Three Strikes and the Prison Industrial Complex
"We're fasting for freedom," proclaimed Geri Silva, "because we're starving for justice." Silva, founder of FACTS, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes--the law that mandates life sentences for a third conviction, even if minor and nonviolent, stood on Spring Street Friday morning in front of the downtown Los Angeles offices of Governor Schwarzenegger, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, and Assembly Speaker John Perez. About two dozen activists and onlookers gathered there in solidarity with inmates who were fasting in 33 California State prisons while coordinated protests occurred in front of State government offices in Fresno, Indio, Sacramento and San Francisco. With chants of "Prisons for profit, You know you gotta stop it!", and personal testimonies from families and friends of the incarcerated, protestors sought to raise public--and State officeholder--awareness of the dysfunctional prison system and the impact of unrestrained prison spending on the State budget.
David Chavez of Critical Resistance, a prison abolition organization, questioned how the US can lock up more people per capita than any other country in the world and how California can rank 50th among the states in education spending while "we can afford to put people in prison for the rest of their lives for stealing socks."
And while the notion of Three Strikes sounds as though it will be applied to violent criminals who are habitual offenders, committing crime after crime, mothers and wives of incarcerated men stepped forward to tell about the common practice by which district attorneys charge more than one strike for a single incident.
Amy York, social worker and sentencing advocate, spoke on behalf of incarcerated youth, many of them first-time offenders sentenced to life in prison for gun crimes in which no one died and in which they did not pull the trigger. "They have no adult rights," she pointed out. "They are not considered adults for any purpose other than sentencing." She told of Steven Menendez, arrested at age 14. "He'll turn 18 on Sunday. He has grown up in the youth facility, a model prisoner." He should be going to college, she said. Instead, he'll now be transferred to an adult prison to serve life behind bars. "It breaks my heart that he's not being given a second chance."
California taxpayers, we learned, pay $7,500 for a young person in school. We pay about $50,000 a year for each prisoner. While, as representatives of CURB -- Californians United for a Responsible Budget -- pointed out, the State legislature, without taxpayer input or approval, passed AB900 to fund new prison construction with $7.3 billion in lease revenue bonds and $350 million from the State's general fund. But if California complied with the federal order to decrease the prison population by 44,000 inmates instead of funding more prison beds, the $2.5 billion in savings could instead fund programs needed to restore quality of life in California.
AB900 was a huge victory for the prison-industrial complex. "People are making a profit out of putting people in cages," said Geri Silva. Some of the money is earmarked for special prison facilities for elderly, disabled, and terminally ill inmates who could easily be released with no danger to the public. After debt service on the bonds, CURB estimates the cost to Californians at $15 billion at a time of high unemployment and when necessary services--including the education, job training, and mental health support that could keep people out of trouble--are being cut to the bone. One mother, who acknowledged her son had done wrong, said he'd stupidly believed he could help the family by committing a robbery after both he and she lost their jobs due to the economic downturn and were left without income.
It is hard to envision prison population reduction, however, as long as extreme sentences remain the norm and the Board of Prison Terms has an automatic default position in 90-95% of cases when it comes to parole: Denied. Of the lucky few who get approved by the Board, close to 100% have had the decision overruled by Governor Schwarzenegger. And because the Board requires expressions of remorse, there's no possibility of parole for people who have been wrongfully convicted and maintain their innocence.
"Ten percent of the prison population," says Silva, citing Gloria Killian as her source. Killian served 16 years in prison before she was exonerated after being convicted of murder in a case notorious for perjured testimony and prosecutorial misconduct. Now as executive director of the Action Committee for Women in Prison she continues the work she began behind bars, winning freedom for women prisoners.
Larry Vanderberg is one of the wrongfully convicted, says his wife, Teri. During a vacation in Palm Springs, in full view of her and of a number of children, Larry--a special ed teacher--tossed the daughter of a family friend into the swimming pool. Later, the child told her mother she thought he'd touched her "pipi" when he lifted her. Teri Vanderberg says the overzealous D.A.'s office in Riverside proceeded to have the little girl and other children questioned, using the kind of coaching and witch hunt tactics discredited by the travesties of justice in the infamous McMartin preschool case and the Bakersfield satanic abuse cases.
Now fathers tell her they know better than to spend any time around their daughters' friends. In a society where we know children need male role models and father figures, she fears we are encouraging dads to remain aloof and uninvolved. "I wasn't an activist before this," she explains. "We were just a middle class family raising kids in Temecula Valley. Now I've met people all around the country who are going through the same thing. As long as any child can say 'I've been touched,' this could happen to anyone. But you have no idea until it happens to you. It's like being hit by a truck."
In prison her husband met another teacher whose conviction was overturned when it became clear that the little girl who'd agreed with prosecutors that he'd touched her vagina had believed "vagina" was a fancy grownup word for "elbow." By then, the man had served five years in prison and his family was destitute. They lost their home and he is still fighting to regain his teaching credential.
As for Larry Vanderberg, even if you choose to believe he is guilty as charged, that his hand slid between the little girl's legs as he lifted her into the air, does it make sense that convicted rapists serve eight years and go home when Vanderberg got a life sentence?
Teri Vanderberg's father has cashed in the equity in his house and her church is holding fundraisers to help pay legal bills for her husband's appeal. In the meantime, in prison he was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. In spite of his wife's constant, unwavering advocacy, Larry Vanderberg still waits for medically necessary follow-up care while his youngest daughter--now a teenager--writes to him, talks to him on the phone, and makes public statements on his behalf but because he's not allowed any contact with minors, she is barred by the State from visiting him.
"The people who run the State are far removed from the pain and suffering," said Silva. "The only pain they have is when they get annoyed because here we are again."
And Molly Bell, describing herself as "straight out of Compton," explained why she was present and fasting even though "it's not my husband. It's not my son. But somebody has to stand in the gap for those who cannot stand here."
Diane Lefer's new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, has just been published. Co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, it is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change (including change in how we treat our youth) through action.