Three Strikes law still a hot topic of conversation for affected families
The meeting began with a prayer, a simple request to end an injustice and reunite families. It was a prayer asking for the end of California’s Three Strikes law.
They are a group of people – grandmothers, brothers, sisters, mothers – who have family members serving draconian prison sentences for non-violent offenses. They are members of the South Los Angeles chapter of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS).
Founded in 1996, FACTS intends to abolish the Three Strikes law or, at minimum, amend it so it applies to violent offenses only.
The group is sitting around several clustered tables at the Chuco’s Justice Center, a youth advocacy group, in Inglewood. The room is big enough to serve as a warehouse, dwarfing the ten FACTS members within it.
Concrete floors, a large vaulted ceiling, haphazardly placed office furniture and an odd assortment of flotsam and jetsam make the decor. Above are skylights, allowing just enough sunlight in to illuminate the space.
Board Member and FACTS President Keith Morgan starts the meeting. There is no agenda tonight. His opening prayer was for the group to get another proposition on the ballot to reform Three Strikes.
There have been 13 attempts to amend the law. Mostly Senate or Assembly bills, they have all failed to get the required support to pass. The most recent attempt was the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2008. It failed to get the needed signatures to appear on the November ballot.
Despite the setbacks, Morgan is soft-spoken and upbeat. He talks about a July 26 potluck dinner and efforts to raise money.
The meeting, one of two the group holds each month, is relaxed and intimate. One woman listens while she takes out patches of cloth and continues her work on a quilt.
A rap session about Three Strikes ensues.
Morgan begins talking about their shared worries over family members who are in prison. “Lack of medical care is a major concern,” he says. “So is gang violence. And then there are the suicides. Three people a day kill themselves in prison.”
Then Andre Mohamed chimes in. His brother is serving a 37-year to life sentence for a non-violent burglary – his third strike. He has been in prison since 1995, a year after Three Strikes became law.
“It doesn’t just effect the person in prison,” he says, “but the entire family.”
Mohamed explains that his brother’s drug problem was behind the robbery. He understands his brother should serve time for his crime, but feels that 37 years or life is too harsh a penalty for an act where no one was injured.
“I could expect that sentence had he murdered someone,” he says. “That’s the price to pay. It’s hard to live knowing he is in there for a non-violent offense.”
Morgan begins to talk about the numbers, about how much it costs to keep inmates and keep such a large prison system running, which houses mostly non-violent offenders.
According to a 2007 Legislative Analyst’s Office report, it costs $43,287 a year to house one inmate. The report states that 82 percent of inmates are in jail for non-violent offenses, the majority of which are drug-related.
“It’s a lot of waste of tax payer’s money,” says Morgan.
The conversation shifts to representation and inequality in the justice system. They talk about the difficulty of dealing with public defenders and their inability to pay for outside attorneys. They note how celebrities and other wealthy individuals rarely get on the wrong side of the Three Strikes law due to their ability to pay for adequate legal aid.
“The average black or brown person can’t afford representation,” says Sylvia Davis, whose nephew was recently released from prison. “If they don’t get properly represented, then they fall prey to the system.”
Davis says that public defenders attend to so many cases they have very little time to prepare for them.
“My son only sees his public defender when he is in court,” Marilyn Flowers interjects. “He has never visited him.”
Flowers came in with her grandson. She says her son is awaiting trial for a non-violent offense, which also happens to be his third strike.
“It’s rare you find a public defender who has the interest of the accused,” adds Mohamed.
The light is getting dim in the room. The sun is almost down, leaving a dim, blueish tone to the makeshift meeting hall. A young man from the center flips on the fluorescent lights. Everyone nods in cheerful approval.
Davis begins to talk about how prisons are becoming privatized, what many now call the prison-industrial-complex. “They make a profit from people going to jail,” she says.
It is a point she is adamant about.
Morgan gets up and leafs through his papers. He presents a photocopy of a Mother Jones article from 2000 entitled “Steel Town Lockdown.” The article highlights the eerie possibilities of having a for-profit prison system, where the bottom line matters above all else.
The Atlantic also reported about the growing for-profit prison industry. According to its 2008 article, architectural and construction firms, Wall Street investors, food-service and health care companies, to name a few, all have a vested interest in this growing industry.
“A hotel has a strong economic incentive to book every available room and encourage every guest to stay as long as possible,” reported The Atlantic. “A private prison has exactly the same incentive.”
The group’s conversation is far from exhausted, but it is getting late and people have to go. Morgan begins to close the meeting with a prayer. They form a circle and hold hands. Heads are bowed.
Another plea is made to higher spiritual forces, a simple request to end an injustice and reunite families.