America’s longest serving cannabis prisoner to be released

In Florida in 1989, Richard DeLisi began his 90-year sentence for trafficking. DeLisi’s crime was nonviolent, and Last Prisoner Project, an organization that fights for the release of victims of the war on drugs, describes the bust as “entrapment.” (More on that here.) Although the crime he was sentenced for carried a guideline of 12-17 years in prison, DeLisi was imprisoned at age 40 and is now 71, making him the United States’ current longest serving nonviolent cannabis offender.

Richard DeLisi

In prison, DeLisi has a reputation for helping others. When he first arrived, he couldn’t read or write due to severe dyslexia. A childhood friend turned reading expert began sending him phonics books and other learning tools. After teaching himself to read, DeLisi began helping other prisoners who had the same problem. In a 1994 letter urging for Richard’s release, education director Andre Russel, wrote, “We gave Richard a classroom with some six or seven men who were unable to read and write. We watched closely. Within months, Richard had each student progressing in reading and writing skills. It was most impressive. And, to be sure, quite unusual for the prison setting.”

Through good behavior, DeLisi had secured a proposed release date in 2022. But friends and family worried he wouldn’t make it that long. Florida’s prison system is rife with COVID-19, and DeLisi has severe chronic conditions that make him especially susceptible. “He is an elder in poor health and he is in a prison that is experiencing a COVID-19 pandemic,” said Chiara Juster, one of the attorneys fighting to get DeLisi released.

Today prison officials at South Bay Correctional Facility announced that DeLisi will be released in December 2020. The early release date comes in part due to support from Last Prisoner Project and pro bono attorneys Chiara Juster, Elizabeth Buchanan, and Michael Minardi, who have advocated on DeLisi’s behalf to local officials and key stakeholders in Florida.

From Last Prisoner Project: “While away in prison, Richard’s son Stephen, his wife, and both of his parents passed away. Fortunately, Richard’s remaining friends and family are eager to celebrate his early release. Richard says he cannot wait to reunite with his two living children, Ashley and Rick, and to hold his five grandchildren for the first time once he is free.”

Last Prisoner Project has set up a fund to support DeLisi’s reentry.

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