Eugene Dey’s memoir shows the real results of ‘three strikes’
“Dey, wake up. You have court today.”
Oh, man, here we go: Judgment and sentencing. This wasn’t my first ride on the rodeo, but it also wasn’t likely to be my last. Even though all my serious criminality was committed years ago, I’m definitely a drug offender. I have violated the nation’s prohibitions against controlled substances at every opportunity. Once again, I had played Russian roulette with the California criminal-justice system—and the ghosts from my past had loaded the gun.
I liked the easy money, free dope and loose women associated with the illegal drug trade. Unfortunately, the drug-war zealots didn’t share my enthusiasm for these pleasures. To me, drugs were simply a hustle, not a crime. Crimes were what thieves, thugs, killers and sexual predators committed. I was, at worst, a slightly shady entrepreneur, a man with a past who just liked quick, victimless cash. I wasn’t a major trafficker, and I didn’t sell to kids. It really didn’t seem like a big deal—in my 33 years, I’d gone from an absolutely fearless thug of an insane youth to a college-educated writer and businessman, once I calmed down. I just happened to sell drugs as an added economic bonus. It brought with it an incredibly expensive tax—my life.
I’d been found guilty by a jury for a felony drug charge. On this particular day, I would receive the mandatory term of 25 years to life in prison, as provided for in California’s ultra-harsh “three strikes” sentencing law. In the prime of my life, my life was about to officially come to an end.
For a jail inmate, going to court, at least in my county, is government at its worst. I cannot imagine how, when or why such a torturous exercise developed in a civilized society.
They come for you in the morning—a wakeup via the intercom system at the crack of dawn. You’re given just a few moments to gather court documents, and then your day in court really begins. You move from one holding area to another, and another, and another. At some point, groups of inmates will eventually be chained together. There is never a shortage of prisoners due in court.
Once attached to one another, these gangs of chained defendants are packed sardine-style into a small transport vehicle, a cross between a slave ship and a cargo van. The bumpy ride from the jail to the courthouse while chained together like animals—made worse because of being accused of crimes both small and large and suffering from various levels of shock—is often depicted in movies. Rarely do filmmakers even come close to representing the pain and misery these exercises in repression inflict on the psyche. The hollow, empty and frightened looks of defendants never leave you—especially because those looks reflect your own.
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. Having served as my own attorney—and, yes, I fully came to know what it means to have a fool for a client—I knew this was the end.
“Your last words, sir?”
“Drug-war mongers, I despise you! Do your worst, sir!”
It was a nice fantasy. But I’d had my chances and messed them up. Even though a significant minority of nonviolent three-strikes defendants were getting non-life sentences, I knew I wouldn’t be one of them. I hadn’t played the system, delaying trial long enough to garner a plea agreement from a prosecutor desperate to clear the clogged court calendar for the next wave of defendants.
Instead, I did just the opposite. I exercised my right to a speedy trial, because I was not prepared to be held indefinitely in that horrible jail like some starving beggar 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.
And I did. I planned to walk into that court like a well-prepared soldier and tell it like it is. I planned to take the position that three-strikes is an evil, mean-spirited and illegal law that does far more damage than good. A warrior at heart, and anything but a victim by nature, I would go out in the proper fashion—on my shield.
But I also still harbored a glimmer of hope that the judge, despite his obvious disdain for me, would dig down deep and give me a sentence proportionate to my crime. The will to survive is unbelievable.
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; it protects the innocent. I had been in real trouble in the past and understood the consequences. When I was younger, I took my chances every time. Sometimes I won, and I went home. Other times, they won; I went to jail. In one instance, I served a lengthy sentence—and deserved it.
But this time, the rules had been changed by power-hungry politicians. There was no longer a relationship between the criminal act and the punishment meted out; proportionality and common sense had been removed from the sentencing process. This is what fear has done to us: It has made the “war on drugs” into a “war on drug users,” snaring entirely too many small fish in a sea full of sharks.
The so-called war on drugs started in New York, with the Rockefeller drug laws of the early 1970s. It was the beginning of a national movement to demonize drug users and drug dealers alike. Then the federal government passed mandatory-minimum sentencing in the ’80s, with three-strikes and “truth in sentencing” laws passed all over the country in the mid- to late-’90s. And so the prison-industrial complex came into being.
Every state, and the federal government, has its own drug laws, codes and regulations. Some are worse than others; none is worse than California’s. The three-strikes law currently in place, especially as applied in my county, is one of the harshest sentencing schemes in the country.
“You have court in Department 17 with Judge Candee. It looks like sentencing,” said one of my two escorting deputies.
They placed the restraints on my wrists for a mind-bending walk through the labyrinth-like corridors of the courthouse. While it’s technically a public building, the bulk of it is beyond the view of all but court personnel—and incarcerated defendants. As we travel through the underbelly of the courthouse, we are like robots in a surreal nightmare.
“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.”
That’s my point exactly. Three-strikes is generally perceived to be a punishment reserved for those who rob, rape, molest and murder. It makes sense in that light as a way to protect the innocent from people who have shown a decided propensity to do harm to others. Even to these deputies—who see people sentenced everyday and make their livelihood in the prison-industrial complex—it makes no sense on its face to send a man to jail for life on a drug charge.
Yet, it happens. It happened to me.
Eugene Alexander Dey is a Sacramento native currently serving 25 to life on a third-strike drug offense. This is an excerpt from his memoir, A Three-Strikes Sojourn, which received an honorable mention from the PEN American Center.