LAKELAND, Fla. – 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, Florida, 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.
Advocates say DeLisi, a 71-year-old who is being held at South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach County, 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.
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.
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“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.”
The Florida Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request from The Lakeland Ledger, part of the USA TODAY Network. The news release from The Last Prisoner Project said the agency would issue DeLisi’s official release date on Monday.
Prison life begins in 1989
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.
The Department of Corrections is allowed to give conditional medical release to inmates considered terminally ill or permanently incapacitated and not deemed a danger to others.
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.
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 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.”
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.
Follow reporter Gary White on Twitter @garywhite13.
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