CANNABIS CULTURE – For the first time since 1988, Richard DeLisi, the longest serving nonviolent prisoner in the United States, may be able to spend Christmas with his family.
DeLisi could be out as early as December 4th of this year, thanks to the efforts Last Prisoner Project (LPP) and pro bono attorneys Juster, Elizabeth Buchanan, and Minardi who took up the case in June of this year.
In the fall of 1989, DeLisi, now 71, was arrested in Florida along with his brother, Ted, and charged with Trafficking in Cannabis, Conspiracy to Traffic in Cannabis, and Violation of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO).
Despite the recommended incarceration time of 12 to 17 years, DeLisi was sentenced by Polk County Judge Dennis Maloney to three consecutive life sentences that amounted to 90 years in prison.
“Mr. DeLisi’s case was definitely an outlier in the time that it was and the sentence that he received at that time,” said Michael Minardi, a Florida attorney who worked pro bono on the DeLisi case. “It definitely seemed like they were trying to make an example of him.”
DeLisi was born in 1949 and raised in Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach, Queens. He was described as “street smart” by his brother Ted, and after dropping out of high school became a professional drag racer for the National Hot Rod Association.
In the mid 1960s his family moved down to Florida where he, his brother Ted, and their father opened an autobody shop in Pompano beach.
“It was a freaking accident,” DeLisi’s brother Ted said over the phone when talking about the start of the two decade long cannabis operation that he and his brother were involved in, “I never expected it to happen like it did.” Although not originally their plan, the repair shop that they owned ended up specializing in Volkswagens. “All the kids had Volkswagens. I’d see the peace sign hanging on the mirror, I’d pop open the ash tray and sure enough they were full of roaches. And then they’d come back and I’d ask them ‘Hey wanna smoke a joint?’ And I got friendly with all these kids.”
After recognizing the high demand for cannabis, the business evolved and the brothers eventually started making routine trips from Florida up to New York City to deliver bulk orders. One day, the brothers were driving around Pompano Beach, “We were really stoned and I told to Rick to pull into the 7-eleven because I wanted to get some munchies.” While Ted was looking for some donuts, DeLisi called him to the front of the store and pointed at a magazine advertising the sale of a coffee plantation outside of Santa Marta, a Columbian city on the coast of the Caribbean Sea.
Without knowing any Spanish, relying on their street smarts, the brothers traveled to Columbia and bought the farm for $9,000. The brothers met pilots and various contacts, and began transporting cannabis into the United States by the ton. Ted estimates they made over $50 million, dealing only in cannabis. Eventually, one of the pilots on the 33-person crew turned on the brothers, working as an informant for law enforcement, which lead to their arrest in 1988.
According to the website dedicated to freeing DeLisi, since his imprisonment, he has received the exceptionally low number of 5 disciplinary reports and has taken over 30 self-betterment courses.
“Richard didn’t learn to read and write until his forties, yet when he learned how, he started a program in his prison to teach others to read phonetically,” said DeLisi’s lead attorney Chiara Juster.
Despite making the best of his time, it has not been easy. On the outside, both of his parents, his wife and one son have died. DeLisi’s brother Ted, who was released from prison in 2013 after he successfully appealed his conspiracy conviction, has not seen DeLisi in 25 years. Ted, 79, was deemed a security risk by the courts.
“The idea that they could be a security risk is so preposterous,” said Juster, “If they wanted to make a ton of money trafficking hard drugs they could have done that, but they didn’t want to be involved in the violence that accompanies the trade of harder drugs.”
Billy Corben, a Florida documentarian was quoted in a 2005 Miami New Times article saying there was a huge difference between smugglers who sold cannabis and those who delt cocaine. “Marijuana was a cash transaction, unlike cocaine, which was a consignment business. It was much mellower, and the guys didn’t even carry guns. The only examples you see of marijuana destroying peoples’ lives is with the prison sentences. You wanna see the destruction of a family unit? Put someone away for 90 years.”
Despite being relatively new in cannabis incarceration advocacy, Juster says they acknowledge this and the importance of all other grassroots organizations. “Last Prisoner Project reached out to the advocates who were already trying to help people so that they knew where we should focus our efforts,” said Juster. One of LPP’s Legal Advisors is Beth Curtis, founder of Life for Pot & Release Nonviolent Drug offenders. Curtis’ brother is serving life in prison for a non-violent cannabis offense after having no previous convictions.
“I was floored when I saw someone get three consecutive thirty-year sentences,” said Dr Karen Gedney, who worked as a prison doctor in the state of Nevada for over thirty years. Gedney, also successful writer with her memoir 30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor, handled the medical declaration included in the clemency document put together by LPP.
DeLisi, now confined to a walker, has many of preexisting conditions, suffering from asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and COPD among others. Gedney stated in the document that if DeLisi was not released, he a high risk to contract COVID-19 and die as a result. To date, South Bay Correctional Facility has had over 400 cases of COVID among inmates and over 80 among the staff.
Gedney went on to say, “From what I saw, [Richard] made a bad decision but [the court]made a significant example out of him and to me that’s an abuse of power.”
The brothers had been arrested nearly ten years earlier for smuggling and only served one year on a five year sentence. Ted said that never seemed to sit well with law enforcement. There were also speculations that since their arrest happened at the height of the American War on Drugs, they should be made an example out of, despite no history of violence.
Currently, there are over 40,000 people in prison for cannabis-related offenses. It was estimated by LPP that keeping DeLisi in jail has cost taxpayers over $1.6 million. Since DeLisi has been incarcerated, 15 states, two territories and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of recreational cannabis.
DeLisi’s brother Ted plans on traveling to Florida to see him upon his release. Over the phone, DeLisi’s son Rick said that he is relieved to be able to put this chapter of their life behind them and introduce two of his children to their grandfather.