There is Still Hope for The Longest Serving Non-Violent Cannabis Offender in the United States
An interview with attorney Chiara Juster about Richard DeLisi – the longest serving non-violent cannabis offender in the US. Richard is now 71 years old and suffering in prison through the COVID-19 crisis. It doesn’t take much time, effort or even any money to help Richard get released back to his family (scroll to the bottom for ways you can help).
Richard DeLisi is the longest serving non-violent cannabis offender in the United States. Can you Explain His History and What He is Serving Time For Specifically?
Richard is serving incarcerated for cannabis trafficking, conspiracy to traffic, & RICO. He was sentenced to three thirty year consecutive terms back in 1988.
Previously, he had one encounter with the system in what was the first cannabis RICO case in Florida (it was Colombian Gold in case you were curious about the cultivar). He served a year in that case, however, the financial consequences were devastating. He had a family to provide for & everything he had was gone, with the exception of his struggling auto body shop which he was afraid to lose. This was a horrible case of entrapment. JJ White had been a friend, but never a true friend, he’d turned serial informant (both he and his wife received monthly stipends from law enforcement) and trolled Richard to make one more run. It never actually happened, the cannabis in this case was provided by law enforcement.
Richard has always been nonviolent. His brother Teddy (& co-D who had an issue successfully raised on appeal) was released after 25 years. They could have made a lot of money being involved with other substances in Florida during the 80’s, but they were peaceful men who didn’t want to get involved in anything violent.
While he is set to be released August 6, 2022 (I understand that’s not 90 years, he is serving under dated guidelines) he may never see that day because of Covid 19. He is elderly and has many conditions that make him higher category were he to contract covid. Are the near 12,000 days he’s spent in “correction and rehabilitation” institutions not enough? He is elderly and peaceful. Are they afraid that he is going to pose competition to the state legal industry by again becoming illicitly involved with devils lettuce?
His continued incarceration poses no threat to anyone other than the taxpayer. It takes approximately $70,000 a year to incarcerate an elderly man like Richard. That’s a lot of money that could be invested in communities, education, and healthcare.
Let’s talk about Richard as a Person – You Had Mentioned he is one of the most loving people you know?
Richard grew up in the close knit community of Breezy Point, New York. Family means everything to him, his friends become family, it was really a place where the village raised the children. These friends have stuck around for life. Richard always wanted to help others, and now others are doing all they can to help Richard.
I have heard time and time again about how he saved their lives, showed people how to be a good man, and inspired great change in people. He is the friend that would give you the shirt of his back if it would make you happy, he’d insist.
Richard grew up with severe dyslexia, back then they didn’t recognize learning disorder and instead of being helped he was hindered by the very system designed to protect him. He was made to feel like there was no hope for him, he never thought he’d be able to read a book. A childhood friend who became a reading specialist identified phonics as a system that would work for Richard and sent him materials. Richard learned to read and write in prison and then started a program teaching others. For Richard, locked away, sunshine has come in the feeling he would get when people would come up and tell him that they wrote their first letter to their mother or loved one (as a mother I can not imagine what it must be like to see your child’s words on paper for the very first time when that baby is an adult. How much different would their lives have been if they’d learned earlier). Many of these individuals went on to receive their GEDs and have opportunities they never would have had if it weren’t for Richard.
His brother Ted worked in a program training service dogs, they made the most of their time.
Richard is also deeply religious, he is in the faith based dorm with others who appreciate his gentle soul. Richard’s purpose is to serve others and improve their lives. He has always done that and continues to do so from behind bars. But sadly, his absence has left a void in many lives, he’s such a special guy it’s not easy to fill his big shoes. The devastation of his absence on his family is incalculable.
I’ve read letters from corrections officers written a quarter century ago about Richards character. He is a good man. I have spoken to his chaplain who described Richard in the same words that I have heard countless times from those who’ve known him his entire life, he is loving, affable, kind, feels responsible for others, and loves to serve in whatever way is helpful. He is not bitter, he finds joy everyday and shares it with others.
Tell Us About The consequences of his incarceration on his family and friends?
Richard has improved people’s lives behind bars, but children need their parents. Richard’s sentence was really a life sentence on his three children. Richard had taken care of his family, without him the struggle was real.
Richard’s youngest son needed his dad, he lost his life to prescription to pain pills that are prescribed everyday in this country. He didn’t get the help he needed, he didn’t have his dad, he’d likely be here today if he’d had his father here to support him. His child is now without a father and grandfather.
Richard’s daughter continues to suffer from her father’s incarceration. She was in a terrible collision resulting in horrific injuries, she also suffered a stroke during brain surgery and now is partially paralyzed. She is making progress and will soon return to her home where she’d love nothing more than to introduce her son and father in person surrounded by the bucolic countryside.
Richard’s eldest son has worked tirelessly to do what he can to bring attention to the injustice of his dad’s incarceration. His three daughters deserve to have their grandfather present in their lives. Richard’s son has witnessed a green rush in a country where his father is a prisoner of a drug war and has wondered, why aren’t people doing more to help? Richard would help others if he could. Why haven’t people been helping Richard and the other non-violent operators of the traditional illicit market who are now incarcerated as cannabis is considered an essential industry? How can people make millions in the green rush while ignoring those who are incarcerated?
Can You touch on incarceration during the time of COVID-19?
Those who are incarcerated do not have the freedom to follow the three C’s; they are stuck in closed spaces, spaces that are overly crowded, and they do not have the option of avoiding close contact. Society has stripped them of the opportunity to avoid this virus. People are dying. Death sentences are occurring where none were given. We are all responsible.
The War on Drugs has been a war on people. It goes beyond drugs. There are policies in this country that have long perpetuated inequities and inequalities with devastating consequences.
We have created a prison industrial system that has led to our country, that comprises 4% of the global population, responsible for 25% of the world’s total incarcerated population. Shame on us. Since 1980 this country has been on a slippery slope of enslaving those who need the most help and calling it justice. At the same time, we failed our people in many other ways. Lack of opportunities, barriers to entry, and systemic racism are all a part of the United State. We have failed to provide a medical system that focuses on the patients. We have allowed high powered lobbyists to dictate what choices are made for our bodies. We have a nutritional deficit in this country. When we as a society don’t care about the opportunities, health, and safety of those when they are on the outside we are hurting ourselves and others.
Many of those who enter prison were already at higher risk for serious complications were they to contract covid simply based on the fact that they grew up in a country that doesn’t care about the majority of the people.
Think of how covid has affected the elderly on the outside, extreme measures have been taken to protect our elders. Elders are in prisons too. We put them there and the cannabis community can not rest until these grandparents are reunited with their families.
There are elderly people behind bars because they believe in the power of the plant & brought it to the people. We must help them. Covid-19 only makes it more urgent.
As a lawyer, what is your role in helping Richard?
As an attorney my job is to advocate for my client and reunite him with his family before it is too late. Given that his release is scheduled for 8/6/2022 the best hope for Richard being released before that time. Governor DeSantis can do this. There are dangerous offenders, anyone who has done time will tell you that, but Richard is not one of them.
When Last Prisoner Project told me about Richard’s care I could not believe it.
I’d grown up in Portland, cannabis had been decriminalized in Oregon since 1973), I actually grew up in Earl Blumenauer’s district (we couldn’t be more proud of Earl, he is a true champion of his constituents as well as for lovers of Mary Jane nationwide). I was surprised at the stigmatization of cannabis consumers that I witnessed when I moved to Miami for law school. Peoples rights and autonomy weren’t repeated in a way I felt all people deserved. The War on Drugs was alive and well, ravaging entire communities. The effects of incarceration go well beyond an individual and their family. I thought that I could make a difference by becoming a prosecutor, I’d heard so much about prosecutorial discretion but discovered it was a myth. I walked away wondering if there was any hope for a society that treated animals better than people (and honestly, we should treat animals a lot better too).
I wanted to make sure that my child always knew the truth and that she worked to make this world a better place, it would be rather hypocritical if I didn’t do the same. As a cannabis advocate i wouldn’t be doing all I can if I didn’t use the skills I have to help those in need, one of the things I have is a law degree.
I wanted to make sure Richard received the attention and help he deserved right away. LPP put me in touch with two other Florida attorneys, Elizabeth Buchanen and Michael Minardi, who I was pleased to discover were fellow cannabis advocates as well. With the assistance of LPP’s diligent and intelligent legal fellow Mariah Daly we are working to reunite Richard with his family before it is too late.
Clemency is his best hope. I know that if Governor DeSantis met Richard DeLisi he would see him as the person he is, not simply #087624. Richard DeLisi is the man you want as your neighbor, that you want in your church, he’s the kind hearted elderly man who, if he were free, has the patience to help your child learn to read while you scramble to be on zoom/ googlemeets/ hoppin/ & webex all at the same time.
What are the best ways for people to help? Are there any additional resources people should know about to fight for others in similar situations?
To help Richard you can email Governor DeSantis and ask that he release Richard DeLisi (#087624). Richard is one of many Prisoners of the Drug War. Support nonprofits that you believe. Last Prisoner Project https://www.lastprisonerproject.org/ is not going to stop until the last cannabis prisoner is free. Find organizations, and businesses, that speak to your values and support them. Every person can make a difference.
VOTE! Recently I noticed that my guitar case from high school has a Students Vote ‘96 sticker on it. I was too young to vote in that election but was committed to volunteering and doing what I could to better our country. I’m really inspired by seeing all of the young advocates and activists today. Everyone can get informed & get involved. Vote!
Be heard, also, be counted!! Don’t forget to fill out your census. It seriously matters, there are some great old songs about why the census matters on youtube.
Chiara Juster is an advocate, attorney, and mommy. She is passionate about federal policy reform as well as global issues involving human rights and the War on Drugs. Her cannabis advocacy is reflected in her role as Chief of Government affairs at Oaksterdam University as well as her involvement with various non-profits beyond LPP including the NCIA where she has been on the DEI committee the past two years.