Craig Cesal has been in prison since 2002, when he was sentenced to life without parole in a conspiracy case involving smuggling 10,000 to 30,000 lbs of marijuana. He owned a truck repair company in Chicago, and he was implicated in the conspiracy when he picked up a truck used to smuggle the cannabis in Georgia. Even though he had no role in planning the crime, and he wasn't even sure what they were smuggling, all the charges stemming from the incident were pinned on him.
And if that sounds bizarre to you, imagine how fellow inmates react when they hear that he's stuck behind bars for the rest of his life because of a nonviolent cannabis offense.
"It kind of makes me a standout," Cesal told Civilized. "Especially because the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) gives everybody a security level. It's a measure in points as to how dangerous you are, and based on that, they put you in either a high security institution or a low. I have no prior convictions, I even have deductions for having been employed at the time of my arrest and things like that, so I actually have a rating of zero, yet a life sentence. The BOP doesn't even really know how to deal with me. I started out in a high security prison, but now iIve been in a medium for a number of years, so it makes me kind of a standout to other inmates."
And while prisons can keep people like Cesal behind bars, they can't keep illicit drugs from sneaking in.
"Recently, there seems to be an influx of what they're calling K2. I don't know if it actually is. But apparently a lot of that is some sort of substance sprayed on paper and people get it mailed to them, so now we're not allowed to get greeting cards anymore. We're not allowed a whole lot of things. But these drugs are making people crazy, and actually, somebody I was close to died from it. Several people have died from it. I don't know what they're actually taking or what it really does to them, but you see them on the floor, you see them comatose, it's kind of a mess. It's a real problem right now in the prison."
What's the biggest misconception about prison?
Probably the level of discipline. One thing that I've really been surprised with is the prison administrators, many of them just tend to be sadistic. For no reason at all, they find ways to irritate or sometimes physically injure the inmates, and that was something I really didn't expect, or at last not to the level I've seen it. I think it makes a lot of the inmates retaliatory and it teaches them that the only way to live is by physical force, and unfortunately too many of them take that back to the streets.
There's no agency that oversees what the prison officials do, there's nobody that comes in and inspects. It really just amazes me how prisoners in the United States are treated, and what it's really doing to the public when most of them are released. Most of them are normal people and they're turned into violent people before they're released, and I think that's a real bad plan.
If you were freed tomorrow, what's the first thing you'd do?
I'd go and get a good meal. In the last few years, they've really cut down on the foods we get. So I'd love to have some vegetables, and I’d love to have some regular meat. We don't get any fresh vegetables anymore at all. They've cut out our fresh fruit, except once in a while we'll get a banana. There's very little meat; the only meat we get is we get turkey in a variety of ways, either as turkey bologna, which is what we ate for breakfast and supper today. Turkey bologna, four slices of bread, one slice of like a cheese processed thing, a bag of potato chips and a cookie. That was our lunch and dinner. So the first thing I'd want to do on my release is go get a real meal with a real piece of meat, some real vegetables.
What would you say to Trump to change his mind about prison reform?
I think they need to look at why more than half of federal prisoners are drug offenders, and some of the drug sentences just don't make any sense. Like, mine is a first-time offender, a life sentence for marijuana. But had I instead raped somebody, under the federal sentencing guidelines, my sentence would have been a maximum of 31 months. I think there's a disparity there that we need to correct.
You mentioned that people are serving shorter sentences for more violent crimes. What’s the craziest example you’ve seen?
The most common violent offenders in prison are bank robbers. Up until recently, I had a cellie—a cell partner—that robbed a bank in Minnesota, one in Illinois, and one in Indiana, and of course, threatening all those people and taking all that money. He got a four-year sentence. He left last year. I'm just surprised that he can do that, but had he sold marijuana to each of those people, he'd still be in prison for a long time. There seems to be something wrong with that for me, but there's a lot of violent offenders who are bank robbers, and the average sentence they serve is about five years.
Do you think it's ever fair to sentence someone to life for a non-violent crime?
No. I mean, there's probably some exception somewhere, but on its face, really for any crime, I think a life sentence doesn't fit. Of course, there are repeat offenders that go back and forth to prison, and I can understand progressively worse sentences for them, but especially for first-time offenders, I don't see how any drug offender can face a life sentence.
In your case, what do you think would be a reasonable punishment in your case?
Umm, to be honest, I don't think it should be illegal, but in general, I think somebody that did actually buy and sell several thousand pounds of marijuana, I think you could maybe be looking at a five-year sentence. Something that would be a harsh punishment, but would still leave them as a viable person when they left prison. They would still be current enough in their jobs skills to be employable, they would still have family ties and friend ties, and they could reintegrate into society. Because if you keep someone in prison for 10 to 20 years, they've lost all of that. I think they're very likely to have to turn to crime just to support themselves.
What's the hardest part about being in prison for so long?
My children. No doubt about it. My daughter had just turned 14, was about to graduate from 8th grade, when I got arrested. My son was 4 years younger, so he was 10 years old and we were very close. It was then, and always remained, the hardest part of the sentence. Of course, I keep in touch regularly with my daughter, she visits when she can with her husband, and as you may remember, my son died four years ago. He'd ended up actually in a homeless shelter, and then shortly after that, died of a drug overdose.
What's the one thing you wish people outside of prison understood about the justice system?
I think what they really need to understand is there's no checks and balances. It's missing a lot of fairness, and there's really nobody who oversees it to make sure that lawyers are doing their jobs, prosecutors, and all that. I think it needs to be a fairer system.