Memoirs of a drug-war casualty
An incarcerated one-time SN&R essayist receives a national writing award
The PEN American Center has announced its 2006 Prison Writing Awards, and among the writers to receive an honorable mention is Sacramento native and SN&R contributor Eugene Alexander Dey. Dey is serving a 26-to-life term on a third-strike drug offense at the California Correctional Center in Susanville.
Dey’s essay for SN&R was about his experience with California’s “three strikes” law (“Three strikes, he’s in”; SN&R Essay; March 11, 2004). He considers himself “drug-war collateral damage” and has found that writing personal essays has led him to “learn a lot about myself as a writer and even more about my craft.”
In addition to his award-winning memoir for the prison writing contest and his essay for SN&R, Dey has written for several other California alternative weeklies, national publications (including the Christian Science Monitor) and The Sacramento Bee.
An op-ed piece that Dey wrote in July 2004 for the Bee, supporting passage of Proposition 66, which would have modified California’s three-strikes law to exempt nonviolent third offenses, led to his becoming involved in a political controversy. Both Bee columnist Marjie Lundstrom and Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully challenged Dey’s claim that he was a nonviolent offender, pointing to the use of weapons in prior offenses—a robbery and two burglaries committed in the late 1980s.
Dey acknowledged that he has a lengthy rap sheet but told SN&R in a letter, “I am not my rap sheet.” He pointed out that he’d already served the sentences for the counts involving weapons. Dey’s third strike was a nonviolent drug offense—possession of marijuana and methamphetamine—committed during a relapse that followed eight years of sobriety. Because the drug charges constituted his third strike, Dey won’t be eligible for parole until 2024.
“No on Prop. 66” television ads that ran prior to the 2004 general election featured Dey’s photo and that of inmate David T. Chubbuck, along with those of convicted rapists and child molesters. They were included among the “26,000” prisoners that Governor Schwarzenegger claimed would be set free should the proposition pass. At that time, there were fewer than 8,000 third-strike prisoners incarcerated in California, and roughly half of them would have been eligible for release under the provisions of Proposition 66. Neither Dey nor Chubbuck has ever been charged with a sex offense or with murder. After the ads ran, Chubbuck received a number of death threats.
“Personally, I believe I made the line-up because I injected myself in the debate with that Yes on 66 article published in the Bee in July,” Dey said in a letter to SN&R that November. He did not receive death threats and believed that was because he’d been so public about his criminal background in his writing. “Had I been anonymous prior to those ads, I likely would have become a target like Chubbuck,” he explained in the letter.
Dey’s honorable mention is in the category of memoir, for a first-person piece titled “A Three-Strikes Sojourn.” Nick Burd, the coordinator for the center’s Prison Writing Program, told SN&R that Dey’s memoir was one of approximately 1,000 entries in the category. Awards also were given in poetry, fiction, essay and drama categories. “A Three-Strikes Sojourn” will be published on the PEN American Center’s Web site (at www.pen.org), and Dey will be teamed up with a writing mentor as part of the program.
According to Burd, “mentors work with the incarcerated writers to develop their writing and provide an outside reader. It’s less a workshop or writing-program scenario and more a situation of mutual support and encouragement.” The program’s mentors come from the membership of the PEN American Center, a who’s who of American writers.
Established in 1922, the PEN American Center is the largest chapter of International PEN, a human-rights and literary organization. (PEN stands for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors and novelists.) Dedicated to the advancement of literature, the defense of free expression and the development of literary fellowship, the center offers literary awards and internships, subsidizes translation, works with writers in prison and acts as a watchdog for the free-speech rights of authors and journalists.