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July 07, 2020
Inside the Fight to Free Michael Thompson

BY JESSICA CASTILLO

Photo courtesy of Michael Thompson/Last Prisoner Project

Two years ago, Michael Thompson asked Rick Snyder, then the governor of Michigan, to commute his decades-long sentence. The 69-year-old community leader from Flint, Michigan, has been incarcerated for 25 years after selling three pounds of cannabis to a police informant. Police later searched his house and found several guns, one of which was antique and another which belonged to Thompson’s wife. Because he had previously been charged with non-violent drug offenses, he received a sentence of 40 to 60 years. Thompson won’t be eligible for parole until 2038. So in 2018, he petitioned the governor for clemency and was denied.

2018 was also the year Michigan voted to legalize recreational cannabis and the state began allowing recreational cannabis sales in December 2019. It was seen as a major win for the activists who spent years advocating for change. But the state’s new stance on legalization does little to help people like Thompson, who is at particular risk should the novel coronavirus sweep through the Muskegon Correctional Facility.

"I can't die in here," he told WNEM in February. "For what? Some marijuana and some guns in a locked closet?"

Neither he nor his advocates have given up the fight for his release. In January, he and his lawyer, Kimberly Corral, filed a new petition for clemency to now-Governor Gretchen Whitmer. In addition, a growing number of activists are raising awareness around his case to expedite the process by any means necessary. 

As Sarah Gersten, the executive director of the Last Prisoner Project, told EMBER, advocates generated a campaign in which 20,000 people wrote letters of support for Thompson’s release. “We thought, this is amazing,” she said. “We’ve gotten so many supporters engaging with this story and it felt really hopeful. February went by, and we didn’t hear anything — these things take time. With March and COVID-19, [we were concerned as] Michael is 69 years old.”

So the Last Prisoner Project, which works towards cannabis and criminal justice reform, turned the heat up on the campaign to tell Thompson’s story. They launched FreeMichaelThompson.com, to tell his story and provide resources so that people can get involved by writing emails and calling Michigan officials about Thompson’s case. In addition, the organization released a video on Instagram that features Thompson explaining the ways in which his sentence is harsher than those given to people convicted of violent crimes. In the 25 years since his sentencing, Thompson’s parents and his son have passed away. As The Intercept noted, he was made to wear handcuffs at his mother’s funeral. 

So far, the campaign is paying off in incremental ways. “The county prosecutor’s office, that originally prosecuted the case, came on and supported Michael’s petition,” Gersten said. “It’s incredibly rare to have a prosecutor to support someone’s application for clemency. So that’s a good example of how, in Michael’s case, these calls to action and mobilizing thousands of people to support him can have an effect.”

More states than ever are legalizing cannabis, and the majority of Americans support cannabis legalization. But legalization rarely applies to retroactive offenses, and plenty of people are still forced to navigate a punitive justice system. According to FBI data, 40 percent of the arrests made by police officers in 2018 were cannabis offenses. 

“Michael is certainly not the only individual serving a life sentence for a cannabis offense,” said Gersten, who is also working with the advocacy group Life For Pot as well as the activist DeeDee Kirkwood, to secure release for incarcerated people serving life sentences for cannabis. “But he’s sentenced and incarcerated in a state like Michigan, which has legalized [recreational cannabis]. He’s served 25 years of a 60 year sentence. I don’t have many cases where there is such a clear and obvious case of releasing someone from incarceration,” Gersten added.

As Thompson waits for his new petition to receive an answer, he has continued his community work inside Muskegon, which included raising funds for a celebration of life for George Floyd, who was killed by a white police officer in May. 

In the weeks since Floyd’s death, the conversation around police brutality and criminal justice reform has reached a fever pitch. And while Gerston is quick to note that legalization with a frame for criminal justice reform “isn’t going to fix everything that’s wrong with the system,” she is “more hopeful than I’ve been in my lifetime.”

“We’re at a moment of reckoning where people see how cannabis fits into the systemic problem and how legalization can be used as a tool to undo some of the disparities in our system,” which disproportionately targets and penalizes Black Americans, she said. “I hope that [Governor Whitmer] uses this moment to set people like Michael free.”

The Last Prisoner Project also partners with cannabis brands like Farmer and the Felon, which is working to raise awareness around the need for cannabis law reform. “We believe that it is a moral imperative for anyone who is partaking to give back to justice causes,” Gersten said. “Many people have no idea that this is still a problem.” 

How can you get involved?

Call Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer: (517)-373-3400

Send the Governor an email.

Call Michigan Parole Board: (517)-373-0270

Sign this petition.

Support the Last Prisoner Project.

Shop Farmer & Felon and support The Last Prisoner Project here.

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