Craig Cesal is one of the more upbeat individuals you’ll encounter. The 61-year-old Illinois resident is quick to laugh and is bursting with positive energy. Keeping such a spirit is trying enough for anyone in today’s climate. But for Cesal, the feat is that much more impressive after understanding the hardships created from the failed war on drugs. 

Life In Prison For Barely Any Involvement  

In 2002, then-42-year-old Cesal was indicted on federal charges stemming from an illegal cannabis distribution ring. He wasn’t the financier of the project. Nor was he the point-person or driver. He didn’t even facilitate deals. 

Instead, Cesal was charged because his body shop worked on refrigerated vehicles from Lakeland, Florida, that were used for transporting. Cesal admits that drivers at some point told him that they were shipping marijuana using the trucks. Cesal thought he’d be free of any legal ramifications as the operation didn’t involve him besides the truck repairs. Unfortunately, he would be wrong in a staggering fashion. 

Despite having little involvement in the operation, Cesal said the son of the operation’s owner being arrested led to confessions, landing him in the Feds’ crosshairs. Other reports say he was charged after a 1,500-pound bust that began in Texas and ended in Georgia. Whatever it was, the case landed the father of two his first criminal charge—one that would result in a life sentence without the possibility of parole. 

Cesal and his family dealt with waves of shock and disappointment during the ordeal. For one, he was charged with marijuana-related crimes while not using the plant. The charges also brought financial ruin. “My business imploded,” he said. Making matters worse, he claimed that numerous people stole from the company while dealing with court proceedings

His trial involved back-and-forth deliberations over a plea deal and allegations of it being breached. Cesal contested his initial guilty plea deal over claims of inadequate briefings and an unprepared initial trial lawyer. 

Despite being eventually found guilty and sentenced, he did not think any court of appeals would uphold the decision. “I thought the court of appeals certainly would throw the sentence out,” he explained. Instead, rounds of post-conviction filings resulted in the same sentence. 

All the while, each filing brought about additional waves of emotions that appellants in the system often encounter. “Serving a long sentence is a series of ups and downs where you get your hopes up,” he explained. One such hope came during the Obama Administration, when Cesal said he was assured he’d receive clemency, only to be denied. 

While attempting to have his case revised, he and other incarcerated nonviolent cannabis offenders often discussed their sentences’ absurdity. All too often, cannabis lifers would see violent offenders sentenced to lesser stints going home while they stayed. The most notable for Cesal was John Walker Lindh, an American captured in 2001 while fighting for the Taliban. Lindh, who lived down the hall from Cesal, was given a maximum 20-year sentence for providing aid to terrorists. He would serve 17 years of his 20-year term. 

“I watched him walk right out of USP Terre Haute,” Cesal recalled. 

Helping Others While Overcoming The Odds Of The Prison System

The setbacks and disappointments prisoners face are often enough to break their spirits. That wasn’t the case for Cesal, one of the few inside with a college degree. Cesal handled much of his appeals while also helping fellow inmates. The efforts were part of his penitentiary plan, which he said was to “Basically fight against the prison system and to fight for our prison people.”

The mindset and goals allowed Cesal to do something most can’t in prison: work across territorial boundaries. 

All too often, prisons become segregated by affiliations often created by race. Instead of being seen as a potential threat, Cesal, a white man, said he could form relationships with inmates of all backgrounds. He did so by writing letters and settling bets over rudimentary questions, like how many states were in the union. 

“There were so many people that were in such dire stress that needed help,” Cesal recalled. “So, I was more than happy to help them, if nothing else, to take my mind off my own situation,” he recalled. Cesal said the effort helped pass his sentence while seeing others benefit from his work. 

“And a lot of that comes back,” he said of the relationships formed. 

Prison Affects More Than Just The Incarcerated 

Even Cesal was dealt hardships he couldn’t handle in stride. The effects on his family were most telling. 

He recalled making a bet with his grade school-aged kids the year before his arrest. He agreed that if they both got straight A’s, the family would go on a Disney trip. 

“Spring that year, the Visa card took a beating,” he recalled with a proud laugh. 

He said his incarceration led both children to endure embarrassment and depression over their dad’s absence. His daughter would graduate high school, but there were no funds for college. His son ended up in a worse predicament, experiencing homelessness and drug problems. 

While in prison in 2014, he was given medication to take home upon his release. He would combine the assigned medication with alcohol the day after Christmas. He did not survive.  

“I’m just sure that if I had been home to be the father to my son that he deserved, he’d be alive today,” he said. Cesal was not allowed to attend his son’s funeral. 

An End To The Cycle Of Disappointment 

The COVID-19 pandemic allowed Cesal to go home on home confinement. Lifers weren’t supposed to be included, but he said a glitch in the system allowed him out. Though, he joked that his challenging of the system might have gotten him the release. 

“I got thrown out of prison,” Cesal jested. 

At home, he was once again faced with the prospect of amnesty during the Trump administration’s final days. While trying to remain positive, Cesal said the list of recipients supposed to be released at noon wasn’t unveiled. At 11 PM, he went to sleep. Then, Ivanka Trump called. 

While the call was personable and cordial, one thing sticks out most to Cesal. “[Ivanka Trump] says, ‘The President has commuted your sentence.’” 

The two chatted a brief bit more, but Cesal only recalls the feeling of relief, knowing that another wave of depression wasn’t going to wash over him. 

Now Free And Adjusting To A New Life Outside 

Freedom is just one hurdle for the formerly incarcerated. Re-entry poses its own set of challenges, from obtaining ID to catching up on the past two-plus decades’ of technology. 

Cesal credits his family and friends for helping make the transition easier, though difficulties remain. He struggled with buying the right size underwear and pants. Learning how to talk into an iPhone created confusion as well. “It didn’t look like a phone to me,” he recalled. 

Released from prison and adjusting himself, Cesal wants to continue helping the current and formerly incarcerated. He’s now working with the Last Prisoner Project as a program associate, helping the recently released with resources and assistance to buy electronics and other essentials, as well as ensuring homes are equipped for physically disabled individuals.  

“It’s very much a learning experience, and it’s very much a humbling experience,” said Cesal, who said many released from prison have nowhere to turn. “They leave prison, and they’ve got nothing,” he said. 

Cannabis sentencing is another passion project post-release. Social equity is another focus, noting the need for cannabis revenue and business to impact the communities most affected by the drug war. 

“That’s where I see cannabis in the future, bringing opportunity where there would otherwise not be,” he said. 

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