Free at Last: The Story of Richard DeLisi
Richard DeLisi was a man who cared for his family and friends and extended that compassion to others whom he helped throughout his life. He was a person who offered his support, time, and energy to those who truly needed it and whom he considered family. He’s also one of the longest serving prisoner in the United States for a non-violent cannabis offense.
In 1989, Richard was faced with the reality of living out the rest of his days behind bars, but on December 8, 2020, he was released after serving 32 years of a 98-year sentence thanks to the efforts of Last Prisoner Project. Now he’s using his story and brand DeLisioso, in partnership with Trulieve, to advocate for cannabis prison reform and fight for the freedom of those still incarcerated for non-violent cannabis offenses.
A Life Upended: Richard’s Arrests and Unjust Sentencing
Richard was arrested and charged on September 19, 1988, with Trafficking in Cannabis, Conspiracy to Traffic in Cannabis, and Violation of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO).
During the trial, DeLisi’s attorney presented a defense for entrapment, to no avail, and Richard was looking at 12 to 17 years in prison based on Florida’s sentencing guidelines. But the judge thought differently. He instead sentenced him to three consecutive 30-year sentences totaling a 90-year prison term. Richard’s brother also received the same sentence for his involvement.
Many believed there must have been some form of violence or use of weapons to sway the judge’s sentencing decision, but neither was the case. According to the judge, he viewed DeLisi as the ringleader and believed Richard to be bragging about his financial success from cannabis smuggling after an edited clip from an interview put his character into question on American Vice “the doping of a nation” Geraldo Rivera 1986.
Richard had no history of violent behavior, including while incarcerated. Anyone who knew Richard DeLisi would describe him as a caring, generous, and loving man dedicated to helping others. Yet the media was all too eager to paint the picture of a violent drug dealer and labeled DeLisi as “armed and dangerous.” Even so, with everything he faced, Richard never gave in to the public’s perception of who he was. Instead, he seized control of a dismal situation and committed himself to education, rehabilitation, and self-improvement.
Making the Most of a Horrible Situation: Richard’s Incarceration
During his 32-year incarceration, Richard took more than 30 self-betterment classes ranging from substance abuse programs to faith centered classes to numerous skills training courses. He also learned how to read and write.
Due to a case of undiagnosed dyslexia, he had never properly learned, but while incarcerated he taught himself and can now read and write.
These newfound skills inflamed Richard’s goodhearted nature and desire to see others happy and asked for the opportunity to teach other inmates. He understood that some of them might also need an altering teaching method as he did. He was given his own classroom and taught multiple inmates.
What brought Richard the most joy was having the inmates come to him and speak about writing to their families for the first time. Several other men even obtained their GEDs. To Richard, there was nothing better than seeing people better themselves. But despite his best efforts to remain positive and motivated, Richard’s time in prison was not without struggle and misfortune.
He was denied Clemency several times, regardless of his immense accomplishments, evidence of personal growth, and the letters of many prison staff members praising his behavior. Some even described him as the “ideal inmate.” He also faced many personal tragedies.
At the time he was jailed, Richard had three children, all under the age of ten. Trying to form a strong relationship with their father behind bars was challenging enough and it impacted each of them in substantial ways. His youngest, Steven, passed away in 2010 with his mother, Richard’s second wife, dying suddenly several months later. In 2018, Richard’s daughter, Ashley, was involved in a car crash that paralyzed half of her body, making her wheelchair bound. Then, within the last ten years of his incarceration, Richard lost both his parents.
For many people, the idea of enduring a life like this is unimaginable. But with his family’s and friends’ unyielding support and love, and his own iron-clad will, Richard never lost faith in who he was and what he was fighting for: his freedom.
“Even after [my] denial of clemency in 1997 and 2002, I have continued to develop and improve my character; such resolve speaks volumes of my determination. I have not faltered, wavered, or done any act apart from continuing on the course I have set for myself when I came to prison, from which I will not depart.”
A New Chapter: Richard’s Mission for the Future
Richard’s story is one that most non-violent cannabis offenders, and their families, are all too familiar with. The impact of injustice in cases like these is generational, which many legislators have failed to understand. But now, Richard and those like him are determined to change the system and fight for the freedom of inmates who have been severely over-sentenced.
Learn more about how you can get involved with cannabis reform and help right the wrongs from decade's worth of injustice by visiting https://www.lastprisonerproject.org/