Fidel Torres Should Not Have Died in Prison

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The death of a 62-year-old man serving a lengthy sentence for marijuana charges is a heavy reminder that cannabis is only legal for some of us.

There was no reason for Fidel Torres to die in prison.

In 2006, Torres was sentenced to serve 18 years in prison. His crime? Cannabis-related convictions for possession with intent to distribute as well as aiding and abetting. At the time, U.S. District Judge George Kazen of the Southern District of Texas found Torres guilty after the defendant opted for a bench trial. During the trial, federal prosecutors would also point to two previous marijuana-related convictions on Torres’ record in favor of a lengthy sentence.

Judge Kazen would further go on to deny Torres a sentence reduction he was seemingly qualified for in 2014. In the wake of revised U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines released that year, Torres was eligible for early release. Instead, Kazen denied the request, citing the inmate’s “behavior in custody” as grounds for his decision.

At the start of this year, Fidel Torres was two years away from at last, once again becoming a free man. Then, on May 2, the 62-year-old Torres tested positive for COVID-19. By May 6, he was on a ventilator. He died on May 20.

There are several reasons to view the death of Fidel Torres as a tragedy.

The treatment of all inmates in our prison systems is, in a word, abhorrent. Though COVID-19 has made this reality a lot clearer to some, it has long been the standard rather than an exception. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions make the inept responses from prison officials to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in jails and penitentiaries across the U.S. all the more preventable. Overall, what’s happening at places like Riker’s Island is an unnecessary reminder of how truly broken our criminal justice system has become.

Compounding this already catastrophic issue is the fact that zip codes and skin color remain crucial factors in determining whether weed can make you rich or cost you your freedom.

Speaking with Huffington Post, Families Against Mandatory Minimums leader Kevin Ring summarized the dire nature of Torres’ death with grave clarity.

“Fidel Torres was 62-years-old and was nearing the end of a lengthy sentence for selling marijuana,” Ring said. “He seem[ed] like a poster child for home confinement.”

And yet, when Judge Kazen was given just such a chance, he declined to commute Torres’ sentence. Now, this man’s family must grieve his loss. As they plan a funeral, reports detailing how executives at Los Angeles cannabis firm MedMen spent lavishly on their brand and themselves paint a portrait of today’s America through the lens of cannabis.

As Politico reports, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the company by former employees. In the suit, CEO Adam Bierman and others are accused of excessive spending, with examples including “installing a panic room in Bierman’s home, as well as using company funds on the likes of a custom Tesla SUV, “pearl-white” Cadillac Escalades, and a salary for Bierman’s personal marriage counselor.” At its peak, MedMen was once valued at $1 billion.

What did MedMen do? They sold weed. What was Fidel Torres incarcerated for? His intentions to do the same thing. In California, selling weed is a profession. In Texas, it’s still apparently a death sentence.

This piecemeal market, in which some are incarcerated while others hold golden parachutes, cannot be considered a success by any measure. As long as individuals like Fidel Torres continue to be treated as criminals, held to laws based not in fact but fear, the legality of cannabis will remain closely bound to systems of privilege, wealth, and race.

Let the last prisoner free and, on that day, perhaps we can truly call cannabis legal and believe it.

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