Death Row Records Co-founder Michael “Harry-O” Harris Is Denied an Early Release from Federal Prison

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Death Row Records Co-founder Michael “Harry-O” Harris Is Denied an Early Release from Federal Prison

Despite all the talk that Death Row Records founder is to be released from jail after 31 years, the decision was taken that he remains incarcerated in Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc. He is scheduled to be released in 2028.

Michael “Harry-O” Harris has been serving state and federal sentences since the late 80s. In 1989 he was sentenced to 25 years to life because of conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder, and then a year later, a federal jury convicted him of cocaine trafficking, adding another 19 years and seven months to his sentence.

In 2011, San Quentin State Prison granted Harry-O parole, but on his way out, U.S. Marshals took him into custody, and he has been serving his federal sentence in Lompoc ever since.
One would think that being in prison is pretty much equivalent to having your life taken. Michael “Harry-O” Harris, however, has always been a person of action, and he is the living proof that where there’s a will there’s a way.

Michael 'Harry O' Harris image
Michael ‘Harry O’ Harris
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Harry-O is someone who can do both operating an 11-state cocaine trafficking empire that dealt with the Colombia-based Cali Cartel and working as a journalist and philanthropist behind bars. Yes, we know that it sounds rather strange, but Harry-O’s work has actually earned a lot of support for his release, even from elected officials and community leaders in the Bay Area.

Here’s what Harris wrote to a federal judge in 2017:

“On the outside, when I was selling drugs, I thought I knew everything. My criminal activity felt victimless to me. It was just business. I didn’t think about what it was doing to real flesh and blood people — how the drugs ruined their lives…I was selfish, inconsiderate, and worse. It truly pains me and shames me to think about who I was and what I did… I will never re-offend. My shame and desire for redemption won’t allow it.”

Last year, after several failed legal attempts to free Harris, he was once again denied an early release from federal prison. Amendment 782 is a law passed by Obama that changed the general rules for federal drug convictions. Therefore, Harris was not eligible for a federal early release under that same amendment.

According to East Bay Times, here is what Terry Halter Junior, Senior U.S. District Court Judge said:
“Because Harris is ineligible for a sentence reduction, the Court may not consider Harris’s post-conviction achievements or any other sentencing factors in evaluating this motion.”
According to court records, Harris appealed this decision, but his appeal was denied last July by the Ninth Circuit.

Denzel Washington and Michael "Harry O" Harris
Denzel Washington and Michael “Harry O” Harris

Harris’s work as a journalist and philanthropist is not the only impressive thing he is known for. Success has always been a loyal companion in Harris’s life.

When he was only 20 years old, he became a millionaire through cocaine sales, and that was when he was also sentenced. In the early 90s, he was serving prison terms amounting to more than 40 years. We wouldn’t say that that precisely was a success, but what followed afterward surely is.

Harris not only financed the Broadway hit Checkmates, but he was also co-founder of probably the most famous record label “Death Row Records”. With his $1.5 million investment, Harris helped his partner Marion “Suge” Knight to create a label that went on to produce some of the most iconic records and albums in the rap industry, including Tupac’s All Eyez On Me and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.

In a phone conversation for the documentary Welcome to Death Row, Harris said:

“I was not a drug dealer. I was a person who decided to sell drugs, but I also at another point decided that I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I took those proceeds and invested in various real estate and businesses that turned out to be quite profitable.”

Harris knows a thing or two about violence, and how important it is to have someone help you when you need, that’s why he is also co-founder of The Richmond Project, a non-profit, which is focused on reducing violence in Contra Costa County. Moreover, while being in state prison, he helped the turning of the San Quentin News into an award-winning publication by becoming editor-in-chief.

Michael Harry-O Harris, Lydia Harris, and Suge
Michael Harry-O Harris (left), Lydia Harris (center), and Suge Knight (right)

Over the years, there have been many letters of support from people like Van Jones, State Sen. Nancy Skinner, journalist John Eagan, and former Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus.

“I have never written a letter for a prisoner or parolee before, but I am doing so now because I believe the individual I am writing on behalf of, San Quentin prisoner Michael Harris (D97093), has demonstrated he can have a powerful positive impact on at-risk young adults-and is someone whose help we need in Richmond to assist us with our violence-reduction efforts,” Magnus wrote in 2011. He also added, “I believe Mr. Harris has a rare and valuable influence that can benefit our city. We need his services in Richmond now.”

Journalist John Eagan also wrote some powerful words, calling Harris, “one of the finest, most extraordinary men I have known.”