In 1989, Richard DeLisi was sentenced to serve 90 years in the South Bay Correctional Facility (SBCF) in Palm Beach, Florida for non-violent cannabis crimes.
This week, he walks free.
Noted to be the longest serving non-violent prisoner in the U.S. for cannabis, Richard and his brother Ted were caught in 1988 during a reverse-string operation for cannabis tracking in Florida.
While the crime carried a recommended 12-17 year sentence, Circuit Judge Dennis Maloney gave the brothers three consecutive 30-year sentences on charges of racketeering, trafficking cannabis, and conspiracy.
Richard, who was 40 years old at the time, told AJC he believed the hefty sentence to be a result of the judge’s bias and the mistaken belief that he was involved in organized crimes.
Ted appealed his conviction and was released from prison in 2013. Richard’s appeal, however, was rejected, according to USA Today.
The Last Prisoner Project
The Last Prisoner Project (TLPP), a nonprofit organization advocating for the release of prisoners convicted on cannabis charges, partnered with attorneys to push for Richard’s early release.
Together, they presented arguments highlighting the injustices’ of keeping Richard DeLisi imprisoned for a substance that is not legal for adult-use in more than 11 states.
In June 2020, the group released an article explaining that 280 people at SBCF have already tested positive for COVID-19.. Currently, the facility is just two inmates away from reaching max capacity.
For 71 year old Richard, who is facing several underlying health conditions, TLPP compared a continuation of his time behind bars to a death sentence.
The group also brought attention to economic arguments for release of elderly inmates at risk for COVID-19.
“According to inmate expense reports provided by the Florida [Department of Justice (DOC)], health care for inmates costs the state $20,367 per year per inmate, but inmates over 50 years old can cost as much as $70,000 a year. (…) According to the DOC’s per inmate calculations by age, it has cost taxpayers up to $1,673,670.00 to keep 71-year-old Richard DeLisi incarcerated for his nonviolent marijuana offense, and if he lives to serve out the remainder of his sentence without release, the total cost to Florida taxpayers of keeping Richard in prison for the entirety of his sentence will be over $1.8 million dollars.”
After officials rescheduled his release date to summer 2022, then to summer 2021 due to good behavior, Richard was released ahead of schedule on Tuesday, December 8th.
Despite the group’s efforts, the Florida Department of Corrections press secretary Kayla McLaughlin told CNN that the decision to move up Richard’s release date was unrelated.
“DeLisi’s release date was initially moved up from summer 2022 to May 2021 after an error was discovered on his record,” McLaughlin said, which restored 390 days of provisional release credits he was owed upon the start of his sentence in 1989. He also earned “gain time,” or a reduction in his sentence, due to good behavior.
“It Feels 10 Times Better Than Wonderful”
Mary Bailey of TLPP said the release allowed Richard to meet two of his five grandchildren for the first time, and enjoy a seafood meal with his family, after testing negative for COVID-19.
While in prison, he learned to read and write, and also launched an organization called FreeDeLisi.com, which fights for the release of other inmates.
“It [actually] feels 10 times better than wonderful,” Richard DeLisi told The Ledger regarding his release. “It was so unjust what they did to me. I just hope that I can help other people that are in the same situation.”