420 Prisoner of War Jeff Mizanskey on Two Decades Behind Bars

Freedom is sweet, but losing 20 years to weed charges is bitter.

Sedelia, Missouri, native Jeff Mizanskey likes to keep busy. Between playing with this grandson and great granddaughter, automotive work, reading and catching up on television shows, he says he rarely has a free moment.

Image via Missourian

The world has indeed changed in the time Mizanskey spent incarcerated in Missouri’s prison system from 1993 through 2015.

“Gas, cigarettes, price of living—it’s up,” says Mizanskey, a soft-spoken and restrained man, over the phone one Tuesday afternoon this past June. His income from Social Security and odd jobs helps to keep him financially afloat. “Finding work out here is not easy for a guy that gets out of prison,” says the 62-year-old, though unfettered access to generations of family once beyond his grasp has been a priceless bonus.

“Being around family is like—it's pretty hard to put it in words.”

Up until his 2015 release after 21 years in prison, Jeff Mizanskey, an active pro-marijuana legalization activist, was the only known man to be serving a life sentence in the state of Missouri for a nonviolent, marijuana-related felony. His conviction—stemming from a felony arrest for possession and intent to distribute no more than seven pounds of marijuana in late 1993—was his third of three nonviolent marijuana-related busts in just under a decade. Twelve years passed in Mizanskey’s prison term before he discovered that the same law that mandated his life sentence also negated his eligibility for parole or probation; 10 more years followed before Missouri Gov. Jeremiah “Jay” Nixon finally signed a pardon commuting Mizanskey’s sentence to allow for parole. 

Public opinion related to marijuana prohibition has evolved almost as drastically as consumer prices during the time Mizanskey was locked away. Two years into his sentence in 1995, just 25 percent of Americans felt marijuana should be legalized according to historical data from Gallup; at the time of his release in late 2015, national support had more than doubled to 58 percent. In 2016, 26 states have passed some form of legislation legalizing medical marijuana (Missouri could follow suit this coming November), and the legal marijuana market is expected to reach $6.7 billion nationally. 

Two decades of economic, political and social evolution have reinvented the world in ways Mizanskey could have hardly envisioned from within his prison walls.

Jeff Mizanskey inside Missouri prison - Photo credit

Enhanced Sentencing Equals Life Sentences for Nonviolent Offenders

Chris Mizanskey, Jeff’s son, was one of the driving forces behind his father’s eventual release from federal prison. Just a 13-year-old when his father was handed his life sentence, the Sedelia, Missouri, native began a Change.org clemency petition on behalf of his father on January 27, 2014, it eventually garnered 391,529 supporters. 

Chris’s efforts caught the attention of criminal defense attorney and pro-marijuana activist Dan Viets.

“You know frankly, you hear a lot of things. Both as a defense lawyer and as a marijuana activist,” says Viets, a Missouri State Coordinator for NORML who eventually became Mizanskey’s attorney. “You hear a lot of horror stories. Some of them are true, and some of them aren't. But, as incredible as Chris's story about his father seemed to be at first, it checked out.”

Under Missouri’s Prior and Persistent Drug Offender law, an individual with two prior drug-related felony convictions can, on a third conviction and at a prosecutor’s discretion, receive an enhanced mandatory minimum sentence of 10 calendar years behind bars, or as much as 30 years to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or probation.

"Because he went to trial, he got that extra twist of the knife that our system reserves for people who actually exercise their constitutional right to a trial.”

Mizanskey’s first drug-related conviction was issued in November 1984 after he attempted to sell an ounce of marijuana to an undercover cop. He caught a second marijuana-related felony conviction seven years later for possession of between two to three ounces. Both times, Mizanskey plead guilty. Mizanskey’s third, and catastrophic, drug-related charge resulted from a doomed drug transaction in Pettis County, Missouri, in 1993. After driving a friend, Atilano Quintano, to a drug deal that turned out to be a sting operation orchestrated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Mizanskey was charged as a Prior and Persistent Drug offender. He received a life sentence judgment on May 24, 1994, from Judge Theodore Scott.

Quintana, the undisputed architect of the doomed weed transaction, served a ten-year sentence. Two others men involved—Jorge Inbaudo and Jose Reyes—each spents a year in a county jail. Through separate plea deals, all three men avoided significantly longer sentences.

“Jeff had a kind of a perfect storm,” says Viets. “He drew a judge that was just notoriously harsh. And Jeff went to trial because he did not think the evidence proved him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Because he went to trial, he got that extra twist of the knife that our system reserves for people who actually exercise their constitutional right to a trial.”

An Early Release Proves Bittersweet

After three defeated appeals between 1995 and 2011, news of Mizanskey’s gubernatorial pardon arrived in mid-2015.

“When I got called into the caseworker's office, and I was told on the telephone that he had signed those papers, I think I kind of went into shock” says Mizanskey. He went back into his cell and lit a cigarette—a practice banned in federal prisons since 2014.

“I was just standing there by the door, laying on the sink, and my cellie just kept looking at me, saying, 'What’s wrong? What’s wrong?' ” After lighting and finishing his second cigarette, Mizanskey dropped his massive bomb. “I said, ‘He just signed the paperwork. I’m going home.’ And, he just about bounced off of the ceiling. He was just overjoyed and, myself, I was still kind of in shock, like it didn’t really happen.”

Though grateful for the decisions of both Gov. Nixon and the parole board tasked with deciding his fate, Mizanskey still can’t help but feel cheated by a legal system that kept him incarcerated for a third of his life over a plant now available to be consumed on a legal basis by a large portion of the United States population.

“I was let down so many times through the years that I thought I should have got out through the court system,” he says.

Mizanskey was granted parole on August 10, 2015, and walked from prison a free man on September 1, 2015.

Mending a Broken Justice System

As of January 1, 2017, Missouri’s criminal code will no longer include the draconian Prior and Persistent Drug Offenders law—the result of a comprehensive revision of the state’s criminal statutes that became law in May 2014.

“When we sent that revised criminal code, that thousand paged bill, to the Missouri General Assembly, it did not include the horrible Prior and Persistent Drug Offender Law,” says Viets, one of several defense attorneys in the Missouri Bar Association Committee tasked with drafting code revisions. “I was holding my breath, but I was very pleased and surprised that the legislature actually adopted it, and did not reenact that [old] law.”

"I hope people learn how wrong it is to be locked up for a plant. Something that is helping everybody.”

In a court system set up to discourage expensive and time-consuming trials, Viets says Missouri’s Prior and Persistent Drug Offenders code has for years coerced individuals who might otherwise be found not guilty into pleading guilty in order to avoid absurdly harsh sentences. Unfortunately for Mizanskey, who chose to make a case for his innocence, the justice system proved cruelly retaliatory.

“I think most honest lawyers, judges, and prosecutors would tell you that we punish people who go to trial in this country,” says Viets. “And the punishment can be very, very harsh.”

Mizanskey says that he and Quintana, who passed away in 2010, kept in touch through letters throughout his incarceration. Mixed in with news about family and prison life, Quintana’s letters also expressed shock and regret for Mizanskey’s legal fate.

“Well, he couldn't believe that I got the time that I got,” says Mizanskey, who enjoyed mentoring younger inmates about the value of hard work during his days in Jefferson County Correctional Center—just as he’d done for his sons. “And a lot of it was that he was apologizing for me getting the time and not letting me know exactly what was going on.”

Now a free man, Mizanskey has become a prominent figure in Missouri’s medical marijuana legalization movement.

“What I really hope is we get some kind of change in our justice system,” he says. “And I hope people learn how wrong it is to be locked up for a plant. Something that is helping everybody.”