When you hear of someone serving life in prison, you probably wouldn’t picture Michael Pelletier.
Michael has been in a wheelchair since the age of 11, when he was run over by a tractor on his father’s farm. In 2008 he was convicted of smuggling pot across the Canadian border into Maine. He was sentenced to life without parole.
It sounds incredible, that someone could receive a life sentence for a non-violent marijuana offense. But Michael is not alone.
Randy Lanier is a champion race car driver who is serving a life sentence in Florida. Randy was arrested for selling marijuana, his first offense. There were no weapons or violence involved. He was convicted of administrating a “continuing criminal enterprise.” He has been incarcerated since 1987.
That’s more than 20 years in prison for selling weed!
Now Randy practices yoga and meditation. He teaches classes and counsels other inmates. He writes a blog about walking the spiritual path behind bars.
George Martorano has been in jail for half of his life. He plead guilty to marijuana trafficking on the advice of his attorney, and was sentenced to life without parole. That was in 1982. George is possibly the longest incarcerated non-violent offender in the United States.
He is also an award-winning poet and a published author. He teaches Ashtanga yoga, creative writing, suicide prevention and release preparation to fellow inmates in Coleman Correctional Facility.
Kenny Kubinski is a Vietnam War veteran with three purple hearts and a bronze star. He was an active member of his small farming community; he ran a construction company and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity.
That is until 1993, when a drug task force raided his home, seized his property, and charged him with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and hashish. He was convicted on the basis of some (highly suspect) testimony from witnesses, who in turn had their sentences dropped or reduced. He is now serving a life sentence in South Carolina.
His wife Jackie was sentenced to seven years. Their three children were put into an orphanage, until friends from their church took them in.
Then there’s Larry Duke, another Vietnam veteran now serving two consecutive life sentences in a Georgia prison after being busted in a government set-up in 1989. John Knock and Claude du Boc are each serving life sentences following a 1994 case that was riddled with fraud and malpractice. Billy Dekle is serving two life sentences for smuggling marijuana into the United States in his plane – in the late 1970s.
The list goes on: Craig Cesal in Illinois, Leopoldo Hernandez in North Carolina, Andrew Cox in Virginia, Paul Free, Craig Frazier and Maurice Foley in California. Cornell Hood was sentenced to life in Lousiana – but two charges have since been dropped, and his sentence reduced to 25 years. Eugene Fischer also served 25 years of a life sentence before his sentence was reduced to time served. He was freed on July 16, 2012.
In every case, the charge is possession and distribution of pot. No guns. No violence. Just “intent” and “conspiracy.” These are people who have lost their freedom, lost their property, who lost everything, because of growing, selling, and consuming a plant.
In many cases their sentences were lengthened because they insisted on exercising their right to trial. Others are repeat offenders subject to mandatory minimum sentencing. Some were convicted based on flimsy evidence, by over-zealous prosecutors intent on seizing their sizable assets.
All are victims of the so called “War on Drugs.”
The draconian policies and harsh penalties of the late 1980s have left us quite a legacy: more than 3,200 prisoners in the United States are currently serving life sentences for non-violent crimes, most of them drug related. And while states are slowly repealing these unforgiving laws, it is too late for the men and women already behind bars for victimless crimes.
We are undergoing a sea change in the way the public thinks about drugs, and marijuana in particular. Recent polls show that more than half of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized, while an overwhelming 86 percent support its medicinal use. 76 percent of people polled said they did not think small amounts of marijuana should result in any jail time, and 67 percent of people support treatment and rehabilitation as the primary means of dealing with even hard drug use.
Meanwhile Colorado and Washington are leading the way in recreational legalization, and similar legislation is being considered in more than a dozen other states. All of which leaves me wondering…
Why on earth are people serving life sentences for pot?
People like Jeff Mizanskey, who was arrested in 1993 for being present during a drug deal gone wrong. He accompanied Atilano Quintana to pick up a big delivery at a Super 8 motel in Sedalia, MO – unfortunately for them, the delivery guys had been busted on their way into town. The police were waiting to catch Quintana red-handed, and Mizanskey was just a bonus.
Quintana, the buyer, served ten years. Mizanskey, a repeat offender who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, got life.
Without the possibility of parole.
“Since I’ve been here in prison,” Mizanskey told an interviewer, “I’ve met lots of people in for murder, rape, robberies, all sorts of violent crimes. I’ve seen a lot of them go home on parole. Don’t I ever get a chance?”
There are at least a dozen people sentenced to die behind bars because they were caught with weed. How is this okay?
Many of these men have been exemplary prisoners, and have made the most of the rehabilitation programs available to them. And in cases like Lanier and Martorano, they have indeed gone above and beyond: becoming leaders and role-models in the prison community, pioneering new ways of teaching and rehabilitating inmates, and preparing them for their release.
Haven’t these men paid their “debt to society?” In some cases, many times over?
Visit lifeforpot.com to find out more about these men and their stories. Sign a petition, contact your congressman, join the movement calling for clemency.
Because no one should be in jail because of a plant.
UPDATE: Since this article was written Jeff Mizanskey had his sentence commuted by Missouri governor Jay Nixon. He went before a parole board on August 7th, and his parole was granted. He’s expected to be sent home to his family any day now.