When his 23-year-old son died of an overdose in 2014, Craig Cesal didn’t go to his funeral.
It wasn’t because he didn’t want to. He did, desperately. But filing the paperwork for an escorted trip, according to the warden at the prison he was at, was "too much work", Cesal said.
If Cesal wasn’t in prison, he would have been able to say goodbye to his son. In fact, he says, if he wasn’t in prison, his son would probably still be alive.
"It’s just brought so much shame upon my children," he said. "It left my daughter unable to go to college, because the money just wasn’t there any longer. My son actually ended up homeless, and he died using some drugs that a local jail had given him."
The worst part of the whole situation is that Cesal doesn’t deserve his sentence. He’s serving life without possibility of parole for a non-violent, marijuana-only offence, one he says he didn’t even know he was participating in.
"I figured they were cuban cigars"
Cesal is a Chicago native. He grew up in a fairly normal family. He went to university, got married, had two children, and then got divorced. He also started his own truck repair business, operating it for 20 years
He repaired a large number of refrigerated trucks at his body shop for a client based in Lakeland, Florida. When the trucks came into him, they were completely trashed. The insulated walls were always torn apart.
It was pretty obvious to Cesal that they were being used to smuggle some sort of contraband, but he wasn’t sure what they were transporting, and he didn’t think it was his business to say anything.
"Sometimes they smelled like cigars, so I figured they were Cuban cigars or something, I don’t know," he said.
They were actually smuggling tons of marijuana, between 10,000 and 30,000 kilos over the course of the operation. And when he was caught in Georgia, retrieving an abandoned truck, he was charged with conspiracy to distribute that much, even though all he had done was retrieve and repair the vehicles.
He pled guilty, without admitting guilt, because he didn’t know what else to do, and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
"At the time I thought, 'Surely, the Court of Appeals will overturn this', you know," he said. "A guy with no criminal history, a legitimate business, there’s no way they would give me a sentence worse than most murderers get."
But then, they didn’t. Cesal has been in prison since 2002.
"I was cheated by the system"
Cesal keeps busy, working in the prison factories, helping other inmates with their legal paperwork, and trying not to think about his own situation.
He’s making the best of it, but he says it’s hard when everyone’s background is so different from his.
"Right now, I’m looking over the rail of the cell block I live in, and there’s 134 people in here and there’s only one other person that’s been to college," he said during his 15 minute phone call. "It’s hard to hang out with people that you have absolutely nothing in common with."
He applied for clemency while Obama was still in office, but his petition was voided due to a mishap with his prosecuting attorney and someone who claimed to be acting for him. Now, he’s getting the papers together to apply again. He’s hopeful, but also very disillusioned.
"I was cheated by the spirit of the system," he says. "I wasn’t allowed my own lawyer, I had to use a lawyer they assigned me. [There were] so many odd restrictions that made a huge difference in the outcome of my case."
"I think unfortunately, they just brush it off and say, 'Too bad, you’re a prisoner, you’re guilty, goodbye.'"
He says that if he were to get out, he feels a duty to help advocate for others like himself, who have had their lives ruined by conspiracy laws and system malfunctions. He wants to get involved in politics and try to advocate for change from the inside.
Even though he doesn’t smoke pot himself, aside from a few times in junior high, he strongly believes that people should be allowed to without being thrown in jail.
"Chicago, my hometown, is overrun with murders in the streets and all that," he said, "and that’s where our law enforcement needs to be focused, rather than on chasing people for smoking marijuana."