Putting a Face on
by Michael Sokolove
Published in Los Angeles Times
August 23, 2004
I got a note from my friend Carl
Jones the other day -- Carl Quinton Jones, prisoner No. E-66555 at
Folsom State. Usually he writes letters on what he calls his "cellie's"
typewriter. He tells me about his prison baseball team, complains
about the food, asks me about my kids, discourses on anything but
his future prospects -- of which he has had none. But this was a
quick note penned on a prison-issue greeting card, and it included a
new sentiment: hope.
"I hope to see you and your family
when I get out," Carl wrote in his careful printing. "I'm hoping
they will change the three-strikes law in November." California
voters this fall will have a chance to vote yes or no on Proposition
66, which would soften the state's three-strikes law so that only
those who have committed violent or serious crimes would be sent
away for life. The three-strikes law was enacted in 1994, after the
kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas in Petaluma. Citizens, even
those in low-crime areas, have felt strangely comforted, oddly
unbothered, by the fact that huge numbers of men are being locked
away for life, many of them for relatively minor offenses.
There are many disturbing
statistics regarding the U.S. prison population, but this is my
favorite: With just 5% of the world's population, the U.S.
incarcerates an estimated one of every four prisoners in the world.
California has been in the vanguard of harsh, mandatory sentencing,
and its three-strikes law is the emblem of such policies. It is
certainly not coincidental to the nation's large prison population
that so many of the inmates are like Carl Jones: black or Latino men
from the inner city, largely faceless to suburban, middle-class
This is how Carl ended up as one of
California's 42,000 second- or third-strikers affected by the
three-strikes law: In 1990, he was convicted of a burglary at a
private home. He carried no weapon and no one was home. A year
later, he was convicted for another burglary under the same
circumstances: no weapon, no one home. He did some time for that
one, less than a year.
In 1994, he broke into Crenshaw
High during summer vacation -- the same school where, 15 years
earlier, he had been the gritty, clutch-hitting catcher on a
historic baseball team that included two future big-league
all-stars, Darryl Strawberry and Chris Brown. Nearly all his
teammates, even the bench players, got a shot at pro ball. But when
the scouts overlooked Carl, it shocked and deflated him. He found
work pouring concrete at downtown construction projects but then
fell into an addiction to crack cocaine.
What drove him to break into his
old high school? Carl could never say. But Crenshaw was the last
place where he had truly excelled, and I have wondered if he was
looking for something he left behind: a sense of purpose and pride.
He was a confused, down-on-his-heels guy in need of counseling and
drug rehab. I don't know what his future would have held -- it
certainly wasn't looking good -- but our nation's policy has never
been to lock folks away for life on the basis of their poor
Carl's lawyer remembers the
Crenshaw break-in as the eraser case, not because Carl erased
anybody but because the only result of "this aimless foray into an
unoccupied classroom" was that the ledge under the blackboard, the
shelf that holds erasers, was ripped from the wall.
And that was strike three.
A judge gave Carl the mandatory: 25
years to life. He was 34 years old when he was sentenced; without a
change in the law, his first opportunity for parole will be in 2019,
when he is 58.
As is always the case with
California ballot propositions, there is strong disagreement about
what the actual effect of Prop. 66 will be if it passes. Proponents
contend that it will free thousands of prisoners who, like Carl,
have had a 25-year-to-life term imposed for nonviolent offenses and
that it would shave millions of dollars from a prisons budget that
is routinely rounded off in news reports to $6 billion a year.
Opponents, including Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger, have predictably fallen back on what initially drove
enactment of three strikes: raw, primitive fear. The governor and
Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer argued, among other things, that Prop. 66
would "flood our streets with thousands of dangerous felons,
including rapists, child molesters and murderers," and that it would
lead to the release of 26,000 convicted criminals, a figure more
than seven times higher than the proponents' estimates of inmates
whose sentence could even be reconsidered. Schwarzenegger's stance
seems particularly gutless -- and a nod in the direction of the
prison guards union, which has held sway over the last few
California governors and has consistently pushed for ever harsher
In addition to writing letters,
Carl calls my home on occasion. I talk to him and then sometimes
pass the phone to my 12-year-old son, because I know Carl craves
conversations with people who are not inmates or guards. They don't
have much to share, really. Carl tells him to stay in school and
stay out of trouble.
With a child's righteous
indignation, my son sometimes demands that I help Carl -- that there
must be something I can do to get him out. I have to tell him,
sadly, that there isn't. But now it looks as if there is something
the voters can do, and I fervently hope they make the right choice.
2004 Michael Sokolove