Inmates seek to ease ‘3 strikes’

They’re hoping recall spotlights their drive to eliminate nonviolent crimes as 3rd offenses.

By Mareva Brown — Bee Staff Writer – (Published September 7, 2003)

Just when it appeared the recall campaign couldn’t get much stranger, 15 inmates at Mule Creek State Prison seized on the election as a way to get California’s “three strikes” law modified.

Saying voters were misled by ads that focused on violent criminals when they approved the law in 1994, more than a dozen inmates staged hunger strikes, starting late last month and lasting at least a week, in hopes of persuading key gubernatorial candidates to take a stance on the controversial law. Most of the hunger strikers since have begun eating again.

Proponents of the law say they have little sympathy for the inmates.

“The fact of the matter is, their job isn’t to like the law — it’s to obey it,” said Mike Reynolds, the prime mover behind the third-strike referendum. “The real question is why did they continue to go out and do crimes knowing what they were risking?”

But Gary Harrold, a Mule Creek inmate whose third strike came for stealing two porterhouse steaks worth $17.43, believes the issue needs to be revisited. Harrold, who is serving 26 years to life, is among those who went on a hunger strike Aug. 26.

So did James Covert, a third-strike inmate from Sacramento who is serving 76 years to life for possessing a stolen car in 1995, and Covert’s cellmate, James Rice, a third-striker from Fresno serving 25 years to life after forging a $900 check.

Voters passed California’s three-strikes law in 1994 after 12-year-old Polly Klaas was abducted, raped and murdered by a repeat felon. It requires anyone convicted of a third serious or violent crime be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Covert and the other hunger strikers say California voters were misled by ad campaigns that focused on keeping child molesters and rapists behind bars. They and others attempting to change the law believe voters never intended to lock up nonviolent criminals. They want the law modified so only a violent conviction can count as a third strike.

“They showed the commercial with the Raggedy Ann going round and round (on a merry-go-round) with no kid,” said Covert, whose first and second strikes were for a string of 1987 robberies. “That wasn’t me. My mom voted for this law.”

But Sacramento prosecutor Lana Wyant said voters may have understood what they were doing.

“This guy robbed multiple people in 1987 and committed a burglary, and he used a weapon,” she said. “He gets out and seven months later he’s in possession of stolen property and he’s carrying a gun. Do we trust him? Do we think he should just go in for a little bit longer and then come out again?”

So far, four candidates have expressed opinions about the law.

Republican front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger’s spokesman, Sean Walsh, said California’s three-strikes law is sound and should not be altered.

“It’s a good law, it’s protecting the public,” Walsh said. “Prisoners who are being paroled are leaving the state.”

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo is firmly opposed to the three-strikes law and believes judges should have broad discretion in sentencing.

Former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth issued a statement last week saying he does not support weakening the law in any way.

Political commentator Arianna Huffington favors more education for nonviolent offenders and would support modifying the law, her press secretary said.

According to California Department of Corrections data, 58 percent of the 7,143 third-strike inmates in California prisons were convicted of nonviolent crimes ranging from drug manufacturing and possession to grand theft to arson.

Including Harrold, 349 inmates received third strikes for a petty theft conviction with a prior conviction. Including Covert, 169 were serving third-strike terms for receiving stolen property. An additional 665 are serving time for simple drug possession, and 42 are imprisoned for drunken driving.

Meanwhile, 118 inmates received their third strikes for rape, 236 for committing lewd acts upon children and 57 for second-degree murder.

Of the original 15 prisoners who were striking, only a few remain — inmates say three, prison officials say two. Prison officials are monitoring the remaining strikers, taking their weight and blood pressure at least every third day. They continue to offer them meals and have allowed them to continue their normal programs as long as they remain nonviolent, according to Mule Creek prison spokesman Eric Reyes.

Harrold, an American Indian who said he prepared for his hunger strike with a traditional sweat ceremony at the prison, is among those who has accepted meals. Still, he said, he hopes that the inmates’ efforts will raise public awareness.

When Harrold walked into a Bakersfield grocery store in August 1997 and stuffed a package of steaks into his pants, hoping to cook them over a fire at his Kern River campsite, he said, it never occurred to him that he could be facing a third strike.

“I was pretty hungry and kind of desperate,” said Harrold, who was homeless, jobless and on parole at the time. Because Harrold had been convicted of prior thefts — robberies in 1986 and 1990 — his shoplifting charge was bumped up from a misdemeanor to a felony, his third strike.

“This is costing everybody a lot of money,” said Harrold. “I’ve had three major operations in here in the last five years.”

Ricky Valadez questions whether Californians would choose to lock him away for 25-to-life if they knew his third strike was for stealing a $180 drill from an Orange County garage, a first-degree burglary. Valadez joined the Mule Creek inmate hunger strike about a week ago and still was not eating as of Friday night, according to inmates.

But supporters of the law say Valadez’s criminal background — along with Harrold’s and Rice’s — is exactly what voters anticipated when they passed the law.

“They only get to the third strike through merit,” said Schwarzenegger’s spokesman, Walsh. “You’re always going to find the odd pizza thief, but the truth of the matter is there is generally a long history of prior crimes. If the criminal has gotten to the point where they now have a third strike, they have earned their way into the system.”

Valadez was sent to prison first in 1980 for a first-degree burglary conviction, returned in 1990 for a similar offense and struck-out in 1998 for another burglary, according to prison records. He also admits to 17 misdemeanor arrests.

Harrold, the steak thief, has been in and out of prison for crimes including robbery since he was a juvenile.

Rice, the Fresno forger, was sent to prison in 1980 for a second-degree burglary in Santa Cruz and a second-degree murder in 1984 in Idaho.

“All they have to do is stop doing crime,” said Reynolds, the three-strikes author. “It doesn’t matter what their priors were, what kind of terrible past they have. All they have to do is stop. That’s not too much to ask.”