Fighting the Three Strikes Law

Heartbreak and Injustice

Revolutionary Worker #975, September 27, 1998

"When the cops see a group of Mexican kids together they think we're a gang. You don't need to be causin' trouble or anything. They'll stop you...They automatically assume that you're guilty of something by the way you look."

An imprisoned Chicano youth

This system wants to jail our future. The hellholes that the government calls "correctional facilities" are being filled with our youth. California, with the third largest penal system in the world (after China and the U.S. as a whole), has been in the forefront of this trend. It will soon spend more on prisons than on the entire educational system. In recent years California's university and college system cut back 8,000 employees--while its Department of Corrections added 26,000. Black youth coming up in Los Angeles or Oakland are twice as likely to end up in prison as to go to college. Politicians in the state debate whether the death penalty should be applied to 13-year-olds or whether it should be applied "only" to those 14 and up.

The prison system in California is a nightmare made real. Overcrowding is so severe that tiny 6 by 10 foot cells, designed for one prisoner, now house two. Inmates are often confined to these cells 23 hours a day. Brutality by the guards is extreme and institutionalized. Recent hearings before the California legislature exposed how the guards at Corcoran state prison set up "gladiator fights" between inmates and bet on the outcome, and that the prison administration covered up this outrage. At least 38 inmates have been killed by guards in California prisons in the last decade. This figure does not include those who have died in fights instigated by guards, those whose murders are called "suicides," or those who have died due to grossly inadequate medical care.

California's prison population has grown from 22,500 inmates in 1980 to 126,000 in 1994. The Department of Corrections estimates that the prison population in California could rise to 341,000 by 2005.

The vast expansion of the California prisons has been fueled by a huge number of new laws mandating stiffer and stiffer sentences for more and more minor crimes. In 1994 California passed a "three strikes and you're out" law. This law mandates sentences of 25 years to life for those convicted of a third felony, after two previous convictions for "serious" or "violent" felonies. The law also doubles sentences for those who are convicted of a second felony. (See RW #974 for more on California's three strikes.) Under this law over 4,000 people have been sentenced to life in prison--often for such minor crimes as petty theft or possession of a very small amount of drugs.

The wives, husbands, brothers, sisters and parents of those locked up under the three strikes law have formed Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS). They are part of a growing movement of resistance that is fighting for a different future.

"They Know We're Out There"

In early September the RW talked with members of the San Jose chapter of FACTS. The chapter, which also serves as the Northern California headquarters, is less than a year old. Its first public action was in January 1998. The organization is growing quickly, and there are now 22 chapters.

Chapter chairperson Mary Avanti told the RW, "We've set up chapters in Bakersfield, Three Rivers, Hanford, Fresno, Modesto, Stockton, Santa Cruz, Hayward, San Jose, Sacramento. All of these chapters have formed since January. The way that it started was that I knew some inmates, I got friends who know inmates, and we started sending letters inside the jail. The inmates would write to us and say that they have family members, and then we would contact the family members. Or they would contact the family members, or the family members would contact us. I only had about five inmates names to start with. Now we have about 270 inmates that we correspond with. We have about 150 members, and we also have supporters. We're also in prisons: Corcoran, Calpatria, Lancaster, Salinas, Soledad, Pleasant Valley, Susanville, Pelican Bay, Mule Creek, Solano, San Quentin, Santa Clara County Jail, Placerville County Jail, Oakland Jail. We've got one guy in San Francisco. And we have CCWF--the women's correctional facility."

The San Jose Chapter of FACTS meets every week in a working class area of the city. At a recent meeting topics included a report from a statewide meeting of FACTS, plans for handing out flyers and collecting petition signatures over the weekend, and a benefit sale of prisoner artwork. FACTS holds monthly marches at the San Jose civic center. They hand out flyers regularly at the courthouse. They correspond with prisoners and post their stories on the Internet. They rally outside prisons. And they lobby legislators for changes in the law.

A FACTS member described what happened at a recent action: "We were having a demonstration at the San Jose jail. So we let the word go out to tell everybody inside to pour water outside their window. So during the demonstration we look up, and the whole side was covered with water. People poured water outside their cells. They know we're out there."

Case Studies in Injustice

The stories of prisoners convicted under the three strikes law are case studies in injustice. They cry out to be told. Brenda was the first to speak up. The case against her husband stems from an incident of brutality by the police over a year ago. "When they went to arrest my husband, the police officer pulled out his billy club and my husband just split. When he went to run out the door, they say that he tried to take them over the balcony. The police officers brutally beat up my husband. One whacked him across the forehead and split his head wide open. I went to give him a towel to help him and they hit me across the back with a billy club. I took off running because I didn't want them to do to me what they did to him. My husband's facing three strikes right now. They got him for two counts of assault on a police officer, possession, being under the influence and giving false ID. And he's got priors for burglary. If they find him guilty on all the charges he's looking at 95 to life. If he can't beat the assault charges, he's gone--25 to life."

Brenda described what her husband's arrest has meant to her and her family. "It's really difficult. I have my daughter home. She's had her trouble too. She's on house arrest right now. I have to go out and find a second job to keep her and me afloat. I go see him twice a week. We've been going to court about every other week. You can't touch him. If I could just get a hug--you know a hug just does wonders. It's really screwed up."

Karen spoke up next. "I'm a little farther along than Brenda is. Mine got sentenced in Santa Barbara County for possession of a fraudulent money order. They convinced him, when he was not on his proper psychiatric medications, to plead guilty to a potential 25 to life sentence, claiming that they were going to put him away for 100 to life if he went to trial. The whole thing was a wobbler [a charge that can either be a misdemeanor or a felony--RW]. Because of his past, which was long ago, they decided to make it a felony."

Karen talked about the frustration of going through the process of judicial appeals in an effort to lessen the sentence. "Nothing that we tried, the judge wouldn't go for. So he's been sentenced already, for 25 to life for a potential misdemeanor." As Karen points out, the top sentencing for this particular felony is two years--but it became 25 to life because of the three strikes law.

Mary overflows with energy and determination to overturn three strikes. She talked about her family member's case: "His charge was serious, but he didn't have a violent charge in his background. His last charge was serious because it was a car jacking, but it was not violent. It should have been a car robbery but they called it car-jacking. The sentence for car-jacking is four years. He was a double striker--not even a three striker. Because he was a two striker, it went to eight years. Because his alcohol count was .28 they gave him a five-year enhancement. So that took him up to 13 years. And then what they did was they gave him five years for every prior prison commitment that he served. These are from when he was 18 to 27 years old. He was 47 when he did this. So there was a 20-year gap--he was off parole and everything else. He's going to spend 33 years in prison and not come up for parole for 27 years.... I don't want him dying alone inside prison. I'll stay in this until this law changes. I'll die fighting this law."

Like many others, Mary learned about FACTS through a relative in prison: "I got involved when my family member sent me a speech by FACTS founder Doug Kieso. He had to copy it by hand--both sides--because there was only one in the prison, and he wanted me to have it. I went on a mission to find FACTS. I looked for seven months and couldn't find them but I knew they existed. He finally got sentenced to Folsom. The first day I went out to visit him, I got there real early and there was one other lady there. We sat together and started talking. Her boyfriend was there because of three strikes. And she said that she belonged to an organization called FACTS. That's how I connected."

John had been sitting silently listening to other people tell their stories. When a question came up about what keeps people fighting, John immediately started talking: "I'm my brother's only hope. The reason I got involved in this is because my brother was three strikes for stealing $30. He has been involved in the prison system since he was 18 years old...He's a drug addict. He's never been offered treatment for recovery. This last time he stole $30 and got three strikes because of his priors. He had been clean almost two years and he got laid off work. He didn't know how to deal with the frustration of being laid off and he didn't know how to reach out to me or anyone that he was friends with and say that he needed help. He can't do the leg work, but I'm out here. We grew up in a housing project in San Francisco. My mother was a fighter. I'm much like my mother. She's a fighter--she never said no, and she never gave up. And I'm that way too. As long as my brother is incarcerated I'm going to remain actively involved, and I'm going to push whatever buttons need to be pushed to create the changes needed to get him out."

Doing Time on the Outside

People spoke about the way that the families of three strikers suffer along with their loved ones. As Brenda said, "Every single one of us is doing time along with them."

"Ain't that the truth," said Karen. "I will never have a child as long as he is in there for 25 to life. How are you supposed to have a marriage? They don't let you have any family visit if you have a sentence with a life top--even if you are a non-violent offender. [Recently California severely restricted family visits which allow a prisoner to spend some extended time with their family.] So we're doing time, too."

"Another way we do time is when we go for a visit," Brenda added. "You're treated in a very condescending manner. Once I walk onto those prison grounds I go into hypervigilance. I feel like I have to walk around with my hands open and not make any sudden moves. They search you and pat you down. You feel like you're the criminal.... They try to intimidate you, demoralize you."

Dan, an older man wearing a large cross around his neck, told of visiting his son: "In Salinas Valley you couldn't wear this color or that color. They treated you like dirt."

Mary described her visits: "I'm on edge, I'm full of anxiety, I'm feeling this condescending attitude coming toward me. I leave there and I think, man, if this is what I'm feeling and I'm just visiting here, then what are they going through when they stay here? That turns a trip on my head, and I have to go totally numb."

Other fears also came up. "I'm scared of the prison system changing mine into something that he was not before he went in," Karen said. "I'm afraid prison will institutionalize him. He was working three jobs before he went in. What are they going to turn out like 25 years from now? It's going to destroy them."

Brenda talked about her daughter growing up with her father in prison. "We did have a life at one time. He taught my daughter to drive at the age of ten. There are all these little stories.... I cannot see my husband doing 25 to life. That's his only kid, and she's going to eventually get married and have grandbabies."

The Haves and the Have Nots

The injustice of the three strikes law has moved FACTS members to begin questioning other things about the direction that this society is headed.

"As I get older I keep seeing more and more of what our founding fathers put together being taken away from us," John said. "And when I really ponder and sit back, I come to the conclusion that there's such a division in classes now that it's going to be the haves and the have nots. It's going to be the people who have all the wealth and the poor people who are going to be the slaves serving them. And I don't want to see that happen. I will not see that happen. I will do whatever it takes to fight that decay of our civil and human rights."

There was discussion of the war on drugs. The stories of three strikes prisoners that FACTS publishes are full of people serving life terms for drug-related offenses. Mary pointed out that at the time her family member was arrested, he was seeking treatment for drug-related problems--but all treatment facilities were full.

John made an important observation: "People in the inner cities don't have the money or the wherewithal to get the drugs brought into the country. I still believe that there are people higher up who bring drugs in and dump them into the ghetto." Other people around the table pointed out how it was the guards who are responsible for bringing drugs into prison but that the prison authorities blame the family members--and use this to justify humiliating searches.

"In my neighborhood where I grew up, almost everybody goes to prison," John said. "That's how it is in housing projects. I saw that time and time again. I've seen the police kill many of my friends. I'm tired of seeing people die or be locked up forever. My brother--that's my younger brother, the guy I went fishing with--we went our different ways. We didn't have a whole lot given to us growing up. But I'm out here and I have the opportunity to do some things he can't do in there...I know there's going to be change. But its going to take a lot of effort."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)