FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – While serving a 90-year prison sentence for selling marijuana, Richard DeLisi's wife died, as did his 23-year-old son and both his parents. His adult daughter was in a horrific car accident and suffered a paralyzing stroke as a result. He never met two granddaughters — a lifetime of missed memories.
Yet, 71-year-old DeLisi walked out of a Florida prison Tuesday morning grateful and unresentful as he hugged his tearful family. After serving 31 years, he said he's just eager to restore the lost time. DeLisi was believed to be the longest-serving nonviolent cannabis prisoner, according to the The Last Prisoner Project which championed his release.
DeLisi also finally met his 11-year-old and 1-year-old granddaughters for the first time this week.
“I’m a blessed human being, a survivor,” DeLisi said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday while he was in the parking lot of his favorite hamburger joint as he watched his granddaughters laugh and bounce a ball.
DeLisi was sentenced to 90 years for marijuana trafficking in 1989 at the age of 40 even though the typical sentence was only 12 to 17 years. He believes he was targeted with the lengthy sentence because the judge mistakenly thought he was part of organized crime because he was an Italian from New York. DeLisi said he had opportunities, but never had any desire for that life.
He prefers not to dwell on lost memories and time he'll never get back. He's not angry, and instead takes every opportunity to express gratitude and hope.
“Prison changed me. I never really knew who God was and now I know and it changed the way I talk to people and treat people,” said DeLisi, who became a mentor to younger inmates. “For me, being there so long, I was able to take gang members from gangs to gentleman.”
When the then-40-year-old hipster with the thick Italian accent first entered prison, he was illiterate, but taught himself how to read and write.
Now, he wants “to make the best of every bit of my time” fighting for the release of other inmates through his organization FreeDeLisi.com.
“The system needs to change and I’m going to try my best to be an activist,” he said.
Chiara Juster, a former Florida prosecutor who handled the case pro bono for the The Last Prisoner Project, criticized DeLisi's lengthy sentence as "a sick indictment of our nation."
The family has spent over $250,000 on attorneys' fees and over $80,000 on long-distance international collect calls over the past few decades, but it's not money they want back.
Rick DeLisi was only 11-years-old when he sat in the courtroom and said goodbye to his father. Now, he's a successful business owner with a wife and three children living in Amsterdam. He can't wait to bring his father overseas and to their vacation home in Hawaii.
Those are the memories his father yearned to create while he was locked up.
“Taking a swim, lay in the sun, oh so many things, eat at Jack’s Hamburgers,” the father said.
Every moment, even the little ones, are milestones.
For years, 43-year-old Rick dreamed of cooking his father breakfast like he did Wednesday morning with heaping platters of eggs, bacon, sausage and biscuits. He burst into tears just watching his dad eat a bagel and drink a bottle of water that didn't come from the prison commissary.
But it's bittersweet thinking about the lost time, the waste.
For what, his son asks?
“It’s just kind of like torment on your soul for 31 years,” he said. “I was kind of robbed of my whole life so I just appreciate that I can witness it, but on the other hand I feel like isn’t somebody responsible? Is there somebody that can answer to this?”
Rick DeLisi said his family fell apart after his father's sentence. His mother never recovered. His brother overdosed and died, his sister was in a terrible car accident. Rick fled at the country at 17 to get away from the pain.
“I can't believe they did this to my father. I can't believe they did this to my family,” the grieving son said, describing the reunion like opening up an old, painful wound.
His voice cracks and his eyes well up with tears as he talks about how grateful he is to finally see his dad.
“There's a feeling of who's responsible for this debt in my mind, and justice," said Rick DeLisi. "I don't mean debt with money. I mean something more valuable. Time. Something you can never get back.”