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Missouri’s Release of Pot Dealer Doing LWOP Gives Hope to Nonviolent Drug Offenders Incarcerated Nationwide

By Joe Watson

Jeff Mizanskey, a 62-year-old Missouri state prisoner serving life without parole (LWOP) on a nonviolent drug conviction, was released on Sept, 2, 2015, eliciting cautious optimism that thousands like him will someday also be set free.

Mizanskey had served more than 20 years for conspiring to sell six pounds of marijuana before Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon commuted Mizanskey’s sentence in May, allowing the state’s parole board to grant his release four months later.

Mizanskey’s third nonviolent marijuana conviction came in 1991, triggering a mandatory LWOP sentence under a three-strikes law that Missouri has since repealed.

“I’ve spent a third of my life in prison…one third,” Mizanskey told reporter outside the maximum security Jefferson City Correctional Center after his release.” Nobody deserves to be in there for marijuana.”

And yet, others like Mizanskey are locked up across the country, with at least 75 prisoners nationwide serving life sentences or de facto life (defined as at least 470 months by federal standards) for marijuana convictions.

Even more staggering are the data from a 2013 ACLU report titled “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenders” that says that about 3,278 prisoners in America are serving LWOP sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Sadly, though not shockingly to those familiar with the egregious disparities within the criminal justice system, 65% of those prisoners are black.

In Louisiana, which has more prisoners serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes than any other state, 91% of those 429 such prisoners are black.

So while the releases of Mizanskey and Frances Darrell Hayden (a federal prisoner serving LWOP for conspiring to grow and sell weed and granted release by President Obama in February 2015) might be encouraging, clemency for middle-aged white prisoners does not inspire as much hope as freeing young, poor, Black, nonviolent drug offenders.

A few were profiled in the ACLU report, including Dale Wayne Green, a Black man doing LWOP for being the middleman in a $20 pot deal to an undercover deputy. Travis Bourda and Anthony Kelly, two more African-American men, are serving life for possession of less than three pounds of marijuana each.

And Fate Vincent Winslow, who like Green is serving time in Louisiana, was homeless when he was arrested for selling $20 worth of weed to a cop and subsequently given a life sentence. The white man who was Winslow’s alleged accomplice was never charged.

“There’s an answer to this without being so extreme,” Burl Cain, warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, told the ACLU for its report. “But we’re still living 20 years ago extreme.

“That’s cruel and unusual punishment, to me.”

Though Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (one of the early casualties of the 2016 Republican presidential campaign) is unlikely to grant clemency to Winslow, Green, or other state prisoners like them, Obama and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch have been making overtures for reform that could mean freedom in the near future.

“Over the last few decades, we’ve locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before,” Obama said in a speech to the NAACP last summer. “And that is the real reason our prison population is so high.”

Lynch, meanwhile, has called on cops to “protect communities without breaking them,” and for Americans to end the “cycle of criminality and incarceration.”

As Mizanskey articulated the day of his release: “There’s a lot of good people in here that need to come out.”


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