“Our worst fears have been realized.”
These were the words used by the Last Prisoner Project in a July 31 post to Twitter in which the organization announced that prisoner Michael Thompson had likely contracted COVID-19.
Efforts to have Thompson granted an early release by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer fell on deaf ears, despite pleas from advocates who correctly predicted that jails and prisons would quickly become COVID-19 hotspots. Whitmer and the Michigan Parole Board failed to act.
Now, in a tragic development, it appears Thompson has tested positive for COVID-19. Even worse, the 69-year-old Thompson has type-2 diabetes — a comorbidity factor that increases the risks he faces in battling coronavirus. That Gov. Whitmer refused to see Thompson, who has currently served 25 years of a possible 60-year sentence, as an ideal candidate for release as a pandemic bore down on her state is deeply disturbing.
What put Thompson behind bars is even worse.
Here is why the state of Michigan believes Michael Thompson poses a threat to society today: in 1994, he was arrested for selling marijuana. There were no weapons present at the sale or in his car, but guns were later recovered from Thompson’s home. In 1996, a jury found him guilty on five charges (three counts of selling marijuana, two counts of illegal possession of a firearm).
Due to Thompson’s past convictions (all nonviolent in nature), the trial judge sentenced him to the maximum on each charge, with the sentences running concurrently. What that means is that Thompson has now spent the past 25 years in prison for selling weed. If he were to serve his full sentence, he would still have 15 to 35 years to go.
Thompson’s earliest release date from Muskegon Correctional Facility is April 29, 2038, according to ABC News. His sentence — 40 to 60 years — represents a gross miscarriage of justice. It’s also one that’s festered and persisted for a quarter of a century. Only two years ago, Thompson was again denied parole.
“During Thompson’s last parole board hearing in 2018,” reported ABC, “he was denied release and his first request to have his sentence commuted by then Gov. Rick Synder was also rejected. That same year Michigan voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana — an offense Thompson [has] spent 23 years in prison for.”
As previously covered by Bloom & Oil, the Last Prisoner Project is one organization fighting for change on this front.
The non-profit’s stated mission is to get every nonviolent cannabis prisoner released from incarceration. A formidable force, the board features Harborside founder Steve DeAngelo, musicians Damian Marley and Melissa Etheridge and other industry heavyweights. At the heart of their work: the 40,000 non-violent prisoners who remain incarcerated today.
Right now, that’s taking the form of trying to amplify the message about Thompson. Advocates are voicing their concerns with Gov. Whitmer. By early June, over 21,000 people had already reached out to the governor’s office to request her intervention in the situation. It clearly wasn’t enough.
The volume is getting dialed-up in the wake of Thompson’s COVID-19 diagnosis. Celebrities heeding the call to spread the word on what’s happening include talk show host and CBD entrepreneur Montel Williams and comedian Sarah Silverman.
“The weed industry is run almost entirely by white men while people like Michael Thompson spend their lives in prison,” Silverman tweeted on August 1, “[and] while John Boehner now makes millions as a weed lobbyist.”
In terms of crimes worth prosecuting, Silverman may definitely be onto something. Michael Thompson sold three pounds of cannabis to a police informant in 1994. He now has the dubious distinction of being the longest serving non-violent offender in Michigan state history. He retains this status despite the fact that recreational cannabis became legal in Michigan in 2018. Now he has COVID. Meanwhile, the men who wrote the laws that put Thompson there — folks like John Boehner — are now set to reap millions from the very plant they criminalized for decades.
Someone is guilty of something but it’s not Michael Thompson.