A Three-Strikes Sojourn
“Dey, wake up. You have court today.”
Oh man. Here we go. Judgment and sentencing. I was about to feel the entire weight of the drug war era justice system come down on me like a ton of bricks. This is justice in the Golden State—California style. Bring it on!
This wasn’t my first rodeo, but it’s likely to be my last. Even though I committed all my serious criminality years ago, I’m definitely a hard-core drug offender in the present. I have violated the nation’s prohibitions against controlled substances at every given opportunity. For the third time in the last three years I was playing Russian roulette with the California criminal justice system—and the ghosts from my past were catching up to me.
I liked the easy money, free dope and loose woman associated with the illegal drug trade. Unfortunately, the heartless drug war zealots didn’t share my enthusiasm. To me, drugs were simply a hustle, not a crime. Crimes were what thieves, thugs and sexual predators committed. I was a nefarious entrepreneur at worst. A man with a past, who in the present, simply liked the quick, victimless cash. I wasn’t a major trafficker and didn’t sell to kids.
Despite the finality associated with sentencing, all of it seemed like some kind of a joke to me. Maybe I was dreaming. Perhaps someone would simply wake me up and lead me away from an irrevocable inevitability. Instead my nightmare is too real and there is no escape. Not yet, anyways.
I had lived an interesting life, that was for sure. In my 33 years I had seen and done a lot. I went from an absolutely fearless thug in my insane youth, to a college-educated writer and businessman once I calmed down. I just happened to sell drugs as an added economic bonus that brought with it an incredibly expensive tax—my life.
Thus far, due to my inability to shake the demons from my past, I was about to experience something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
After having been found guilty by a jury for a felony drug charge, I was going to receive the mandatory term of 25 years to life in prison per California’s ultra-harsh three-strikes sentencing law. At the prime of life, my life was about to officially come to an end. But I’m a fighter, not a defeatist. I went into this with my eyes wide open.
They say one who represents himself has a fool for a client. Well, thus far I have proven that to be true. Once convicted, I fired my attorney and decided to represent myself. I did so as my opening salvo in my defiance against the powers that be.
With very strong evidence against me and the likelihood, barring a miracle, I would never see the streets again, I felt I better take a crash course on criminal law by playing lawyer for the month leading up to sentencing. I would begin my life sentence by going out with a bang. I would go out shooting, not from the hip, but from the lip. Without a doubt, I had a fool for a client.
For a very small handful of us, and we know who we are, that’s all we want. To die well. To face our executioners and stare him down. Letting your enemies know you’re not afraid is true power over fear. After months of undergoing the indescribable rigors of a three-strikes prosecution, I just wanted to conclude the nightmare like a soldier.
I am a survivor by nature. I always endeavor to learn as much as I can from all situations. The more intense the situation, the more that can be learned, and the greater likelihood of something sticking to my ribs.
I wholeheartedly subscribe to the tenet that, “If it doesn’t kill, then it makes you stronger.” This is how I’ve lived my entire life and exactly how I will greet my executioner. No matter how hopeless the situation, one can persevere by never giving up, fighting off negativity and putting a positive spin on even the most unfortunate events. That is true beauty.
For me—ever the opportunist and never one to avoid a fight—I convinced myself the situation at hand offered a unique opportunity. I realized, quite painfully and through much trepidation, that it isn’t often one has the opportunity to experience what has all the qualities of an execution. And to do so with one’s head held high.
I planned to walk into that court like a well prepared soldier and tell them like it is. I planned to take the position that the three-strikes is an evil, mean-spirited and illegal law. A law that does far more damage than good. Being a warrior at heart and not a victim by nature, I would go out in the proper fashion. On my shield. Walking into one’s death chamber is a difficult and heart-wrenching exercise, but a necessity in order to achieve the impossible. My impossible task is to come back from a form of death.
“Yeah. I heard you. I’m ready,” I lied as I barked at the wall speaker used to communicate between the cells and the booth where the officers controlled everything electronically.
I immediately awoke from what felt like a one-hour power-nap. I stayed up late into the night going over various legal aspects of three-strikes, sentencing procedures, and my philosophical position of absolute defiance from which I would defend myself. There would be meaning to my madness. I felt like I was cramming for an oral presentation, speech or debate. I am ready. While gathering my notes, which I had arranged before going to sleep, I waited for the deputies to come and get me. The calm before the storm.
I couldn’t help but think about my family. After all the hell through which I put them as a wild youth, now they would be in attendance for what felt like a surreal funeral. While I dreaded the thought, yet I was proud nonetheless. I would never be the same again and welcomed the metamorphosis, despite having to do so in front of my loving family. Bless their hearts.
I’ve always known this day would come. It seemed like the stream of those eligible for life sentences in this county had no end. They had me in this jail Pod, a unity which contains thirty or forty double-man cells. The jail itself is comprised of eight Pods per floor, all of which are pancaked on top of one another in an eight story super-jail. In this Pod, nearly all of us were facing life sentences for what seemed like minor three-strikes nonsense. I had seen them come and go, and now it was turn. Three-strikes and you’re out.
As I prepared for my judgment, my entire mindset began to change. I planned to give my own eulogy while saying farewell to all I know and love. I would bury my entire past by defending my drug war dissertation. I knew if I were to truly deserve another chance at a decent life, I would have to kill off my current self—and to die well while doing so. I couldn’t allow myself to break it down and beg the court for forgiveness. There was none forthcoming. I had to take a stand in order to close one chapter and begin a new one.
This is a very difficult transformation to make. I still harbored a small glimmer of hope the judge, despite his obvious disdain for yours truly, would dig-down-deep and give me a sentence proportionate to my crime. One’s will to survive is unbelievable. One’s will to fight off death is age-old because one simply doesn’t want to die. But I was getting into character. I had to welcome the pain of death in order to overcome it. Try and swallow that one.
Once I fired my attorney and went pro per, the judge repeatedly made me regret my decision to represent myself. He tried to get me to take another lawyer, but I wouldn’t listen. In hindsight, even though the judge made it incredibly difficult, I have no regrets for doing so. I was tired of being quiet while the drug war mongers babbled their drug war vernacular. I had things to say as well.
There are thousands of courts in America. Each county is obligated to establish a court system which is linked to the state’s higher courts. At the local level there are Municipal and Superior courts—e.g. trial courts. Moving up the hierarchy there are the Courts of Appeal, and then the State Supreme Court. Moreover, the federal system has a similar tri-level judiciary as well.
When an inmate represents himself (pro per or pro se) on “appeal” in a criminal matter, the courts generally afford him wide latitude in his legal maneuvers. This is so because, while he has a right to appeal, the courts aren’t willing to appoint counsel except on rare occasions. In the case of a prisoner representing himself on appeal, the courts are expected to use their tremendous skill and experience to try and make sense of what are generally poorly written appeals by semi-literate inmates. This is called liberal construction.
Trial courts are different. They do not afford pro pers such leeway or liberal construction. They are obligated to appoint attorneys. At every stage of the proceedings a criminal defendant has the right to be represented by counsel, whether or not they have funds. Since the nation’s trial courts often operate well over capacity, they generally have little patience for a defendant who waives his right to be represented by an attorney and chooses to represent himself.
The trial courts will hold the pro per defendant to the exact same standards as a licensed attorney who is trained in many areas of law—including courtroom protocol. The pro per defendant is frequently considered a menace in the eyes of the court because, no matter how hard he tries, he tends to waste valuable court time trying to make his points or argue a motion. This is an offense an attorney would never commit.
In my short tenure as an attorney representing his fool of a client, I had sealed my fate by pissing the judge off on numerous occasions. In my month as an unlicensed attorney, I tried unsuccessfully to move the court on a number of issues. He must have envisioned a circus. Primarily, despite being college educated, an experienced activist, and a published writer as well, I simply didn’t have the experience to impose my will on a frustrated judge. So the judge used my inexperience against me as he simply brushed my efforts aside.
While being more or less guilty of the nonviolent drug offense, I wholeheartedly believed I deserved some leniency. Nor did I feel I received a fair trial. All I did was drive down the road with some drugs in my car. Big deal. Facing a life sentence for a minor drug crime had made me mad rather than sad. I was genuinely upset at the court and filled with contempt for the system—and it showed. The judge and I did not see eye-to-eye.
In hindsight, I could have done a much better job in my legal maneuvers. More tactful perhaps. But this had all gone on long enough. I was disgusted with the whole justice system. Any chance I had to pull on the judge’s heart-strings at the sentencing hearing and convince him I was outside the spirit of three-strikes were dashed by my numerous and passionate disagreements with him in the month leading up to sentencing.
While I could have done better from a legal standpoint, I felt as if I were about to hit a home run psychologically. After months and months of stress and worry—making everyone around me miserable, mostly myself—the ball was now in my court. I could finally tells this judge what I thought of him, his precious three-strikes, and the nation’s drug laws. I couldn’t wait to tell him what I thought of those who pound the pulpit of imprisonment. The judge is the lead drug war monger and therefore my philosophical enemy.
Slowly I began my metamorphosis. I began the transformation by battling with the local Superior Court as I assumed the role, not of criminal, but of drug war political prisoner. I would show no remorse whatsoever, only disdain for the entire drug war regime and their mindless agents of heartless institutional repetition.
I was sick and tired of being quiet. I would face my enemy as a man, not as a victim. I would fight them at every stage of the proceedings, starting today. The hatred I felt coming from the judge is reciprocal, but not personal. It’s just business. I would suck the life sentence from the court and spit it back at them.
I am simply too young to die. I am a dead man walking. However, if I didn’t speak my mind now I would never get my chance again. Now or never baby, show time. It’s at these times one must seize the moment and shine—just before the judge chokes the very life from your body.
I would no longer play the part of an attorney who makes a living articulating legal points rooted in objectivity and supported by authority. I was a man and totally subjective. I would make my points as I knew them to be correct. I would not go into court like an animal, but like an educated prisoner of war—the drug war. I am a warrior.
Behind Enemy Lines
For those similarly situated—i.e., locked up in the county jail—getting ready for court is like preparing for a day of torture. The actual trip to court from the jail is likely what an alleged hostile detainee must experience on a daily basis.
“Welcome to Abu Ghraib enemy combatants. This is the war on terror and we are going to extract information from you. Struggle if you wish, you will talk.”
One of the primary duties of the jail’s staff is to ensure the multitudes of defendants are transported to court on time. It is through the repetitions of national human waste management that lines of demarcation between us and them are drawn like the 38th parallel separating North and South Korea.
By virtue of the sheer volume of defendants created by the drug war, huge numbers of people are being herded together and driven like cattle on a daily basis. Through the drug war judiciary contemporary prisoners are moved in mass like Jews into the ovens of Nazi death camps. Just like the jailers in Abu Ghraib, the domestic drug war police hone their skills as above-the-law peace-keepers by systematically treating those accused of crimes like animals. It’s the dehumanization of entire population which make institutionalized malfeasance a gray area that all war mongers use to do their ugly work.
The end result, it’s us against them. They hate us and we hate them right back. It’s a vicious cycle and both sides do their part to keep it going. This is why civilians never understand why cops beat people like Rodney King or why jailers could do what they did in Iraq, Pelican Bay or Corcoran. Just like those of us on the receiving end of such brutality absolutely understand why an ex-con would shoot a cop for no apparent reason.
It’s no different than the Israelis and Palestinians. Such mutual hatred is just business as usual in the war-on mentality permeating police state America. This is an oppressive regime operated by heartless drug war mongers who embrace antiquated ideologies deeply rooted in winning a winless drug war against people. In this care, their own people.
Since the cops make the trip to court as unpleasant and torturous as they make our stay in jail, they are definitely the enemy. In all fairness, the problem from our side is too many let their hate become too personal, like with the guy who shoots a cop on the side of the road during a traffic stop. Such blind rage really isn’t necessary because mindless hatred never accomplishes anything. But I understand it.
The hatred should merely be a reminder of who we are, and that they’re absolutely not our allies in any way, shape or form. We—the cops and robbers—are all merely foot soldiers. The real enemy are those power-brokers who refuse to acquiesce to the overwhelming evidence which proves the two-million-man, -woman, and -child army of the incarcerated is an assemblages of unfortunates which never should have been amassed in the first place.
One’s actual time in court varies. It generally depends on the stage of the proceedings. Thus, court can last a few minutes, for the duration of a brief or lengthy hearing, a series of hearings lasting days, or a full-blown jury trial lasting days, weeks or months.
A court date here and there is not that bad. Yet, one endeavors to have the wheels of justice turning because one’s future is uncertain. While consecutive days of court is the worst thing I have ever experienced. For a jail inmate, going to court, at least in my country, is simply government at its worst. I cannot imagine how, when or why such a torturous exercise should be allowed in a civilized society, but the phenomenon of court is pure brutality.
They come for you in the morning and wake you up at the crack of dawn via the intercom system. They do so right after breakfast which comes even earlier. One is given just a few moments to gather court documents and then the day begins.
From this sad moment onward one is herded from one holding area to another, to another, to another. At some point, groups of inmates are eventually chained together. There is never a shortage of such prisoners. Defendants are plentiful in a society so willing to invest vast sums of time, money and energy into criminal justice as opposed to intervention and education.
Once attached to one another, these gangs of chained defendants are packed sardine style into a small transportation vehicle—like a slave-ship cargo van of sorts. The bumpy ride from the jail to the courthouse while chained like animals—made worse due to being accused of crimes both small and large while suffering from various levels of shock—is often depicted in movies. Rarely can filmmakers capture the psychological pain and misery such exercises in repression inflict on the psyche. The hollow, empty and frightened looks of the defendants is the feeling that never leaves you—especially when it’s your own reflection.
American democratic principles are distinguished by skewed methodologies as misapplications of justice rule the day. Most defendants don’t understand their role in this charade because of the prisoner of war atmosphere permeating the conveyer belt manner in which justice is applied. This is a scene repeated infinitesimal times in the nation’s courts and jails throughout the drug war landscape. Convictions are churned-out at an efficient albeit frightening pace.
For me, in my incredible stupidity, I was at the end of the line. I had been going to and from court for what seemed like my entire adult life. This was the end for me. The realization that my fate was already determined meant I would seek no further delays. I would welcome the sentencing hearing even though I dreaded the humiliation of being treated like a criminal in the three-strikes arena. Execution took on a new meaning. Suddenly every prisoner to march that dead man’s walk became my comrade in prisondom.
“Your last words, sir?”
“Drug war mongers, I despise you! Do your worst, sir!”
Watch yourself Eugene. Watch that mouth. Your goal is to fight them on their level. Never show your emotions. Don’t dirt-down the situation, I remind myself. I have a job to do.
I quietly gathered my notes and pertinent paperwork. Nervous energy, yet frightening calm. No need to wake my celly, the poor guy. I had generously shared with him my enormous pain I felt deep inside on too many occasions. In fact, at one time or another, I shared with whoever would listen what it felt like to be a three-strikes political prisoner. I am an angry man, and in my final hour.
For months I could not stop. My mind and conversation rarely deviate very far from my doomsday dilemma. That’s what we do, we bellyache about our cases. We become a community of dissidents. Rarely one to speak to laypersons about matters of specialization, my stress level was through the roof. I spent hours discussing convoluted constitutional theories with toothless, tattooed semi-literates who probably had no clue about the principles I advanced. Yet, I loved them all for hearing me out and helping me prepare for my final arguments. Bless them all.
“Good luck, Eugene. Give ’em hell,” my celly said from the warmth of his prison bed. I appreciated his saying so.
“Thanks celly. A walk through the park.”
One cannot judge a book by its cover. Everyone in the Pod thought I worried about nothing. They assumed I—because of my boyish charms, college education, contractor’s license and numerous published articles—would be a textbook example of a three-strikes defendant who any judge would gladly show leniency.
But this was one book I had read real well. I knew better. I had my chances and messed them all up. Even though a significant minority of nonviolent and nonserious three-strikes defendants were getting non-life sentences, I knew I wouldn’t be one of them.
In order to secure such a deal, a defendant would have to sit quietly in the jail for well over a year with the hopes of getting some mercy. These deal usually involved something along the lines of six to seven years at 80 percent.
This delay as a tactic is common. At its heart, one basically clogs up the court’s calendar for so long the prosecutor and judge, in their overburdened state of barely meeting the avalanche of time-limits for so many defendants, simply have to offer deals to clear room for the next wave of defendants. In so doing, one must be willing to rot in jail for years, literally begging for a deal.
I did just the opposite. I exercised my right to a speedy trial. In other words, I was not prepared to be held semi-indefinitely in this horrible jail like some living corpse with the hope that the system would eventually offer me a crumb. Either I was going to beat the case outright or I would take one right in the heart. Since I lost, my heart was exposed and my enemies were about to pounce.
My fate was sealed. I could only do what I had been doing my entire crazy life. Go out swinging. Sentencing, no matter what happened, would bring a permanent end to my life as I knew it. This hearing would serve as my rebirth.
I would undergo a metamorphosis one more time, just like I had 10 years ago. How I emerged from this philosophical death-blow would entirely on my will to survive. Many never come back. Most are too fragile and the devastation renders them a fraction of their former selves. I refuse to believe this was the end of Eugene Alexander Dey as I knew and loved him. I am not some mindless deviant or a monster. Nor did I deserve anything even close to what they planned to give me.
In my mind, a flood of emotions stayed with me in an electric state of nervousness and anticipation—buttressed by an inability to relax. Thoughts and memories bounced around my tired mind like a game of melancholy pinball. I would play games with myself. I pretended this was a form retribution for those who suffered my wrath over the years.
For a lifetime of rebellion and breaking the hearts of so many beautiful women, I sometimes feel like I’m being dragged through the justice system like some poor unfortunate to be tarred and feathered for my selfishness. Like I am forever exiled from the land of the milk and honey and into a factory that produces hatred and misery. Welcome to hell.
“Good luck Eugene. I’ll be praying for you,” yelled out one of my A.A./N.A. buddies I befriended in the jail’s 12-step program.
This Pod had a rather large contingent of those similarly situated nonviolent nobodies facing life sentences for minor transgressions. We share a common bond, our systemic disadvantage. In our subjugation, most of us show our support and solidarity for a comrade about to suffer permanent incapacitation. I had given innumerable similar-such salutations on many occasions.
“Thanks, bro. But prayer aint gonna help me now, dog. No worries homie.”
I sat quietly in the dayroom of the Pod. Every now and then someone would come to their door and give me a nod or wave. Yet, I never felt so all alone in my life. The dayroom being empty for myself and a couple of other guys going to court. None of them were being sentenced. I would take my place at the end of the line, execution awaits.
The quiet was deafening. In our post-slumber state of quasi-consciousness, this pre-court session of silence is the quiet before the storm. No matter at what stage of the proceedings, sitting in that dayroom where all inmates conduct their activities later in the day, is a exercise in American democracy played out every working day of the year in every county jail in the country—with no end in sight.
This is the war on drugs, crime and deviance. For what they are about to do to me and so many others, for those who take an active part in this charade can all swim to the bottom of the ocean together. I have zero love for them, they are the enemy.
As if by signal, like a pack of Pavlov’s dogs, we all respond to some barely audible sound. A click of sorts made by one of the deputies, and off we went to the control booth to confirm our identities before departure. Once they—the button-pushers, turn keys and gate-keepers—decide they have the correct assemblage of unfortunates for the contemporary assignment in torture, the elevator is our next stop.
Incrementally, each stage takes us that much further away from the familiar surroundings of the Pod and into the waiting arms of the mindless justice system. Hurry up and wait is the program here on out. From this point onward we undergo a series of moves from tanks and cells of various sizes, shapes and separation. Hurry up and move when we tell you, dirt bag,” is the tone making all this possible in a timely, orderly and militaristic fashion. Hurry up and shut up are the marching orders. It’s us against them.
This is American democracy as it’s vigorously embraced by tough-on-crime zealots. Those of us on the receiving end of the draconian justice system are herded like sheep for slaughter for our terrible crimes—in the case of many of us—against no one.
For a so-called civilized society to funnel astronomical numbers of people through this for a nonviolent offense is a crime in and of itself—against humanity. It doesn’t matter what philosophical spin warmongers place on it, the criminal justice status quo is skewed. It’s a quagmire.
Despite my rebellious attitude and anarchist disdain for the nation’s drug laws, I understand the necessity for law and order. It helps those unable to defend themselves—to protect the innocent. But it should never be used to guard one from oneself.
I had been in real trouble in the past and understood the consequence of serious deviancy. When I was younger, I took my chances. Sometimes I won and went home. Other times they won and I went to jail. In one instance, I served a lengthy sentence and deserved it.
In the here and now, justice is a game played by power-hungry politicians. There is no logical nexus between the nonviolent act and the hard-core punishment. Proportionality and commonsense were removed by mean-spirited warmongers who prostituted the integrity of a whole generation of elected leaders.
This was the late 1980s and the apex of the lock-em-up movement. This is the American drug war—a mosaic of miserables. For my comrades and me, the movement to permanently incapacitate as many as possible had snared too many small fish in a sea of sharks. People like myself don’t belong in jail. We have problems with controlled substances, not the law.
The drug war started in New York with the Rockefeller drug laws in 1973. This started a national movement to demonize both users and dealers alike. Then the federal government passed the mandatory minimum drug laws in the ’80s, while the three-strikes and truth-in-sentencing laws were passed all over the country in the mid- to late-’90s. This is how the prison industrial complex—which devours resources and lives—came into being.
Every state and the federal government have their own localized laws, cods and regulations. Some worse than others. None worse than California’s. The three-strikes law currently in place, especially as applied in my county, has proven to be the harshest sentencing scheme in the country.
We are not criminals but prisoners held captive by the politics of justice.
“Yeah, right here.”
“You have court in department 17 with Judge Candee. It looks like sentencing,” said one of my two escorting deputies.
Excellent. Like music to my ears.
I willing allowed my captors to place the restraints on my wrists for the mind-bending walk through the labyrinth-like corridors of the courthouse. While technically a public building, the bulk of it is beyond the view of non-court personnel. As we make our escorted sojourns through the underbelly of the courthouse, we become a silent symphony of defendants under escort—coming and going like patients in an asylum. To and fro we go like robots in a surreal nightmare of nothingness.
“Are you being sentenced?”
“What’s the charge?”
“It’s just a drug charge, but I’m facing a three-strikes life sentence.”
“Serious? I thought they already changed that.”
Bingo. That’s my point. To him, like so many others, the three-strikes is generally perceived to be for those who rob, rape, molest and murder. Even though these deputies do this everyday, seeing someone like myself, a decent looking, well-mannered guy about to get life for drugs doesn’t make a lot of sense on its face. Yet, here I am, being escorted by my death row deputies.
“I’m not tripping. Judge Candee can go right ahead and strike me out for all I care because this law and order crap isn’t going to last forever,” I said if I knew something they didn’t.
It took a second for what I said to sink in. Regardless of the initial confusion of my individual situation created, believing in what they do, both looked at each other and grinned. I could care less what they thought.
There are two primary schools of thought on three-strikes. There are the pro-drug war, tough-on-crime allies of law enforcement and prison industrialism who believe maintaining the status quo is an absolute necessity. Then there are those of us, our families, the entire world of academia, and a very limited and powerless group of left-leaning liberal-types who disagree with the 30-year drug war and its progeny.
My escorts, despite their professionalism and politeness, are my enemies. Anyone who advocates overly harsh methodologies in order to maintain the status quo is simply part of the problem, not the solution. While I’m no angel, for all practical purposes, I’m surely not the devil, either.
Ever since three-strikes entered the national arena of debate ten years ago, I had participated in the discourse. I argued it at every level—in the media, at the university, as an activist, and with whomever wanted to go at it. Now, at this fateful juncture of my life, I’d be arguing against it one more time. Yet, this time, things were different. At stake—my entire life. Bring it on!