VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
In 1993, 22-year-old Seth Ferranti was arrested for allegedly distributing more than 100,000 doses of acid in Virginia. As part of the DEA's early-'90s crackdown on LSD, Ferranti was sentenced to over 25 years in prison. During that time, the high school dropout—and present-day VICE contributor—earned three college degrees, wrote feature stories for magazines, and published several books, battling resistance from the prison system along the way. Below, he explains how he ended up being bars for the first two decades of his adult life, and why our criminal justice system needs to revise its mandatory minimum sentencing policy for non-violent drug offenders.
Seth Ferranti: I started smoking weed at age 13 in England. My dad retired, and we moved back to a really white, upper-middle-class area in Northern Virginia. I was the new kid trying to find acid and pot, but the availability of the drug was mediocre: a hit of acid was $15-20, and this was in 1987, when in California you could get a hit for $5 or $6.
I had a lot of friends and family in California because that's where I grew up, so I told a couple of the guys in Virginia that I could call them and get whatever we wanted. These Virginia guys were a bunch of rich nerds. They got brand new Mustangs and hand-me-down BMWs and Mercedes. I was expecting to get an ounce or a fifth of weed, but they cashed out some CDs and brought me almost five grand. So I got a couple pounds of good weed and 200 or 300 hits of acid sent back through UPS Second Day shipping (they check overnight UPS a lot more). We'd wrap it up in paper with enamel on one side so it couldn't show, and put in baby powder or dryer sheets to hide the smell.
That's how I started out—getting high for free and hooking up my friends. By the time I was 19, though, I was shipping marijuana to both coasts. I was into Deadhead culture—being underground, off-the-grid, an outlaw rebel. I used to go to their shows to network and get more LSD at cheaper prices.
In the spring of '91, I took off to Hawaii for three months to chill, and while I was gone, there was a big field party out in Clifton, VA, where a lot of politicians, NFL football players, and million-dollar homes were. The cops came to break it up, and one kid, like 14 or 15 years old, took off running through the woods naked while tripping on acid. Cops tackled him, and somehow he took the cop's gun and shot him in the arm. That triggered my case, because they had a lot of acid arrests—the area was flooded, and prices had gone down to $2-3 a hit. The dude who sold acid to the kid was a friend of mine who I used to sell to before I moved up the drug hierarchy. He knew a lot about me, and gave them information.
The cops drew me in by setting up a sting. They wanted me, the supplier, to bring them acid—that's how they flushed people's hands. So they got a guy I knew to call me saying he had a problem with a drug deal that he needed help solving. When I got there, they were trying to hand me money, and I was like, "I'm just here to help this dude; you need to pay him." I still got arrested for a state case, but I didn't think it was anything because I didn't give anyone drugs or get money—it was a deal that someone else was doing. I didn't know the extent of the investigation with the Feds and the DEA; they already knew who I was. I was cocky about it, because I didn't think they had a case. But they'd been investigating me for ten months, and my case ended up saying I sold 100,000 hits of acid in a two or three months.
This was 1991. They just started the drug war in the late-80s, so it was relatively new, and more centered on crack cocaine. I was part of the first wave of indictments for LSD, and really had no clue what I was facing. Even my lawyer thought that the judge was gonna go under the mandatory 20 years, because I was a first-time nonviolent offender. He thought I'd get 10 to 12. But I was in my 20s, and even that was like a life sentence. So I took off and fled. The Feds put me on the U.S. Marshals 15 Most Wanted list. Out of all the fugitives, they made a Deadhead college marijuana dealer a top priority in the whole United States.
I was a fugitive for two years. I went to Hollywood, California, and developed a different identity. I got into the Sunset Strip heavy metal scene, partying with dudes in bands and chicks. I spent a lot of money, so I had to reach back to these Mexican dudes in Texas to ask if I could start working with them again. I went down there to meet some people running loads of weed from Texas up to St. Louis, and happened to be with someone who got busted with some drugs. I was under a fake name and ID, but they ran my prints—and your prints don't lie. They called the fugitive task force and US Marshal, who arrested me in my hotel.
No one could believe the government was giving this much time for these kinds of crimes.
I was in prison from October 1993 to February 2015. I was sentenced to 304 months—that's 25 years and 4 months—for Continual Criminal Enterprise, the drug kingpin charge they gave to Pablo Escobar and El Chapo. It's the highest drug charge you can get. When I got there, it was an immediate culture shock. I was 22, 170 pounds, with no tattoos—I looked like a little college kid, and when I told people I was in for 25 years, they'd be like, "How many people did you kill?" No one could believe the government was giving this much time for these kinds of crimes. They weren't bringing in the LSD and marijuana dudes. I was with gangbangers and convicted felons, the whole organized crime scene. Prison was 50 percent crackheads. There were a lot of policies, and I'm not talking about official rules, but how to conduct yourself. I had to learn and learn it real quick; I had to become someone I wasn't to survive in that environment.
My first nine years, I did a lot of drugs in prison. I put myself in a lot of situations where I could've gotten more time, or hurt myself or someone else. I didn't care. I was in shock that my country would do this, and no one could do anything about it. Rolling Stone wrote a piece about me in 1998, and everyone was like, "This is messed up and you got screwed." But even though I was getting a lot of media attention, I was out of sight, out of mind. The other LSD dudes were like, "When is the public gonna wake up and see what they're doing to us? When are the marijuana people going to care?"
Eventually I got a clue, matured, and started thinking about my future. I got an Associate, Bachelor and Master's degree—not through their programs, though. I did it through correspondence, and my parents paid for it all. The War on Drugs wasn't about that; they put out all kinds of roadblocks. They expect you to beat people up and do drugs, so when you're trying to get a college degree, they don't know how to deal with it. I started writing books and articles in 1999, and was repeatedly locked up in the SHU—a tiny two-man cell—for 30 to 60 days at a time for my writing activities. I eventually got 10 months taken off my sentence for doing a drug program, and went to halfway house in August 2014.
I deserved to be in prison—but not for 20 to 25 years.
I was in prison for 21 years. When I got in, there were 40,000 people in 40 federal prisons. When I got out, there were 200,225 in 150 prisons. I like how President Obama is talking about changing stuff about the prison system—bringing programs back, letting people out. But so much more needs to be done with the 3,000 non-violent lifers. There are some people in there who deserve to be in there for life—they're psychopaths who'll kill you for a dollar on principle. Those violent people have forfeited their right to be in society. But the other 3,000 are being locked up forever on drug charges.
[The government needs] to take power away from prosecutors, and put the human element back in sentencing, so judges can look at each individual case and not go by a grid. Prison needs to be about rehabilitation, not punishment. We were just a number to be warehoused. With the phone system and commissary and uniforms, prison just became a business. Laws are different now, but there's no retroactivity. There are people doing life for selling weed when weed is legal in the states they're from. I deserved to be in prison—but not for 20 to 25 years. Maybe 10 years, since if I went for four or five years, I wouldn't have learned anything. Still, despite everything, I'm happy with who I am today and where I am at.
As told to Michelle Lhooq