On Tuesday, December 8th, Richard DeLisi walked out of South Bay Correctional Facility after serving 31 long years.
While the 71-year-old was held away in prison – his wife died, his son overdosed, and his daughter was paralyzed in a brutal car accident. A stripped life and a broken family, all stemming from a grossly inflated cannabis conviction.
The Longest-Serving Nonviolent Cannabis Prisoner
In September of 1988, Richard was caught in the middle of a reverse-sting operation led by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, as well as numerous other agencies. In agreeing to help smuggle 1,500 pounds of cannabis from Colombia to Florida, he was arrested and charged with Trafficking in Cannabis and Conspiracy to Traffic in Cannabis.
Sentencing guidelines generally recommend crimes of that nature to result in 12-17 years in prison, but Judge Dennis Maloney opted for an extreme escalation in sentencing. He gave DeLisi three consecutive 30-year sentences – 90 years in prison. The judge’s reasoning was based on an unfounded belief that Richard, along with his brother, were the ringleaders of a larger crime syndicate. Despite sensationalist headlines and fabricated rumors, Richard had no history of violence, nor had he ever been accused of committing an act of violence.
While Richard’s brother was released from prison years later, Richard experienced over three decades of incarceration. Entering prison with the highest level of classification (comparable to maximum security), DeLisi faced adversity head-on, but he chose to commit himself to education and self improvement.
In prison, DeLisi overcame severe dyslexia to learn how to read and write. He went on to complete dozens of self-betterment classes that ranged from substance abuse to faith to skilled training courses – all while bearing the weight of extreme personal tragedy. It all started in 2010 when Richard’s son died of a prescription pill overdose. Just two years earlier, his son had written to the Clemency Board, asserting how badly he needed his father’s presence and guidance. In the following months, Richard’s wife also passed away from complications with prescription drugs. Richard mourned, and he repeatedly applied for clemency – to no avail. Then, years later, DeLisi’s daughter was in a brutal car collision, causing injuries that left her partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound.
Despite devastating personal loss and emotional trauma, Richard continued his journey toward self-improvement. As he did, forces outside the walls of South Bay Correctional Facility were working to bring Richard DeLisi justice.
Free DeLisi, The Last Prisoner Project & The Defense
In the couple decades following DeLisi’s imprisonment, his family spent over $250,000 on attorney fees and over $80,000 on long distance calls to win Richard his freedom. While those efforts failed, cannabis rights and drug policing movements intersected with Delisi’s case, and the injustice embedded in his conviction has been consistently cited in recent years.
Free Richard DeLisi and The Last Prisoner Project both outline the case for DeLisi’s release. The most urgent point being the current state of prisons with COVID-19. To start, more than thirty years of poor healthcare and a prison diet resulted in a plethora of pre-existing conditions for Richard:
- High Blood Pressure
- High Cholesterol
- Degenerative Disk Disease
Add these ailments to the skyrocketing COVID numbers in US prisons, and the result is a surefire disaster. According to a study by John Hopkins and UCLA, people in prisons are five times more likely to get infected and three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the general population. Every day Richard remained in prison was a day his life was at risk.
But beyond the health concerns associated with Richard’s imprisonment were the laundry list of reasons why remaining behind bars would be an innate injustice in his case. Over ⅓ of the nation lives somewhere where adult-use of marijuana is legal. Florida, where Richard sat in prison for 31 years, legalized medicinal marijuana in 2016 – and $775-$950 million worth of cannabis products are projected to sell in 2020. While the state profited from weed tax revenue, taxpayers paid out of pocket to jail DeLisi. That is, until a recent review of his record when his release date was moved up to June 2022, and then again to this past week.
Richard DeLisi’s Release & His Road Ahead
“I have missed so many important moments,” Richard reflected as he began to put the South Bay Correctional Facility behind him.
As he met his two granddaughters for the first time and ate at his favorite hamburger joint, DeLisi continued, “I’m a blessed human being, a survivor”. Richard plans on remaining involved with the fight against cannabis-related incarceration, stating “it was unjust what they did to me. I just hope I can help other people that are in the same situation . . . the system needs to change, and I’m going to try my best to be an activist”.
Whatever fight Richard has ahead of him, the pain stemming from his imprisonment still remains. Rick DeLisi, Richard’s last surviving son, was just 11 when his father was locked away. Since then, he’s seen his brother and mom die and his sister paralyzed. After moving over 4,000 miles to escape the trauma, Rick was teary-eyed at his father’s release.
“I can’t believe they did this to my father. I can’t believe they did this to my family,” DeLisi lamented, “There’s a feeling of who’s responsible for this debt in my mind, and justice . . . I don’t mean with money. I mean something more valuable. Time. Something you can never get back.”
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