A letter from the inside: why treating people like numbers will never work

This letter is written anonymously by a current inmate in a California prison and published through correspondence.

Hi, my name is T., and I am a repeat violent offender currently incarcerated for life.

I’m an ex-gang member, a drug dealer, and in the eyes of the state of California, I’m a three-striker; the worst that society has to offer.

Over the last 22 years, designations like “three striker”, or “violent offender” have come to define who I am — more than my own name, my accomplishments, or my individual qualities. These titles have sent me behind bars, and kept me here at every turn.

Which for many, is fine. Why should should we let a repeat violent offender back on our streets? Everyone rightfully wants to keep their communities and streets safe.

But take a second and ask yourself — what is a “violent” person? Someone who physically harms others? A particularly dangerous criminal?

In the state judicial system, it is merely a word, which along with words like “serious” become ways to classify human beings, many times arbitrarily .

Let me explain. When I was originally sentenced, my crime of unarmed robbery (meaning no weapon was involved) was considered a “serious” crime, but not violent. However 3 years into my incarceration, my penal code was rescheduled and with no new trial, I was now considered a violent felon.

The actions of my crime hadn’t changed. My demeanor hadn’t altered. Words were written, and now I am considered a new class of person — one who is feared by society and targeted by lawmakers.

It doesn’t matter that in my crimes no one was physically touched, nor any weapon used. It doesn’t matter that since being incarcerated I have gotten both my GED and Associate’s degree — nor that I’m a volunteer English TA , or that I’ve learned how to code in prison.

All that matters is I’m a third striker. A repeat violent offender. Penal Code 211.

Now to be clear this is not an attempt to clear my name, or make any defense of myself. As a gang member and drug dealer on the streets of LA, I understand better than anyone the harm I caused. I understand that the indignity of robbing someone of their hard earned possessions can be worse than violence itself. I’ve done many bad things in my life and I’m not here to argue what I do deserve or don’t deserve personally.

What I am here to argue is that the numerous inconsistencies in the justice system are costing thousands of men their lives.

Here’s another example: when Senate Bill 261 was passed in California, it stated the human brain is still developing until age 24, thereby those who committed their crimes before that age should be eligible for early parole.

I picked up my first two strikes at age 16, and my third strike at age 19 (all for unarmed robbery), but yet I was ineligible for early parole consideration under SB261. Why? Because three strikers are exempt from this law — as if our brains are somehow excluded from development like others.

Flaws like this mean I know murderers that have had an easier time being paroled than men who have committed property crimes or petty theft.

I think the public recognizes this inconsistency, and I believe they are tired of it. That’s why Californians have voted 5 times over the last 8 years to reduce the sentences of those in prison.

Yet every time, the legislation gets identically worded, and “violent” offenders and “ three strikers” — those often in most need of fairer sentencing — are left behind.

Prop 57 is no different. While the public voted 64% in favor to bring early parole for “non-violent” offenders, the California Department of Corrections decided that once again, three strikers would be excluded — violent or not.

Which is not surprising to any inmate. We have gotten used to this. However, that doesn’t mean we have to settle.

This argument is not about morals, or society norms. It is about matching public intent to legal execution. It’s about giving the public, inmates, and their families, a system that works, and is consistent with their beliefs.

I believe that the most prudent parole process is a system that allows for those closest to prisoners to evaluate them based on a personal basis, not on a penal code.

I believe if we want to make real change, we need to let legislators know that we will not allow Prop 57 to be yet another case of closed door policy making.

Lastly, I believe permanently categorizing human beings isn’t just fundamentally unfair, it doesn’t work.

Thank you for your time.

This letter is written anonymously by a prisoner currently serving a life sentence in California. For those interested in ensuring Prop 57 meets its original purpose of bringing early parole consideration to non-violent offenders who’ve served their original sentence, we ask you to email opec@cdcr.ca.gov and ask that Secretary Scott Kernan follows his legal obligation to include consideration for non-violent three-strikers.