Andy Cox speaks with a charming Southern drawl, and talking to him on the phone, you’d never guess that he was serving a life sentence in USP Big Sandy for growing marijuana. But Cox doesn't get a chance to forget: he's constantly reminded by the rampant violence in the Kentucky penitentiary.
"Pens are real violent because of gangs," Cox told Civilized. "We're locked down a lot. The whole month of December we were locked down except for a few days. You just stay in your cell, 24 hours a day, for two to three days, and then you get out for 10 minutes for a shower. Yep, it's violent. The first of December, someone from MS-13 hit the head guy for the Sureños; stabbed him right out in front of our unit. He almost died. I thought he had died, but I guess he lived. So the whole place kind of blew up for a minute, for the whole month of December. It was crazy. I haven't been to a medium [security prison] yet to really see how they're run, but these places are run terrible."
Instead of using lockdowns to deter violence, Cox has another suggestion.
"Have them sell marijuana in the commissary," he said, adding that he got the idea from a prison official. "One of the administrators said one time, 'I believe that there needs to be drugs on the compound, that way everybody's peaceful.' When there's no drugs, there's more violence. So I think if they sold marijuana on the commissary, It'd be a whole lot more peaceful."
Of course, it would also raise more eyebrows about why Cox is there in the first place. He's 11 years into a life sentence that is hard to explain to fellow inmates because getting locked up for growing a plant - especially since attitudes toward cannabis have changed drastically on the other side of Big Sandy's walls.
"Today, I got 'Town and Country' magazine, and they've got a big item on the marijuana industry, and I'm sitting in prison for life for the same thing they're doing. I'm doing life in prison."
How do other inmates react when they find out what your sentence is and what it's for?
They can't believe it. Even the correctional officers I work with or work around, they can't believe it either. They're just dumbfounded.
We've heard that prisons are flooded with cannabis and other drugs. Have you seen that at all?
Actually, the prisons aren't flooded with marijuana. These prisons are flooded with what they call K2 or spice. And other drugs: heroin, and suboxone, that kind of stuff. I don't do any drugs, but there's no marijuana here that I’ve ever heard of. It's kind of crazy. All the time, people smoke this [spice]. They've got it now where we can hardly get any mail anymore because the stuff comes on paper and these guys smoke it, and when they smoke it, it's like they're the Walking Dead. They're zombies.
What would you say to Donald Trump, if you had a minute with him, to help your case?
I would let the president know that marijuana's pretty much accepted all over the United States now and that I'm actually a nonviolent offender, and I've only ever been to prison for marijuana, not for any other drugs. So please give me another chance.
Do you think it's ever just to sentence someone to life for a non-violent crime?
Is it fair or just? No. How can it be? There's no way it could be fair and just. The crime hasn't hurt anybody. I mean, mine is just for growing marijuana, but even if I was selling marijuana, you're not forcing somebody to buy marijuana from you, you're actually providing a service, you see what i mean? I've never seen anybody come up, put a gun on them and say, “Here, you gotta buy this marijuana or give me your money for this marijuana.” It's insane to have a life sentence for something like this.
What do you think would be a reasonable punishment for what you did?
If it comes down to a punishment, it's gotta be a money punishment, like a fine. I mean, what good do they get out of putting me in prison? They've probably got two million dollars involved in all this in the last 12 years.
If you were freed tomorrow, what's the first thing you'd do?
Go see my children. And thank God and the president. Call my support crew. I've got people all over the country that are like marijuana advocates that have really been behind me.
What's one of the hardest things about being separated from your family and friends?
Watching my baby grow up and not being in her life. And my son. My daughter and my son. My daughter is now in college. When I left, she was five years old. It's tough.
What's an example of someone with a violent crime you’ve seen that didn't get much time?
Really, here, most people in these pens have a lot of time. Now, when I was going to trial and stuff, I was watching people that were doing crimes against people, like child molesters, child pornography and child trafficking, and these guys are getting like 8, 12, 15 years. And I was like, this is unbelievable. Even in my sentencing to the judge, I told him that I can't believe it.
What's one thing that you wish people outside understood about the criminal justice system in America?
That the criminal justice system is broken. And it's not about justice, it's all about convictions.