It’s been a year since Sedalian Jeff Mizanskey was released from prison after more than two decades, and he’s made the most of the last 365 days with his loved ones, fighting to prevent his situation from happening to anyone else.
Mizanskey spent roughly 20 years in the Jefferson City Correctional Center under the “three strikes” law when he and a few other men were caught in a Sedalia motel room with marijuana. It was his third possession charge, and the third offense under the persistent offender law required life in prison without possibility of parole.
According to the Associated Press, Mizanskey was the only person in Missouri serving a life sentence without any possibility for parole for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses.
Last May, Misanskey learned he was eligible for parole after Gov. Jay Nixon commuted his sentence. It took only days after an Aug. 6, 2015, hearing to be granted parole, and Mizanskey walked out of JCCC a free man Sept. 1, 2015.
Mizanskey’s situation gained worldwide attention with a petition for his release gaining almost 400,000 signatures. As news outlets began sharing his story, letters came pouring in from around the world, Mizanskey said.
“It was fantastic because being locked up in there as long as I was, you always get the feeling no one cares,” Mizanskey said. “I love our country, I’m a veteran, and you realize why you joined the military because you love this country in the first place, and to see where it was going to and how it was, you get that hopeless feeling while you’re in prison that no one cares. And then I heard about that (petition) and I heard how the signatures were just climbing and climbing. It did my heart good to realize so many cared and so many thought the same way.”
Home at last
When Mizanskey was sentenced to life in prison, he left behind a wife and children. When he returned home, he was greeted by grandchildren, nieces and nephews he had never met.
The past year has been filled with learning and reunions.
“It’s fantastic, I’ve been missing out on that for so many years. It’s miraculous, like I got to hold my grandson and my great-granddaughter when I first got out. He comes over quite often and as you can see we’ve got toys all over,” Mizanskey said two weeks ago as he pointed around the living room in his son’s Sedalia home where he lives. “He spreads them out through the house and my son says I’m spoiling them, and I say that’s my job,” he added with a laugh.
In between fishing, camping and traveling for activism, Mizanskey has been picking up odd jobs in construction in Sedalia. While he hasn’t found steady work, he said he’s “one of the lucky ones.”
“A lot of the people that come out (of prison), they don’t have what I had. Before I got locked up I was in construction and everyone in this town knows the type of work I’ve done,” he said. “… Most of the guys and girls that get out, they don’t have that. They really suffer.”
Mizanskey’s son, Chris Mizanskey, said it’s “been amazing” to finally have his dad home.
“It’s been great to have him out, we’ve done so much,” Chris said by phone. “It doesn’t make up for the last 22 years, but it’s a good start anyway.”
‘That’s why I’m an activist’
Mizanskey isn’t wasting his newfound freedom. He’s spent much of the last year traveling around the country advocating for both marijuana and prison reform.
“My main concern is trying to get cannabis legalized here in Missouri and some type of prison reform, get some of our laws changed,” he said. “… I also went around collecting signatures all over the state. They had me from one end of the state to the other and let me tell you, the consensus is, I’d say 70 to 80 percent of people are for medical cannabis. And let’s face it, our children, our veterans, elderly people, in fact, everyone in Missouri in general should have the right to use a natural medicine if they want to.”
Mizanskey shared several stories he’s heard during his travels, including one about a young girl who had such bad seizures she would break bones in her legs.
“They went to the doctor and tried everything possible and the doctor said there wasn’t much else they could do for her. … So they went to Colorado and got some oils,” Mizanskey recalled. “(The girl’s father) said they put one drop in her orange juice in the morning and the seizures quit completely. It was over a year at this time she was seizure-free and they were down to putting a drop in every few days.
“… What’s a shame is our system here, our laws here are actually making all these people doing that, that are helping their children or themselves, break the law. So in a sense, every one of them, same thing can happen to them that’s happened to me and that’s what we have to stop. That’s what drives me to the effect to get it legal to help so many.”
He and Chris helped collect signatures in Missouri to get medical marijuana on the Nov. 8 general election ballot, but efforts fell short. Proposed constitutional amendments must receive signatures from at least 8 percent of registered voters in six of the state’s eight congressional districts in order to go to voters, and Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green ruled Sept. 21 there weren’t enough signatures to qualify.
“It wasn’t a lost cause because we got out so much information to people on the fence, showed them how it can help folks, new things it helps folks with every day,” Chris Mizanskey said. “If anything it makes you fight harder.”
Mizanskey recalled watching men convicted of violent offenses such as rape, murder and robbery leave prison while he remained, even seeing some of them return, only to be released again.
“There’s something wrong with our justice system when a person is in there for non-violent crime is being held longer, in a lot of cases, than people that are hurting people,” he said. “Something went Topsy-Turvy. I don’t know what it is or why our system got this way, but that’s something we as a state and a nation have to straighten out.”
His work with prison reform includes helping nonviolent offenders like himself have a better chance of leading a productive life once they’re released, and making sure young men who commit nonviolent crimes aren’t housed with violent offenders that can harm them both mentally and physically.
Mizanskey said he believes drug offenders who don’t have a violent background don’t belong in prison, suggesting the funds used to house prisoners could be put to better use by creating classes to help drug offenders back on their feet.
“Why can’t we do something out here and help these people get off the drugs they’re on and get them to become productive citizens instead of throwing them in jail?” he said.
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or @NicoleRCooke.