"We were gonna fight it, but to fight it, it takes a lot of money," says Jeffrey Mizanskey, from the Missouri prison where he is serving a life sentence. "If you ain't got money, you can't fight it.”
Mizanskey was referring to one of his three convictions for marijuana offenses, but he could have been talking about the justice system as a whole. What other explanation is there for a system that puts a hard-working family man in prison for life without even hope of parole — all for a minor crime involving a substance that these days, 20 years after Mizanskey’s third and final conviction, is not even fully illegal in 21 of the 50 U.S. states?
The former owner of a small construction business is now the only nonviolent offender doing life Missouri's prison system.
According to the St. Louis paper Riverfront Times, Mizanskey got busted in 1993 in a Sedalia, Mo., motel room, the unwitting victim of a police sting operation.
There is no doubt that the then-40-year-old father of two made a questionable decision. He accompanied a local pot dealer to that Super 8 Motel to make a buy. In the course of the transaction, Misanskey handled a single brick of marijuana that weighed a few pounds.
Misanskey has always maintained that he didn't know that the purpose of the motel room meeting was to purchase contraband marijuana. He thought that his friend Atilano Quintana, the dealer, was meeting with movers to talk about getting his sister's furniture to her new home in New Mexico.
In any event, Quintana made the buy and was immediately arrested by cops who had the motel room under surveillance. The two sellers, it turned out, were drug mules cooperating with police to save their own skins.
One of the two cooperators spent a year in county jail while the other got off scot-free. Quintana, the man who police were actually after, served a 10-year sentence.
Misanskey was sentenced to life without parole —effectively, a long, drawn-out death sentence.
The issue was that he had two prior offenses, both for possession of barely enough marijuana to constitute a felony in Missouri. Neither conviction resulted in prison time.
Misanskey worked construction and says that the pot helped him deal with fatigue and soreness after a hard day’s labor. His father was an alcoholic, so the idea of drinking repulsed him. Instead, he chose marijuana.
But under Missouri’s one-of-a-kind version of "three strikes," even three nonviolent drug offenses trigger an automatic life sentence with no parole — a fact that, cruelly, Misanskey did not learn until he first applied for parole six years into his prison sentence. He was a model inmate so he thought parole would be a snap.
When he put in his application, the authorities essentially told him that he would die in prison.
"The attorney put down in there that I had life without the possibility of parole, and I said, 'Well, that's gotta be wrong. They didn't tell me any of that,'" Mizanskey told the Riverfront Times. “When I got the letter back from the parole board, I was ruined. You get information like that — there's not really a whole lot you can say about it. It's the end of the world."
Misanskey's supporters and family in October petitioned Missouri’s Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, to set his sentence aside. He's already done twice the time of his drug dealer friend who actually bought the marijuana in that motel room, almost exactly 20 years ago.
So far, there has been no word back from the governor's office.