The Last Prisoner Project
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (KAKE) - A supermajority of Kansans say they want some form of legalized marijuana, medicinal at the very least. Yet Kansas law and Kansas prosecutors continue to send people to prison for possession - sometimes with sentences longer than for sex offenses.
"Antonio Wyatt was stopped on I-70. He and a couple of other gentlemen had eight pounds of cannabis in their car. He got 144 months as a sentence," said Barry Grissom, a former U.S. Attorney for Kansas.
That’s nearly twelve years behind bars. Antonio Wyatt of Tennessee was a truck driver, just crossing Kansas when he was pulled over.
"I actually got locked up on May 9th, 2017,” Wyatt said during a phone call from Hutchinson Correctional Facility.
He’s serving just short of a dozen years for something others across the country are now doing legally.
“From the get-go, I mean, I admit my wrongdoing. I admit I need punishment. But the punishment does not fit my crime," Wyatt said.
"Why does it benefit the state of Kansas," questioned Donte West.
West knows what Wyatt is going through firsthand. They used to be prison bunkmates. A native Californian, West and some friends were on a road trip through Kansas visiting colleges when police pulled them over.
"In 2017 on May 22, which was my youngest brother's birthday, I was sentenced to 92 months in prison for first time marijuana offense. I got convicted by a jury for possession of one pound of marijuana in Riley County, Kansas," said West, who is now working with the Last Prisoner Project.
When we sat down with him last month in a Kansas City lawyer’s office, West was free. He had become what some call a jailhouse lawyer, teaching himself the law so he could fight back.
“In the beginning I really didn't know what I was reading,” he said. “It was kind of like Chinese. But, you know, eventually (it) started to make sense, you know, a couple years into prison...I got exonerated. So, I don’t have a felony.”
Now, he is determined to help his friend gain freedom, too. He’s working with former U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom to make it happen.
“There was no violence involved,” said Grissom who is now representing Wyatt. “There were no guns involved. Um, that seemed to me to be excessive.”
Grissom and West are working with the Last Prisoner Project, an organization advocating for early release if not full pardons for non-violent drug offenders.
Grissom said his attitudes toward enforcing marijuana laws go back to his own work as a prosecutor.
"Bottom line is, when you investigate, you interdict, you arrest, you try and you prosecute someone, that’s a lot of money that could otherwise be used for fighting human trafficking, fentanyl transportation, exploitation of children on the internet,” Grissom said. “Taking money away to continue to prosecute folks who are nonviolent offenders for possession, manufacture, and use of cannabis is a slap in the face to law enforcement."
By June 1 of this year, all but three states in the country had enacted some form of legalized marijuana, leaving Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas as the remaining holdouts.
"Twenty-two states now allow for adult use. Colorado does. Missouri does. So, there are a lot of folks going east and west on I-70 at their peril, quite frankly, if they're in Kansas," Grissom said.
The Last Prisoner Project works one prisoner at a time, advocating for early release or full pardons for non-violent drug offenders. According to their records, police have arrested 15.7 million Americans for marijuana offenses in the last twenty years, including Antonio Wyatt.
Wyatt called twice during our interview with West and Grissom. He says the last six years have been tough.
“I feel, like, just kind of lost,” he said. Adding, “The agonizing fact to me, and I’m just sayin’ me personally, that I ran across a lot of guys from Kansas communities….and a lot of them have sex offenses and violent offenses. But, nevertheless, they have less time than me.”
He finished, “How can they have less time than me and I was only caught with some pot?”
He says he’s stayed busy in prison, trying to prove he’s rehabilitated himself. He’s taken self-help classes, signed up for training programs and gone out to speak to troubled youth about why his isn’t a path they want to follow.
“You know, as far as… going out there and talkin’ to the youth, you know, that was like the first time that was done. You know, here in Kansas. And it was more or less therapeutic for me,” he said. “It was kind of like redemption for me.”
Like West, he’s spent a lot of time writing to anyone and everyone he thinks can help him. Now, his future is up to the Kansas Prisoner Review Board, which will review his case, letters of recommendation and his plan for a smooth return to society.
Grissom says that last is especially important.
“You go through a process of almost like depressurizing yourself,” Grissom explained. “To be able to work and to be able to communicate with your family and your community.”
The Board will then decide whether to recommend Governor Laura Kelly approve what’s called, "Executive Clemency" – letting Wyatt go home early.
"I just want to be an advocate for the people in my circle, the people in my community," Wyatt said.
His plans mirror what his friend West is doing for him, now.
“Tony was the guy that doesn’t pose a danger,” West said. “He’s not a threat to society. Where you could trust him, right?, with your kids. You know, why can’t you trust him in public?”
West and Grissom say you can help their crusade by sending letters of support to the Prisoner Review Board.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers express concern that a push for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Kansas may jeopardize efforts to legalize medical marijuana in the next legislative session. KAKE News will have more on that later this month.