Michael Thompson is serving a 40- to 60-year sentence in Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan. He’s already spent a quarter of a century in prison. His father, mother, and his only son have died in the time he’s been behind bars. His mom’s final wish — which she told his nephew, Sheldon Neeley — was that Thompson wouldn’t die in prison. He’s 68. He felt ashamed at his mother’s funeral because he had to wear handcuffs.
In 1994, Thompson sold 3 pounds of pot to a police informant. Michigan legalized pot in 2018, laying the groundwork for a profitable legal industry, making it that much harder for him to understand why he’s still behind bars. “You know after 25 years, you don’t feel nothing no more. You just feel numb,” he said.
In the 25 years he has served, Thompson has watched the rise of a bipartisan criminal justice reform movement and knows that his case illustrates its limits. The movement has focused on “nonviolent” criminals — preferably first-time offenders, preferably drug users — in its effort to roll back mass incarceration. But penal codes across the United States have become adept at stacking charges on defendants that legally qualify as violent — even if they didn’t commit a violent act — undermining that push. The problem is particularly pernicious as it relates to gun ownership, which is not just legal in the U.S., but fetishized as the pinnacle of patriotism. But when it comes to drug crimes, if a gun is anywhere in the picture — or even anywhere off-screen — the crime instantly becomes violent, and in Thompson’s case, as in so many others, the criminal unworthy of clemency. With a nation awash in weapons, the result is predictable.
Thompson’s underlying crime was the pot sale, but his long sentence comes from the fact that police found guns on his properties and that he had a record. Yet he didn’t have a gun on him when he sold the pot, he just happened to be a gun owner. One of the guns that police found was an antique rifle, another belonged to his wife. Gun ownership is also legal in Michigan, including open carry.
But Thompson, who is black, was sentenced during the mid-’90s, tough-on-crime frenzy, when federal and state lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — outraced each other to put drug offenders in prison for as long as possible using mandatory minimums, stacked charges, and repeat-offender laws. Bill Clinton memorably deployed the jaunty baseball metaphor, “three strikes and you’re out,” to describe legislation that doomed people to die behind bars for participating in the black markets created by Prohibition.
In the 25 years he’s been in prison, Thompson’s record has been spotless, which is no small feat, given the violent nature of U.S. prisons.
“I’ve only observed Thompson as respectful towards the officers and other inmates,” writes Thompson’s morning correctional officer in his latest behavioral report. “I’ve heard of no complaints about him + haven’t had any negative interactions with him.”
His night correctional officer concurs. “Always respectful — has good communications skills — stays out of trouble — gets along with all staff and prisoners.”
Even if Thompson had once been a violent criminal — of which there’s no evidence on his record — all indications point to his rehabilitation. That, combined with his age, means that the chances that he’ll reoffend or poses any kind of danger to society are virtually nil. But he’s still sitting in prison and set to stay there through his 70s and 80s.
“Please know, I am an honorable man,” Thompson said.
The crowded Democratic primary field is filled with candidates who want you to know that they really like legal weed. Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, bragged about smoking pot in college, citing her Jamaican heritage — and infuriating her father in the process for promoting cliches about Jamaicans. Vying for bonus cool points, she claimed that she got high while listening to Snoop Dogg and Tupac (this overreach was promptly smacked down when astute observers noted that neither rapper had released any music when she was in college).
Sen. Cory Booker has sponsored legislation to legalize pot at the federal level. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper oversaw legalization in Colorado, reluctantly at first, but now he advocates for giving pot businesses access to banking. The seemingly endless list of young contenders — Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro, Pete Buttigeig, Andrew Yang, Eric Swalwell — all support legal medicinal and recreational marijuana. O’Rourke even launched his congressional career on the back of a call for legalization.
And it’s not just the younger candidates in their 30s and 40s. Old-school Democrats at the state level, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York, not only say they want to legalize pot this year, but also emphasize racial and social justice in the creation of legal markets. In fact, pot legalization is one of the few issues that Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — also, for some reason, running for president — manage to agree on, despite their perpetual feuding. Meanwhile, even as he leads in the polls, Joe Biden’s long history of leading the drug war is one of his biggest shortcomings. In fact, it was former President Barack Obama who cleared the way for lawmakers to broadcast coolness through youthful drug use, when he slyly noted that unlike Bill Clinton, he’d inhaled, and even dabbled in a little cocaine as a young man. (It was a claim that his friends later questioned, making him also the first presidential candidate to possibly have embellished his drug use — something of a proto-Harris, perhaps.)
But no one seems to want to talk about the people who supplied all these erstwhile potheads with their drugs when weed was still illegal everywhere, creating black markets naturally prone to activity that could be read as violent on a criminal record, sinking clemency petitions decades after the arguably victimless crime was committed.
Prohibition in itself might lead to violence because of how black markets tend to operate.
“In a legal market, people who run a business have all kinds of accountability mechanisms if someone cheats them or there’s a dispute: They’ve got the police, courts. Those things are not available to people who sell drugs,” explained Alyssa Stryker, criminal justice reform manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.
“That being said, law enforcement intervention doesn’t always resolve violence in markets. Law enforcement intervention can also increase violence by destabilizing markets and relationships that allowed dealers to negotiate, rather than taking retaliatory action. And relationships are disrupted when someone is arrested,” she said.
Yet, with the exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who got in trouble for saying that people in prison should be allowed to vote — including people convicted of violent crime like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber — most lawmakers and candidates want to limit mercy to nonviolent drug offenders. In fact, the ideal candidate is a first-time nonviolent drug offender like Alice Marie Johnson, a federal prisoner who was freed when Kim Kardashian West took her case directly to President Donald Trump.
But few prisoners have Johnson’s “perfect” background.
Kevin Ring, director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, points out that people are often confused about the most common offender profile, wishing total innocence when that’s not realistic.
“You know, you’re not going to see a lot of prisoners like Johnson, especially since Obama commuted a bunch,” he said. “There are still people in federal prison serving life for marijuana, but many of those were major importers, or there’s guns or something else attached to it.” A Marshall Project report found that more than 50 percent of state prisoners are incarcerated for “violent” crimes.
Criminal justice reformers are trying to ease lawmakers and the public into the reality that you can’t have mass de-incarceration without accepting some degree of risk, but that’s hard, and it doesn’t surprise Ring that politicians balk at the prospect of releasing a prisoner who may have committed a crime that could be perceived as violent — and, in the worst-case scenario, reoffend. The Willie Horton effect still haunts Democrats and ultimately, no matter how committed someone is to reforming America’s racist criminal justice system, at the end of the day, their kids’ safety is going to matter more.
But most people age out of what we consider actually violent crimes like murder or assault. Let’s say someone commits armed robbery as a teenager. If this person is released five decades later as a geriatric, they are not likely to rush out and commit another armed robbery. “Aging out of violent crime is one of the most consistent findings in the data,” Ring said. “Violent crime is a young man’s game.”
A study from the Brookings Institution showed that 27 percent of all crimes are committed by people ages 11 to 20, and 34 percent by people between 21 to 30. But it’s not easy to sway a large swath of the public that punishment isn’t warranted for its own sake. “Longer sentences don’t work as a deterrent, but it’s a very unsatisfying argument intuitively,” Ring said. “Most people aren’t thinking cost-benefit. They’re thinking retribution.”
But even so-called violent offenders have not necessarily committed the kind of harm that justifies locking them up until they die as punishment. The way we classify violent offenders legally makes no sense. For example, in many states, you can be convicted of a burglary — which counts as a violent crime — just for entering a dwelling or property that’s not yours.
Take Fate Winslow, a black Louisiana man who got life without parole in Louisiana in 2008, after selling an undercover officer $20 of weed (he made $5 in the transaction). Winslow is still serving out his life sentence in Angola, making 80 cents a week cleaning the crowded prison dorms of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which sits atop a former slave plantation. Some of Winslow’s priors count as violent, like the burglaries on his record. But he was never armed. In one case, when he was homeless, he merely rifled through an unlocked car without taking anything.
Gov. Rick Snyder rejected Thompson’s application for commutation right before he left office, but Thompson has no idea why. “Everybody thought I was going to get it, they let so many out,” he said. “But they for some reason overlooked me again. The governor just declined to sign. I had a lot of people in my favor. I don’t know what’s going on. Why is this black cloud over my head?”
Chris Gautz, a spokesperson with the Michigan Department of Corrections, emphasized that it’s inaccurate to say that Thompson is in jail for pot. “The reason he is still in prison is because he was sentenced to a 40-60 term for firearms possession by a felon,” he said. “This is a very lengthy term for this charge, and is one of the longest we have ever seen the courts send us. It is definitely a rare case in that respect, rather than the marijuana connection.” He added that he doesn’t know the reason Snyder turned Thompson down and that he didn’t have to give one. “In terms of his commutation application, he submitted one in January of 2018 and then-Gov. Rick Snyder denied it on 11/21/2018. A governor does not have to indicate a reason and no reason was given as I understand it.”
Amy Povah, a former federal prisoner whose drug sentence was commuted by Clinton and who advocates for the group CAN-DO Foundation for Clemency, told The Intercept that it’s an outrage that Thompson is still sitting in prison.
“He has already served a quarter of a century for pot — that in itself is a crime,” Povah said. “The fact he owned guns that were unrelated to the underlying crime should not disqualify Thompson from receiving a commutation. President Obama granted over 145 men who were charged as felons in possession of a firearm in addition to their drug charges. No one that was released by President Obama for gun charges has reoffended, that we know of.”
Thompson has to wait two years from the date of his last petition to the state parole board to officially submit another one — two years from January 29, 2018. But, the governor and the judge who occupies the spot vacated by his sentencing judge have the power to pardon him right now.
When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer entered office on a progressive platform, Thompson got his hopes up again. On her site, under a section titled “Safety, Security and Justice,” Whitmer cites the need to balance justice and safety. “Our country, our state, our neighborhoods can feel hopelessly divided,” the site reads. “Yet, I know that we can fix this. We can make Michigan a place where our kids stay, our families thrive, and other people come to for opportunity.”
The Intercept asked the governor’s office if she plans to review this case or more generally commute sentences in her first term.
“I can’t speculate on what might happen regarding commutations during the governor’s term, as this will all be determined on a case-by-case base,” a spokesperson for the governor’s office said. “As it relates to Mr. Thompson, there currently isn’t a pardon application/request before Governor Whitmer for him.”
Thompson disputes the idea that he is — or ever was — a violent or dangerous person. “I ain’t ever committed a violent crime,” he said from Flint, where he ran a men’s group helping other inmates turn their lives around before it’s too late. “Where’s the violence coming in at?”