After Serving Twenty Years on Drug Charges, Fred Harris Is Free

Fred Harris (left) is a free man today, thanks to the hard work of his son, Arzelle Lewis.EXPAND
Fred Harris (left) is a free man today, thanks to the hard work of his son, Arzelle Lewis.
Courtesy of Arzelle Lewis
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Imprisoned for over twenty years on drug charges, a Colorado man is about to walk free — thanks to his son.

Two decades ago, Fred Harris was arrested on charges of selling cocaine; he eventually received a 96-year sentence in part because of three marijuana possession convictions on his record. But since the day in 2000 when he was locked up, Harris's son, Arzelle Lewis, never gave up hope that they would reunite outside of a prison.

"I didn't know about the process, and that's so much to think about. My family and I never wanted to talk about it, because it was really sad," Lewis remembers.

But times change, and so does the criminal justice system. According to the attorneys working on behalf of Harris, he likely would've received a sentence of something closer to eight years if he were convicted under today's laws, since those marijuana offenses, though still illegal, aren't typically used to enhance sentences, as they were twenty years go.

"I’m not saying that I’m innocent. I just want the sentence to reflect the charge. Two of the felonies are marijuana charges. Marijuana is now legal in Colorado. After twenty years of incarceration, I now realize after thorough reflection of myself, I can see that my past was crippling to society, my family and children, and also myself. I’ve paid greatly; my family members have died and moved on; my children have grown up without me, which affected them mentally and emotionally. I have grandchildren that know me not," Harris wrote in a letter to Governor Jared Polis.

The governor agreed with Harris's plea and granted him clemency, officially commuting his sentence in December. Thanks to years of work by his son and some help from a powerful member of the Black cannabis community, Fred Harris will be released from the Limon Correctional Facility at 8 a.m. today, January 15.

Harris's case manager in prison considered him low-risk for recidivism last July, and Lewis says work is waiting for his father through Lewis's printing company and a charitable foundation, SweetFeet, which provides shoes to underprivileged children.

A former professional basketball player overseas and now a California-based business owner, Lewis hired a lawyer while looking for routes to clemency for his father.  His lawyer told him to connect with Wanda James, one of America's first Black owners of a licensed marijuana dispensary (Simply Pure), as well as an advocate for Black entrepreneurs and a political force in Colorado.

"She worked really hard for us to just get us a fair chance," Lewis says of James.

James has been a stakeholder in creating socially equitable marijuana business and record-clearing initiatives in Denver and at the state level, and managed Polis's first campaign for Congress in 2006. She was able to push Harris' s request to Polis, who ultimately made the call.

"We've only been legally selling cannabis for ten years now, and the fact that this new industry has already been in America for so long, it's the whole basis as to why the drug war has failed," James says. "What [Fred Harris] was arrested for, that's something a big dispensary sells in a weekend."

James credits Polis and his chief of staff, Lisa Kaufmann, for being receptive to Harris's case. Now all she asks of Lewis and Harris upon their return to Denver from Limon is one thing. "If Arzelle takes his dad to any other dispensaries besides mine first, we're going to have issues," she jokes.

But a forever grateful son doesn't seem to be kidding with his gleeful response: "We'll be there."

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