As the wave of legalization continues to sweep the country, more and more states are going back and trying to right the wrongs perpetrated against members of the community during the harmful war on drugs. One of those who was the most impacted is Richard DeLisi, who was originally given a 90-year prison sentence for cannabis. Now, he has officially been released.
During his time in prison, DeLisi’s wife passed away, as well as his son and parents. His daughter was paralyzed, and he missed making memories with his family. Now, at the age of 71, he was released from prison in Florida after being behind bars for 31 years. This made him the longest-serving, nonviolent cannabis prisoner in the U.S.
DeLisi has missed so much of his life due to being behind bars. He has missed the birth of grandchildren, whom he just met for the first time, as well as the deaths of so many in his family, and the prime, adult years of his life. However, instead of just being bitter and resentful, he is happy to be free.
“I’m a blessed human being, a survivor,” he said in a phone interview with the Associated Press following his release from prison. “Prison changed me. I never really knew who God was and now I know and it changed the way I talk to people and treat people,” said DeLisi, who became a mentor to younger inmates. “For me, being there so long, I was able to take gang members from gangs to gentlemen.”
Biases in Sentencing
DeLisi’s sentence was so severe despite being a nonviolent offender because he was charged with trafficking, not just possession. However, the sentence for trafficking in 1989 was usually closer to 12 to 17 years. He believes he was profiled for being Italian, and that the judge thought he was part of organized crime because of his New York roots. While he admits he was trafficking cannabis, he denies any affiliation with organized crime.
While some would be angry and bitter because of this sentence, DeLisi is adamant about not holding onto fear and making the most of his free time. He even had a good attitude behind bars. He was illiterate when he went to jail, and spent his time in prison learning to read.
He also wants to work as an activist now that he has been released, to try and make a difference and change the system that imprisoned him for so long. DeLisi worked with The Last Prisoner Project to help end his time behind bars, and also has a website dedicated to his cause, FreeDeLisi.com.
Many have been following the case and are outraged about how DeLisi has been treated. Chiara Juster, who handled the case pro bono, called the original sentence “a sick indictment of our nation.”
In total, DeLisi’s family has had to cough up more than $250,000 on attorney fees and $80,000 on calls while he was in prison. However, they don’t want the money back; they just wanted their family member home, and now, they want to see the same justice carried out throughout the nation.
The freeing of DeLisi, the cannabis prisoner with the longest sentence, is a symbolic turning point for a nation that is slowly but surely letting go of the stigma against cannabis.