Michael Alonzo Thompson
Conviction: Possession with intent to deliver marijuana, conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver marijuana, delivery of marijuana, possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, possession of a weapon during the commission of a felony
Sentence: 40 to 60 years
Facility: Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan
In 1994, Michael Alonzo Thompson, A.K.A. "Meeko," sold three pounds of pot to the manager of a car muffler shop in Flint, Michigan. He knew the man from going there to get his car fixed. What he didn't know was that he'd had been pressured to take part in a sting by the Flint Area Narcotics Group (FANG). Thompson got busted and police searched his house, where they found three guns, two of which were antiques and another gun that belonged to his wife. Even though he hadn't been armed at the time of the sale, prosecutors slapped him with a long list of charges including possession of a firearm while committing a felony – a pretty big stretch, since he didn't have a gun on him when he allegedly sold the weed. Because he had priors – including three cocaine convictions dating back to 1982 – Thompson was deemed a habitual offender and sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison. Now 66, he's spent two decades behind bars.
He admits that he made mistakes - three pounds is not a small amount of pot. But he also believes that he's more than repaid his debt to society. "I've been in prison for 22 years for a nonviolent crime," Thompson says from prison. "Meanwhile, I see all these guys getting out for murders. Real brutal murders."
Claudia Perkins-Milton, a United Auto Workers union rep who first met Thompson on the Flint assembly-line, agrees that he doesn't belong in prison. After all, there are people legally selling a lot more pot than he was ever charged with. "I mean, come on," she says. "Cannabis is legal in a lot of places recreationally now." Perkins-Milton, a Flint activist and the first Flint African-American woman to hold the highest position as a UAW rep, thinks he'd be far more useful to the community on the outside.
As a free man, Thompson had worked as a music promoter with acts like Aretha Franklin and Patty LaBelle. He has an award from the NAACP, and a Flint key to the city, for helping forge a truce between street gangs in the 1980s. On Unity Day in 1984, Thompson and hundreds of young people marched to the Flint waterfront to demand jobs and opportunities beyond gang life.
"He did a lot of good for the city," Perkins-Milton says. "What he did was stupid and it cost him, but he also did a lot of good." Perkins-Milton says Thompson and his family, who operated a car wash and arcade, worked hard to give unemployed young people jobs.
Thompson's nephew Sheldon Neeley, a Democratic Congressman in the Michigan House, is also working to get him out. He was with Thompson's mom before she died and she had a final wish for her grand-nephew. "One of the last things she said was that she didn't want him to expire in prison," Neeley says over the phone from Flint. "One of the commitments I made to her was that I'd do everything in my power to make sure he would not."
Neeley, who calls his uncle's long sentence "egregious," says it shows how badly America needs criminal justice reform. "Those deemed the underclass who've been forgotten in our criminal justice system - justice has not been fair for them."
Obviously, Thompson agrees. "Why do you have me in here, sitting idle and wasting the taxpayer money?" he says. "I made some mistakes that should have never happened. I can't stress how much I regret it. But I feel I can offer society way more than what I'm doing now, all this idle time in prison."
"When you have a certain amount of pride for yourself and you do something stupid, you deal with your own embarrassment," says Thompson. "But I don't deserve 40 to 60 years. I'm not that kind of person. I don't deserve that."