Jeff Mizanskey is a sixty year old man from Missouri. Twenty years ago, he was convicted on a non-violent marijuana charge and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Yeah. He's gonna die there.
One of Mizansky's two sons was just thirteen years old when his father was arrested. He was interviewed for this incredible story in The Riverfront Times, a local St. Louis area newspaper.
"We missed out on a lot not having him around," says Chris of his dad's prison term. "He always took us fishing and hunting, he made sure we went to school, he did all those things. If he was around, I wouldn't have had to quit school and go to work. I think maybe I'd have a lot more going for me today."
When I was thirteen years old I was rolling my eyes at my dad, calling him an asshole when I felt he deserved it, but mostly just ignoring him. As much as Dad and I fought during my teenage years, I understand now how lucky I was to have him in my life. Sure, he was an imperfect father. He was cranky and volatile. He was too often mean to my mom, to my siblings--his step-children--and to me. He was gross and annoying. But you know what? He was there.
He went to work every day and came home every night. He paid for the roof over our heads even if I refused to spend much time in the same room with him. He bought me my first car. Then my second car when the first one died. Sure, I ended up giving it back to him after a particularly bad fight we had so I wouldn't feel like I owed him anything, but we tried. All these years later, living on my own, without Dad's support, I still feel like I owe him something for providing me with my cushy middle-class up-bringing. Even if he was often a pain in my tushy.
Before Mom married my dad she was a single mother raising four young children in the late 1960s. My brothers and sisters grew up thinking that sausage was hamburger because it was twenty cents a pound cheaper, so Mom made them sausage burgers instead of hamburgers. If they were lucky and it wasn't fried bologna sandwiches night.
After Mom married my dad, her life and the life of her children improved. She could give birth to me, quit her job and focus on raising the kids and taking care of the home. My dad bought the kids new bicycles for Christmas one year. We consumed hamburger galore. And pop. And we got to go to the drive-in theater, and Worlds of Fun once a year. And we got to eat out at an actual restaurant like once a month or so. We were living the high life compared to how Mom and her kids lived before Dad came into their lives.
Dad doesn't talk about it, but I understand now that he cared for me to the best of his ability. He didn't tell me he loved me until I was in my early thirties. He was living in his winter home in Texas when I got a phone call from him. I was living in Overland Park, Kansas. He was getting ready to go in for bypass heart surgery--having had another one twenty-one years prior--and figured he should probably let me know what was going on.
"Don't drive down here. I'm fine. There's nothing you could do but sit in the waiting room. You might as well just wait at home. I'll call you when I can," he said.
As we began to get off the phone I could feel my hot cheeks and my heart pounding inside my chest. I had never told my Dad I loved him, but, you know, he could die in this surgery so--
"I love you, Dad," I said breathlessly like I'd run up to the phone from a million miles away.
"I love you, too," Dad said in a heartbeat.
He was fine. He's still alive and kicking and being an occasional pain in my ass. But now whenever we get off the phone I say I love you and he says I love you too. It's strange and awkward but really good too.
My parents were both pretty lenient about my upbringing. Dad let mom make most of the decisions regarding my care, and Mom subscribes to a laissez-faire style of parenting: back off and see what happens. All of us kids are creative and funny and caring. I think much of where we get this is from Mom letting us do our own thing without a lot of rules encumbering us. Or maybe it's in our genetic code. Who knows how much both nature and nurture influence us?
I never became an alcoholic despite having easy access to alcohol growing up, and plenty of relatives on both sides of the family with addictions to alcohol. I like to drink. I even like to get drunk once or twice a year when I know I'm not driving. But I've never felt like alcohol empowers me any more than good music and good conversation does. To me, alcohol is just part of party life. It's celebratory and relatively harmless. It's been easy for me to put down the bottle when the party's over.
When I asked for a bottle of pink champagne for my fourteenth birthday, because I'd read in Star Hits Magazine that the members of Duran Duran drank pink champagne, Mom and Dad were unfazed by my request. On the table at my birthday party sat a bottle of chilled pink champagne along with a chocolate cake Mom had decorated with the words "Happy 14th Birthday, Becky". I remember to this day the thrill I felt clanking glasses with my parents in our kitchen before we each took a drink. How grown up I felt at that moment.
"Now we don't mind you having sip of alcohol here and there at home around us, but that's it. No drinking anywhere else," Dad said firmly, then smiled and licked his lips. Dad kept a six pack of Hamm's beer in the fridge the whole time I was growing up. For all I know it could have been the same six pack of beer, moved from fridge to fridge with each move we made. I remember seeing Dad drink a beer once or twice, but that's it. Before I knew a lot about dad's family background, I sometimes wished he'd drink a little more to loosen up.
I never felt that way about Mom. Mom's already pretty loosey-goosey. She's funny and open-minded and sometimes dingy, just like a drunk person, only it's her natural personality. She doesn't need alcohol to be the life of the party. A couple weeks ago I had a Big Lebowski Birthday party where we all sat around in our robes, drinking White Russians, except for Mom. She wore her robe, but she drank water. Still, my friend wrote this on our bathroom wall:
I bitch a lot about my dad, but when I think back on it, now that things have settled down between us, and we've both mellowed with age and sertraline, I'm glad Dad's in my life. I think he's always been glad I've been in his. He just had subtle ways of saying it without actually saying it. Like coming home every night from work.
Sometimes he was more obvious in his caring.
When I was sixteen Dad handed me a laminated quarter.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Put that in your billfold. Use it at a payphone if you ever get stranded somewhere and you're too drunk to drive home," he commanded. "We don't want you to drink when you're not at home, but your mother and I both know how teenagers are. I still remember the time my buddy Hermie fell out of the car while he was driving and I had to slide over and take over the wheel. We were dumb lucky kids..." Dad said, his words trailing off.
Dad claims he drank a lot in high school, but I've never known him to be a big drinker. He gave it up when he became a dad. He wanted to be responsible. Not like his dad. He could have easily been a drunk too, but instead Dad became a workaholic. The bartender might have called me to come pick Dad up when I was a teenager like Dad had to pick up his dad at the local bar. Sometimes Dad would find his dad literally passed out in the gutter in front of the bar with puke on his face. I often found my dad passed out in front of the TV with popcorn stuck to his chest hairs, which at the time I thought was pretty traumatizing, but I now understand how much worse it could have been.
I remember getting so sick of hearing Mom telling me to count my blessings. "At least you have a father who's at home every night. Your brothers and sisters haven't seen their dad since they were young kids," she would say and I would feel guilty.
Mom's first husband split after she divorced him when she discovered he'd been cheating on her. She had tolerated his squandering the family's money at bars, his lack of participation in childcare or housework, but when she found out he was cheating on her, and so unoriginally--with his secretary--she had enough. My siblings were 8, 6, 4, and 3 at the time.
Pat was the four year old. By the time he was forty-nine he was dying of liver failure. Pat's dad actually flew back to see him. Everyone was surprised. Pat had only seen his biological father maybe a handful of times since he was four years old.
What would have been different if Pat's dad had played a more important role in his son's life? No matter how imperfect a parent is, more often than not, having that parent around is going to make your life better.
When I think about the case of Jeff Mizanskey, sitting in prison for life for a non-violent marijuana conviction, unable to participate in his son Chris's life, I wonder what the hell is wrong with the drug laws in our country. Alcohol, which contributes to many deaths, is perfectly legal in our great nation, but pot, which has never killed anyone, is not?
How can it be that if Jeff Mizansky were caught with marijuana today, twenty years later, just two states away in Colorado, he wouldn't be arrested and he certainly wouldn't be rotting in prison at the taxpayer's expense? How can it be that the citizens of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana in their state, but Missouri still has a three-strikes-you're-out law that sends non-violent offenders to prison for life, away from their kids, for something that naturally grows on God's green earth?
The part of the story that breaks my heart the most is this. Apparently Mr. Mizanskey was self-medicating in an effort to stay away from alcohol because he'd seen what it did to his dad:
"I did construction work, and I'd be sore when I got home. So I smoked a joint," Mizanskey explains in the Riverfront Times story. "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."
If you'd like to help get Mr. Mizanskey released from prison so he can reconnect with his family, here is more information, including video, about his case. Mizanskey's attorney is working on an effort to get people to write letters to Governor Nixon and contact his constituents' office at 573-751-3222. If you live in Missouri, I encourage you to contact Governor Nixon and let him know what you think.
Here is a petition asking Governor Jay Nixon to give Mr. Mizansky clemency. Please sign it. Thank you!
Jeff Mizanskey has been released from prison! Now he can spend time with his family. Thanks to all of you who worked on this case and who continue to fight for justice.