"We got a new doctor, and he said it should have been removed back then," explains Mizanskey of the unsightly growth. "But if they removed it now, it might do some damage because there might be nerves grown inside it."

"There just became this tough-on-crime movement where everyone wants to enact tougher laws to make sentences longer and longer."

His battered physical condition notwithstanding, Mizanskey recently has become something of a poster boy for one of the hottest topics of the day — marijuana reform. Last month his plight went viral — first on pro-legalization websites and later in mainstream media such as Huffington Post — when news broke of his request that Governor Jay Nixon void his sentence.

"Since I've been here in prison, I've met lots of people in for murder, rape, robberies, all kinds of violent crimes. I've seen a lot of them go home on parole," says Mizanskey, whose wife divorced him and whose two sons reached adulthood during his time behind bars. "Don't I ever get a chance?"

In his two decades in prison, 21 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized the sale of medical marijuana, and 2 of those states have passed laws allowing for its recreational use, and cities such as St. Louis and Detroit have decriminalized small amounts of the drug. Mizanskey, meanwhile, was sentenced under Missouri's Prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute, a decades-old law that enables judges to impose prison terms ranging from ten years to life in prison without parole for those convicted of three drug-related felonies.

Other states have three-strike laws for nonviolent offenders, but Missouri is unique in that it has "a separate persistent felony law just for drug offenses that ratchets up the extreme sentences more quickly than the regular persistent felony law," says Chloe Cockburn, a civil-rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "As far as we know, Missouri is the only state that does this."

Seated in the prison waiting room, Mizanskey tearfully recounts how he first learned the true magnitude of Missouri's Prior and Persistent Drug Offender statute. It occurred six years into his prison term in 2001. Until then, Mizanskey says, he had been under the belief that his sentence came with the chance of parole. He says he even received notice from the parole board informing him that he would be eligible for release in 2005. It was only when an appellate-level public defender began preparing the paperwork for Mizanskey's parole that the prisoner discovered the awful truth.

Video: Jeff Mizanskey tells his story to Riverfront Times

"The attorney put down in there that I had life without the possibility of parole, and I said, 'Well, that's gotta be wrong. They didn't tell me any of that," Mizanskey recalls.

More paperwork brought confirmation from the Missouri Department of Corrections. Mizanskey was indeed sentenced to die within its walls.

"When I got the letter back from the parole board, I was ruined," he says. "You get information like that — there's not really a whole lot you can say about it. It's the end of the world."

Mizanskey wasn't the only one confused about his sentencing. So, too, was the lawyer who represented him at trial.

"I wasn't aware it was life without parole. I thought it was a life sentence," says attorney Randall Brown Johnston when reached by phone last month. "This is coming completely out of left field."


Jeff Mizanskey readily admits that he was something of a stoner back in the day.

"I did construction work, and I'd be sore when I got home. So I smoked a joint," Mizanskey explains. "I didn't drink. I didn't like to drink because my father was an alcoholic and I had seen that growing up. So I smoked."

Occasionally he'd also sell a bag of weed.

"Just friends, people I knew, to supplement my own habit," he says.

One of those drug sales would lead to his first felony. In 1984 Mizanskey sold an ounce to a relative, who ended up selling the bag to an undercover cop. The police linked the bag back to Mizanskey and obtained a search warrant. Inside his home police found about a half-pound of pot and arrested Mizanskey for felony possession of over 35 grams of marijuana and felony sale of a controlled substance. Rather than pay to fight it in court, Mizanskey pleaded guilty and got five years of probation.

That was strike one.

Seven years later Mizanskey was off probation and doing well for himself. He was still married then and active in his boys' lives. He had started his own construction business and managed a small crew that did remodeling jobs for homeowners and businesses. One of his biggest jobs was developing an apartment complex. Talking about it more than two decades later, Mizanskey remains proud of the work he did.

"We built a pretty nice place there," he says. "Swimming pool, hot tub, indoor tennis court, indoor garage and 27 apartments made out of a derelict building that was sitting around."

After the project was completed, Mizanskey says the owner asked him to take care of it by supplying needed repairs and showing apartments to prospective tenants. Mizanskey took on the work while continuing to run his construction business. And after a hard day's work, he continued his habit of smoking pot.

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