It’s been almost two years since Billy Dekle was released from federal prison, but he still has nightmares about his life inside maximum security.
"It’s a whole different world," he told Civilized from his home in Lake City, Florida. "I’m sure glad I’m out of it, I tell you that right now."
Dekle is lucky. He was supposed to spend life in prison without parole for conspiring to import 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana, among other charges.
But in December of 2015, Dekle and 94 other nonviolent drug offenders were granted clemency by President Obama.
However, Dekle still spent over 25 years - from 1990 to 2016 - in maximum security prisons, serving time alongside convicted murderers and terrorists, for a nonviolent marijuana offense in a country where cannabis is quickly becoming widely accepted and legalized in many states.
“It didn’t seem like it was a real crime”
Dekle is now in his mid-60s, but he remembers his time smuggling almost fondly. He was a pilot, and he had heard from some of his colleagues that there was good money to be made in transporting marijuana from Colombia to Florida, where he was based.
He says marijuana was really popular in the United States at that time (It was the mid ‘70s), and there was more of it in South America than North. So he started flying back and forth regularly.
"It didn’t seem like it was a real crime to me,” he said, “even though I knew it was against the law. It just looked like an opportunity: I called it the Colombian Gold Rush."
Over the years, he was arrested in Jamaica and spent a little time in prison there in 1979, then a few times in the States, but it didn’t end his smuggling career.
But in 1990, he was accused of conspiracy, pleaded innocent, and after a trial, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
"You can’t get too relaxed"
Dekle, like most marijuana lifers, spent a lot of his 26 years in maximum security prisons, which are meant for the worst or most dangerous offenders: serial rapists, murderers, and terrorists are more the norm than the exception.
"You have to be on your toes all the time, very aware of your surroundings,” he said, “because anything could happen at any time."
An aerial view of USP Big Sandy, where Dekle did time.
"You can’t get too relaxed. And that’s one of the hard things, living like that, where you can’t ever really feel comfortable."
His wife and children (and eventual grandchildren) stuck by his side throughout the years, and his wife visited him wherever he was transferred to. Dekle jokes that his wife got to see a lot of the United States because of his prison sentence.
But there was one prison he was transferred to where he told her not to bother visiting: USP Big Sandy in Kentucky. He said that the high security federal prison spent more time in lockdown than out of it, meaning visiting opportunities were few and far between.
"It was really devastating to them," Dekle said of his family, "and it was really hard for them. It was a struggle."
“That’s a heck of an emotion”
Dekle applied for clemency twice, knowing that President Obama had prioritized commutations for nonviolent drug offenders.
He was turned down the first time, but the second time, his request was granted and he was released into a halfway house four months later.
"When I woke up that morning, I was doing life without parole," he said, "and when I went to bed that night, I was 120 days short (I had 120 days in a halfway house)."
"So that’s a heck of an emotion right there, that change. I didn’t do a lot of sleeping that night."
He got a job at the halfway house, got his affairs in order, and then moved home. His family was thrilled to have him back, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing: a lot had changed in the 26 years since he’d been outside.
His biggest struggle, surprisingly, was automatic hand dryers. He remembers standing in front of them for the first time in the bathroom, trying to find the button, until someone came up and showed him how they worked.
He and his wife are now retired, and are travelling and working on a book about Dekle’s smuggling adventures in his youth.
Processing what happened has been an ongoing struggle, but he says that his feelings toward the plant that put him in jail haven’t changed.
"I’m not mad at the marijuana for me being in prison," he said. "It’s just part of my life that i’ve got to accept, that’s what happened with it. You can’t dwell on that now."
In fact, he is happy to see all the progress that is being made with regards to the legalization of cannabis in many states, but says that federally, the punishment still doesn’t fit the crime.
"It’s a slow death sentence over a drug that’s not even a drug, not to me," he said. "Everybody that was involved with the crime with me was a willing participant. I did 25 on a consensual crime, no victims, nobody got hurt, everybody involved in the crime was happy as can be when it happened, and there went the rest of my life. Something’s wrong with that."