Richard Stratton filed initial paperwork with the New York State Board of Elections earlier this month. He hopes to win the Republican line and take on Governor Andrew Cuomo.
An author, filmmaker and activist, Stratton says his time in prison has helped shape his views on prison reform and drug laws.
In 1982, Richard Stratton was sentenced to 25 years and six months in prison for smuggling marijuana and hash into the U.S. He ran the international operation for more than a decade before he was arrested in Los Angeles.
Stratton describes himself as a child of the ‘60s. He says he first tried marijuana when he was a student at Arizona State University, and that while he understood that possessing and selling marijuana was criminal, he felt like the government lied to people about its effects: "Marijuana, and marijuana use, and the imprisonment of Americans for the use of marijuana and other drugs, became kind of a symbol of what we felt was a kind of totalitarianism that was taking over."
When Stratton arrived at FCI, his sentence had been shortened due to his successful, self-taught jailhouse lawyering. He was awaiting a new release date, and said the anxiety made the stretch in Ray Brook the hardest time he served: "When you don’t know how much longer you’re going to be there—a week, two weeks, two years—you wake up every day thinking, ‘How much more of this do I have to put up with?’"
Stratton was transferred away from Ray Brook and was released in 1990. While in prison, Stratton met a lot of people who were locked up for nonviolent drug offenses.
"This was the ‘80s; this was when the prison boom was in full blossom," he says. "They were building federal prisons as fast as they could. When I went in, there was 120,000 people in federal prison. When I came out, there were hundreds of thousands of people in federal prison. Now, there’s like 2.3 million people in prison in this country. We have more people in prison in this country than China and Russia put together."
Since his release, Stratton has worked as an author and activist. He says he wants to give Americans some insight into the "prison industrial complex" and the "crime control establishment."
"I’ve been involved ever since in trying to ameliorate these harsh drug laws, including, in New York state, the Rockefeller drugs laws, which, thankfully, have now gradually been whittled away on so that we’re not so extraordinarily coercive and draconian."
Stratton says more reforms are needed. He’d like to bring back Pell grants for prisoners, which were outlawed by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994.
He says most people he met in prison were there because they had a limited education. Many of them were minorities from inner city areas: "I found that a lot of these guys were very creative people - smart - and they get involved with crime because they didn’t know what else to do to try to break out of where they were living and the lack of opportunities that they had for getting a bigger part of the American dream."
Stratton hopes to carry that message into politics in 2014. He plans to run for governor in New York and hopes to win the nomination for the Republican Party.
"I think if you really look at Republican values, the traditional Republican values - Barry Goldwater Republicanism, Abraham Lincoln Republicanism, if you will, going way back," he said, "it’s really about limiting the massive, expansive growth of big government."
Stratton says he’s a fiscal conservative but doesn’t agree with the more conservative wing of the Republican Party when it comes to social issues: "I’m for getting the government out of our bedrooms, getting the government out of our wallets, getting the government out of our lives to a large degree."
Stratton says Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Barack Obama have done an OK job considering the cards they were dealt, but he doesn’t think they have the right answers in the long run: "I think we need to radically reshape politics, both on the state and the national level, so that there’s so much less money being spent wastefully with these huge government programs that really aren’t accomplishing anything," Stratton says. "Let the free markets work."
Officials with the state Republican Party couldn’t be reached for comment on this story.