared lunches for a Mobile Meals program and for a summer lunch program for less-fortunate children.
After that came work in the jail kitchen and on a litter crew. He has been on maintenance detail for five years.
A petition for a commutation of his sentence by outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen was accompanied by 200 letters of personal support.
One of those letters was written by Blount County Sheriff Jim Berrong, who said Melton is a corrections success story and has earned his confidence.
“I have talked to him extensively,” the sheriff said, “about life in general and his mistakes. He knows he did wrong” and has paid a hefty price for it.
“He’s a good-hearted person who fell in with the wrong crowd.”
If Melton gains his freedom, Berrong said, he will get “the highest reference” when he begins a job search.
Melton is confident, he says, that on his release he will “not get into what I got into before. I have no desire to get high.”
And though he admits that he “loved marijuana,” he said he now knows the consequences of using it far outweigh the brief benefits.
Melton remains in contact with an aunt and uncle and his 92-year-old grandmother, he said, and they will provide a home for him to go to when he is released.
“I have to get done with this before I can move on,” he said.
Meanwhile, his primary circle of friends is within the confines of the Justice Center.
Noting the spelling of the word, Melton says “a friend is a friend till the end. My grandfather said if you can count your true friends on one hand you are blessed.”
One deputy who was new to the force and accustomed to seeing Melton in civilian clothes working in the center once told the inmate, “Kenny, it’s a good thing you never asked me for a ride home (before he knew Melton was a prisoner), because I probably would have given it to you.”
The first thing he wants in the free world is a nice, long hot bath - to fill the tub with hot water and “come out looking like a prune.”
Until then, it’s chores for half the day and inmate clothes the rest.