1. Home
  2. Services
  3. Richard DeLisi, longest-serving pot inmate in US, to get early freedom

Richard DeLisi, longest-serving pot inmate in US, to get early freedom

By Gary White, The Ledger

June 1, 2022

LAKELAND — The man described as the longest-serving inmate for marijuana crimes in the country will be out of a South Florida prison before Christmas.

Richard DeLisi, sentenced to 90 years by a Polk County judge after his conviction in 1989, will be released in December, 18 months ahead of his scheduled departure, The Last Prisoner Project announced Monday in a news release. The nonprofit, which advocates for inmates serving long sentences based on nonviolent, marijuana-related offenses, has been seeking DeLisi’s early liberation.

Richard DeLisi's mugshot over the years from 1993

DeLisi, is being held at South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach County. Advocates say DeLisi, 71, is at high risk of death if he contracts COVID-19 because of various health problems.

This will be the first Christmas since 1988 that DeLisi doesn’t spend behind bars.

“It feels amazingly wonderful to know that I will be home with my family and loved ones very soon,” DeLisi said, as quoted by his legal team in the news release. “I am grateful to everyone who has been there and helped me along in these long years. If I could go back to 1988 I would tell my former self to put more value in the time I spend with my family. I have learned that money is something that comes and goes but family is forever.”

Polk County native Mary Bailey is a co-founder of the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit devoted to seeking release for inmates serving long sentences for marijuana-related crimes. The group is advocating for Richard DeLisi, sentenced in Polk County in 1989 to 90 years in prison.

The Florida Department of Corrections did not respond to a request from The Ledger by Tuesday’s print deadline. The news release from The Last Prisoner Project said the agency would issue DeLisi’s official release date on Monday.

Mary Bailey, a Polk County native now living in Hawaii, is one of the co-founders of The Last Prisoner Project.

“I am absolutely overjoyed to learn about Richard’s upcoming release,” Bailey said by email Tuesday. “His story really hits home for me in many ways. I am so incredibly grateful to all of the activists, attorneys and journalists who have worked towards the shared goal of Richard being united with his loving family. The fact that Richard and his family will be reunited in time for the holidays this year warms my heart.”

Richard DeLisi, left, at a racetrack during his marijuana-smuggling days and at right, his prison mug.

Prison life begins in 1989

DeLisi and his older brother, Ted DeLisi, were convicted in 1989 of trafficking in cannabis, conspiracy to traffic in cannabis and a violation of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act. Judge Dennis Maloney sentenced both brothers to three consecutive 30-year sentences, well beyond the recommendations in judicial guidelines.

Though they lived in Broward County, the brothers were arrested and tried in Polk County.

Ted DeLisi during the drug-smuggling days with his brother, Richard.

Ted DeLisi successfully appealed his conspiracy conviction and was released from prison in 2013, but Richard DeLisi’s appeal was rejected.

Lawyers consulting with The Last Prisoner Project compiled a 223-page document in August arguing for DeLisi’s release and sent it to the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. That was a supplement to a clemency application DeLisi filed earlier this year.

The governor sits on the Florida Clemency Board, which has the authority to grant inmates release before their terms are over. The board isn’t scheduled to meet until December.

Dennis Maloney, now a Senior Judge for the 10th Judicial Circuit, which comprises Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties, handed down the 90-year sentences in 1989 to Richard and Ted DeLisi.

The Florida Department of Corrections can make recommendations for conditional release to inmates considered terminally ill or permanently incapacitated and deemed not a danger to others. The release is granted by the Florida Commissioner on Offender Review.

A doctor who studied DeLisi’s case for The Last Prisoner Project said he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, prostate problems, arthritis, degenerative disk disease and back problems and has sustained mini-strokes.

“It is my expert opinion, based on my education, training, certification, skills, and experience, that within a reasonable degree of certainty if Richard DeLisi is not released, he will contract COVID-19 in prison and within a reasonable probability die as a result,” Dr. Karen Gedney wrote in her report.

South Bay Correctional, a privately run prison operated by the GEO Group, has reported 421 positive tests for COVID-19 among inmates and 85 among staff members. Six inmate deaths had been attributed to the viral illness as of Tuesday afternoon.

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a clemency board hearing in January 2019.

Overall, the Florida Department of Health reports that 180 Florida prison inmates have died of COVID-19 complications.

'Dark chapter of my life is finally over'

The team working for DeLisi’s release included Mariah Daly, a legal fellow with The Last Prisoner Project, Chiara Juster, Elizabeth Buchanan and Michael Minardi. All provided their services at no cost, the nonprofit’s leaders said.

The clemency packet included a letter from DeLisi’s brother-in-law, Robert Burrows, who said he and DeLisi’s sister, Laura, have a spare bedroom prepared for him in their house in Broward County. Ted DeLisi now lives in North Carolina.

The clemency application contained letters of support for DeLisi from other family members, childhood friends, fellow inmates, prison supervisors and others recommending his release. Corrections officers at South Bay Correctional described him as “a model inmate” and “an outstanding inmate.”

Richard DeLisi during the drug-smuggling days with his brother, Ted.

The report said that DeLisi has only been cited for five minor infractions during his 32 years in prison, the most recent a telephone violation in 2005. The Last Prisoner Project estimated that Florida has spent more than $1.6 million on DeLisi’s incarceration to date and said it typically costs $70,000 a year or more to hold an inmate older than 50.

“I am so excited to hug my children and grandchildren,” DeLisi said in the statement provided by his legal team. “I have missed so many important moments with them and I can't wait to get out there and create precious memories with everyone. I am so thrilled that this dark chapter of my life is finally over.”

DeLisi’s daughter, Ashley, was 3 years old when he went to prison.

“I just want to hug my dad outside of prison,” she said, according to the release from The Last Prisoner Project.