He looks like a guy who’s done some time and knows a thing or two. One month out of jail, he wears aviators, sounds like De Niro and often mentions God. Who else could have pulled him through almost 32 years behind bars, shafted in the injust Florida prison system? His sentence was life imprisonment. His offense, smuggling marijuana. Incarcerated in 1989 at the age of 40, he’s now 71. His son was 11 when he was locked up, he’s now 43. They just spent their first Christmas together in 31 years.
Richard DeLisi is out due to the Last Prisoner Project, who discovered his case from his family’s petition page, freedelisi.com, started by his son and nephew. He sits here today to talk with me, with his attorney Elizabeth Buchanan, who had to drive to him with her computer, so that we could speak via Zoom. Digital technology is completely foreign to him.
While people in most states can now smoke weed until their socks drop off, and cannabis has become a multi-billion-dollar, legitimate business, there are still people holed up in jail for misdemeanor cannabis offenses. They fell between the cracks of the War on Drugs, a changed system, and a different set of rules. There are over 40,000 of them sitting in jail right now. And a surprisingly large amount of them were set up in cop stings. As was DeLisi.
Richard DeLisi would have been let out on an earlier release for exemplary behavior, but that wouldn’t have been until late 2022. But his recent release was brought about by the Last Prisoner Project applying pressure, illuminating the ridiculously disproportionate punishment wrought on him, and also somewhat the COVID-19 crisis, which is currently forcing non-violent cannabis offenders to be isolated in COVID-infested prison wings. It’s a human crisis, and they are literally dying there.
DeLisi was busted twice. In 1980 his pilot missed the dirt runway a couple of times, night flying into an orange grove near Sarasota, Florida, with 7.5 tons of marijuana onboard from Colombia.
He served his five-year sentence and was released, but then under an implemented two-strikes law at the time, the second time, in 1989, when he was set up in a police sting, he was busted and received a life sentence.
He’s a character. Newly tan in his month out of jail and looking good, he’s feeling positive about the future, now that he’s out and advocating for the over 40,000 other non-violent cannabis offenders to be set free.
“I’m feeling blessed to be sitting here with my attorney right next to me. I’m sitting at my friend’s house in Florida. Ya know, like a month ago at this time I was sitting inside of a 10-by-6 cell. It’s quite a culture shock.
“I’ve been to a bunch of different prisons in Florida. It was a state charge, not a federal. The other charge I did my time for and I went home — this was a whole homemade deal that they made up as they were aggravated that they didn’t think I did enough time. Florida came up with all these new things that they implemented in their legal system. [What I did] called for 12-17, but they gave me 90 [years].
“It was a reverse sting — they used a friend of mine to get me involved, coz they knew I didn’t want anything to do with that stuff, ya know, with smuggling anymore. I’d had enough. I didn’t like the idea of being locked in a cell all day long, when to eat, when to go to the bathroom, when to do this, when to do that, stand straight, brush your teeth, get your soap, get your tissue, that wasn’t… some people love that for the rest of their life. I didn’t care for it too much is the bottom line.
“All the time I was in there, the 31 years, went by very very fast. I kept myself busy. I was in so many programs and started so many programs in the Department of Corrections, that I had their heads spinning sometimes over there. There was a lot of things I was doing that they didn’t agree with in the beginning, but then they came on board, coz they see what I was doing, and I wasn’t playing, I was trying to help people.”
How did the Last Prisoner Project find you?
Richard DeLisi: It started out with freedelisi.com. They made the media so heavy on the Department of Corrections — they had to do something with this guy, he’s raising too many eyebrows!
They had to let me out because the problem was someone was squeezin’ their throat a bit. There are still over 40,000 across the country, still incarcerated, and a gang in Florida! Two of my good friends were in there, for growing, and they’re not getting out anytime soon.
[Elizabeth Buchanan chimes in: “Our data and statistics show that we’re the only country in the world who incarcerates people like this and for this amount of time. And to no benefit…If incarceration isn’t really necessary, we really need to let them out and let them go home to their families.”]
That’s what really hurt me, coz I came home for Christmas, they didn’t, they’re still back there. Crying sometimes at nighttime to find out some of the loved one’s they lost, or something happened in the family that they have no control over. It happened to me while I was in there. I lost my wife, my son, my daughter, my mother, my father, I lost cousins and nieces and nephews…it was crazy, and if I coulda been there I could have made a difference.
The law isn’t reversed yet. We want to open people’s ears to listen. I would go to Washington if I had to. I want these people out of prison. They shouldn’t be there. Don’t get me wrong, now there’s a lot of people there who should be there that sold marijuana, but they carried guns and they were violent, and they were not at it to make people feel good, they were just about it to make money, and whatever it took, violence didn’t matter. They belong in there.
But that’s what we’re up against in this country. They come up with these crazy laws and they bury people away where they can never get home.
I was so unbelievably shocked! Last week I went into a dispensary. I got my marijuana card from a doctor, and I went to the dispensary and spent $205, coz I got some medical needs, and when I was walkin’ outta the place, I stopped in the middle of the store and I looked around — and the people knew me in the store, coz the media is so big on me, I go in restaurants and they want to come over and take pictures with me like I’m a movie star or somethin’, ya know what I mean? — I’m standing in the dispensary, and I said ‘look at this shit here. They had me in prison for almost 32 years, and I just spent $205 on illegal stuff.’ As far as I’m concerned that’s the illegal stuff that I was in prison for. You know I bought some different types of weed, a couple of vape pipes, a couple of patches, stuff for body pain and stuff and I walk outside and the owner says ‘oh I gotta get a picture of you standing in front of my store, you came here and shopped!’ I guess they put pictures inside somewhere. But it hurt me, ya know what I mean, look what they did to me.
You know what, I’ve seen a child molester get out three times and come back. And every time he came back, he came back for the same thing. Three times!! The same guy!! Is that crazy?
What the hell? We’re in Florida, you’re allowed to molest children, you can sleep with your sister and your brother, it’s okay. I mean that’s the way they look at it down here. I’m serious! Not all of Florida, don’t get me wrong, just parts of Florida where they sentenced me, where I went to trial.
[Elizabeth Buchanan interjects: “Even the prison warden was surprised that Richard had a 90-year sentence for a non-violent cannabis offense. He’s so used to seeing murderers and rapists come in with 10-to-15-year sentences, but this person who hadn’t hurt anyone got 90 years. He was really upset by it and wanted to help out, but you can’t advocate for prisoners’ releases when you hold that position.”]
I worked for this man when I was in classification. This man [the warden] he’s a good guy, he kept me filled in with everything that was going on outside the prison. The day before I was getting out, the media had already started accumulating out there. It was out of control actually.
You were released on Dec. 8. What’s been the hardest thing to get used to again?
Waking up, breathing fresh air. Yeah, you gotta remember the past nine months we were locked down in the cells because of this COVID thing.
I’m blessed. I got sick one time, not even sure if it was COVID. I got really sick and I came out of it alright only coz I had a really good roommate. He definitely took care of me for 10 days. I didn’t even get out of bed, moaning and groaning for 10 straight days, couldn’t get out of bed.
When they get sick they leave them to die. It’s not like they rush them to the hospital. They take them over to medical and let them die.
A really good friend of mine — I didn’t eat the scrambled eggs at breakfast. I’d always give him my scrambled eggs — and I said, ‘Okay man, you doing okay? ‘I’m feeling a bit under the weather’ he says. Two days later he was dead, 50 years old, no medical issues. It just strikes some people different.
My son’s in Europe, in Amsterdam, in the cannabis business, he makes edibles. It’s legit, he makes syrup for the men and women that have cancer and children that have epilepsy, all kinds of stuff he does. He’s a really remarkable boy.
I’m working trying to put things together, nothing’s happened yet, it’s a little rough right now. I’ll be okay. I’m staying at my sister’s house. Some donations came in, a couple of movie stars donated, like, er, James Belushi donated to my cause. It’s all great stuff ya know.
What do you think about the COVID crisis happening now?
It’s so wild. I did all this time and I came out to this. I can’t even travel around, I gotta be like, ya know with the mask, oh your mask, you forgot your mask, go back to the car, you forgot your mask, go back, get it at the house, c’mon enough with the mask… ya know what I mean?
All we can do is pray about it and ask God to move on that. And change what’s going on on the planet. There are so many evils that it kind of takes over the good. I believe in God, I want God in my life, that’s the reason why I’m here, talking to you, because He made it happen.
But you weren’t always such an angel. Weren’t you running an operation out of Colombia?
The first time around yeah, I owned a bunch of aircraft. And I owned a coffee plantation in Colombia, with a big villa on the side of a mountain, which I only grew coffee there, but on the back side of the mountains, is where I grew the gold marijuana…. James Belushi right now, was down in Colombia trying to find some gold seeds. I spoke to James the other day for like an hour. In his last show… Have you seen his show on TV yet? He’s got a big farm where he grows, with a dispensary and everything — he has this whole operation.
Since the Last Prisoner Project became involved in your case, how long was it before your release?
[Buchanan answers for him: “We started in June. June to December… We knew on election day when he was getting out.”]
The Last Prisoner Project is my mission, to make sure I get these guys out that are still in there. Steve DeAngelo is the founder of the project. It’s like we’ve known each other all our lives.
I think God’s making a path for me, and he wants to make sure that I do it the right way I think is what He’s setting me up for, and I’ll do it the right way. There’s a right way and a wrong way and I’ll do it the right way.
I guess you have to learn to use computers too?
A computer, ha, everything! I have to learn how to use everything, including the way you drive a car today. I mean you don’t have a key to start the car up! None of that stuff was around when I was around — get in the car, push a couple of dials and it tells you where to go! It’s insane. I’m just hoping for the best to tell you the truth.
Everything’s good. The windows are open. The air’s blowing through the house, and it’s 70 degrees… That’s a wonderful thing for me.
Something’s happening right now with Hollywood. Hollywood’s interested in a TV series, like Breaking Bad! I’m sitting back waiting for me to get off this parole, another month and a half, before I can go anywhere. I’m after trying to make a little something for my family for when I’m gone. Ya know what I mean?
Profound injustice has been inflicted upon those who’ve suffered criminal convictions for marijuana offenses, and it disproportionately affects those of color. There has been a huge misconception about marijuana offenses within the courts brought on by the vaunted and mostly misguided war on drugs. While millions of Americans now widely support the legalization and usage of cannabis substances and benefit greatly from their effects, there are people incarcerated for minor deals in an already overstuffed prison system. The founder of the Last Prisoner Project, Steve DeAngelo has collected a top-notch team of social and criminal justice reform advocates, policy experts, and a board of advisors including celebrities James Belushi, Melissa Etheridge, Damian and Stephen Marley and Corvain Cooper, who until today, was also locked up in federal prison with a life sentence, for marijuana distribution.