Imagine being sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a non-violent cannabis crime you were circumstantially connected to. You’re separated from your family and friends for the better part of two decades. You watch as state after state legalizes cannabis, yet you remain behind bars. It’s a story too sad, too infuriating, too agonizingly unjust for words. This is the very real story of Craig Cesal; a former cannabis prisoner-turned-campaigner who’s using his knowledge of life on the inside to help others with stories like his to regain their freedom.
In 2002, Cesal co-owned a towing company near Chicago that recovered and repaired trucks for a rental company. At a checkpoint in Laredo, TX, US border agents discovered 1,500 pounds of cannabis hidden in secret compartments inside one of the trucks he repaired. In 2003, Cesal was convicted of leasing vehicles to smugglers and was handed a life sentence without the possibility of parole on drug conspiracy charges—even though he had no prior convictions.
When Cesal was initially incarcerated in a maximum-security prison, he says he was angry and depressed. But there was no point dwelling on his fate and feeling sorry for himself—that’s not his style. “I quickly realized that emotion wasn’t productive,” he says.
Cesal says he started using his time to help his fellow prisoners achieve their freedom, finding value and purpose in helping inmates write their legal appeals. Soon, campaigning for prisoner justice became his focus.
“They put me in a county jail in a poor mountainous area of rural Georgia,” Cesal says. “I was one of only a handful of people among some 600 inmates who could actually read and write. I became the guy to read and write their letters and especially explain their legal documents.” So began Cesal’s daily fight “to get all of us prisoners what we were entitled to in the justice system,” he says. “In the long haul, it gave me value for the inmates and the warden because instead of inmates burning cellblocks down, I could now lead a protest within the rails. And the wardens respected that, as much as they didn’t like it [laughs].”
And that’s how Craig Cesal passed the endless months and years of his unimaginable life sentence.
“I lived better than most,” he admits wryly. “I’d walk through the food line and I might have had a concurrent sentence removed for the guy serving the hamburgers. Or I might have been fighting for a lower sentence for the guy putting the vegetables on the plate. So, my meals were usually heavier than the others.”
When COVID-19 struck in 2020, Cesal finally had his first taste of freedom in nearly two decades.
“The Bureau of Prisons could assign home confinement to the inmates who had less than two years left on their sentences, were also shown to be non-violent while in prison and be susceptible to COVID,” he says. “I aggravated the warden so much—as a lifer, I wasn’t qualified for home confinement. But Cheri Sicard led an army of people harassing the warden, harassing the Director of the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, DC—even the attorney general himself. The warden then told me, ‘We’re sending you home. I know it’s not legal, but it will only become an issue if you commit another crime—and I don’t think you will.’ That gave me the tools to fight for clemency under the Trump administration.”
A Second Chance
Cesal was granted clemency by the former president in his final hours in office. Other men would put the prison experience behind them and forget the ones left behind. But Cesal isn’t most men. He teamed up with the lawyers and allies that fought for his freedom to help his fellow cannabis prisoners who remain behind bars to form the nonprofit, Second Chance Foundation, which specializes in fighting for cannabis prisoners’ freedom.
“My full-time job is seeking clemency and relief for the cannabis offenders that are mainly in federal prison as well as state prisons where you know that there might be an avenue of relief for them,” he says. “Right now, we’re representing 267 federal marijuana prisoners hoping for President Biden’s clemency. He’s promised to give them clemency and we’re doing everything to hold him accountable.”
Cesal says he communicates daily with at least 30 prisoners, including their families and legal representatives. He’s exceptionally good at what he does—and doing it on a shoestring budget.
“After nearly two decades of being a jailhouse lawyer, I know how to game the system—and how to beat it,” he says. “I’ve helped a couple of inmates over the last few months walk out of prison who are now at home with their families. I wrote and filed their legal motions, and both were granted. It’s so rewarding—I always feel I have to get results from the Biden administration.”
The Fight for Clemency
Cesal says clemency is one of the few things in the US Constitution that came from the King of England. “There are two kinds of clemency,” he says. “One is a pardon, which does away with the conviction on the person’s record. Another one is commutation, where the president has the power to reduce (or eliminate) the actual prison sentence. My prison sentence was reduced from life without the possibility of parole in prison to time served; yet, I still had five years of supervised release, which is our federal government’s fancy term for ‘parole to serve.’ That’s why the president may commute people’s sentences in federal prison, but there’s no federal expungement law. So, all those records still exist, which means it’s still evident when somebody applies for employment or housing. Former prisoners can walk in with this piece of paper from the president and say, ‘I’ve been pardoned,’ but in most cases, it’s kind of meaningless when seeking employment or housing.”
Cesal believes a presidential expungement provision—where all prison records can be erased—is a crucial part of federal legislation and cannabis justice reform.
“I want President Biden to develop a special program for cannabis offenders that relies on dealing with activists like me who actually understand the system,” he says. “Some people would say the removal of a prisoner wouldn’t be considered by our clemency system to be a marijuana inmate. One obvious example is sometimes it’s easier to prove the person was spending proceeds from marijuana sales, therefore, it’s technically ‘money laundering,’ than to prove when and where they sold the cannabis. This means people are in prison for spending the proceeds from cannabis sales, not for possessing cannabis specifically. I want those sentences to go away. Several people I know are currently serving 20 years for that.”
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Now, Cesal really knows how the prison system works, how things can be improved and how to play the game. He recently started working with elected officials from his home state of Illinois as part of a “study committee that looks at recommended changes to a lot of cannabis laws here in Illinois,” he says.
To help fund the Second Chance Foundation and continue to fight for clemency without the help of major donors, Cesal has taken up a second job. Ironically, he says, working with the recently retired deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and START-OPP, a support service that “works with employers and justice-involved individuals to create successful reentry outcomes,” according to its website.
“We’re from totally opposite ends of the arena and yet here we are working on specialty operations,” he says of the retired deputy director. “We’re bringing training programs into prisons that inmates can do over the course of their last year in prison. If they complete the program, they’re guaranteed a job with one of these big companies the day they walk out and taste freedom.”
Cesal becomes eager to tell a story.
“When I got out of prison, I didn’t own anything but the clothes I was wearing,” he says, amused by the memory. “I went to Target to buy socks, underwear and other necessities. I walked in and I realized I had no idea what size underwear I wore [laughs]. In prison, you don’t get to pick a size. I’d been inside for 19 years and my weight had fluctuated by about ten pounds. I honestly didn’t know what size I wore. And, of course, you can’t try them on, so I had to buy two sizes. That’s something nobody else would ever consider.”
There are more serious matters, too. Cesal says his social security number was terminated while imprisoned and he had to endure months of arguments with the Social Security Administration (SSA), trying to convince them that he was, in fact, very much alive.
“The SSA doesn’t maintain their own database, they rely on the three big credit unions,” he says. “And since I didn’t have any credit, I was technically considered ‘dead.’ Even walking into the office with my ID wasn’t enough to convince them I was alive by their own procedures.”
After studying up on the topic, Cesal found an obscure caveat that stated the SSA would accept a written prescription by a doctor as proof that he was “a living, breathing person,” he says. “Doctors don’t write those anymore, but I finally convinced one to write me a prescription for ibuprofen.”
The Legal Cannabis Conundrum
In 2019, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize cannabis for adult use, a year before Cesal was in home confinement during the pandemic. He recalls his first encounter with a legal dispensary.
“I had permission to leave the house for two-hour stints once a week with the GPS tag on my ankle,” he says. “Once, I had to go to a doctor’s appointment in Chicago. So, I’m walking down the street and I stopped right in front of a cannabis dispensary. I watched all these people walking in and watched them walk out again carrying bags. I wanted to ask them, ‘Is marijuana really legal?’ ‘What’s this thing on my ankle?’ Because if I went in there and bought cannabis, I’d violate my supervised release and get sentenced once again.”
Adult use cannabis is part of a convoluted system, Cesal says, with multiple legal traps and pitfalls. “Even in the states that they call marijuana legal, it’s not. Illinois is putting more people in prison for cannabis distribution now than before they legalized it. Why?” he asks.
“You’re only allowed to possess up to 30 grams of weed, and you’re only allowed to sell under certain conditions,” Cesal says. “Many people think that since it’s being bought and sold in these dispensaries, they can go grow and sell the plant, too. So, they grow some marijuana in the backyard. Next thing, they’ve got a pound of marijuana sitting on the seat, get pulled over by the police and are doing five years in prison the very next day. Sadly, a lot of people get trapped by that. In fact, one of the people I’m representing is sentenced to life imprisonment in California for cannabis—and he’s been in ten years already. And there are cannabis stores everywhere in California.”
Craig Cesal: Changemaker
Today, Cesal is a very busy man. When he’s not working to obtain clemency for prisoners, help rewrite state laws, assist former felons to reintegrate into society or go to speak at the White House, he says he’s trying to unify a still-fractured cannabis industry.
He says he believes the current laws aren’t conducive to the industry and that the only way change at a federal level will ever happen is through cooperation and collaboration. “I’m hoping to unite the cannabis community,” he says. “We need to work together to get these odious laws changed.”
Craig Cesal doesn’t do the work for glory or fame. He simply does it because it needs to be done. And he’s the man to do it.
Visit secondchancefoundation.org to learn more about their advocacy work or donate to help other cannabis prisoners on their path to freedom. You can also email Craig Cesal directly at [email protected]