On July 15th, 1995, in the quiet Southern California city of Whittier, a 33-year-old black man named Curtis Wilkerson got up from a booth at McDonald's, walked into a nearby mall and, within the space of two hours, turned himself into the unluckiest man on Earth. "I was supposed to be waiting there while my girlfriend was at the beauty salon," he says.
So he waited. And waited. After a while, he paged her. "She was like, 'I need another hour,'" he says. "So I was like, 'Baby, I'm going to the mall.'"
Having grown up with no father and a mother hooked on barbiturates, Wilkerson, who says he still boasts a Reggie Miller jumper, began to spend more time on the streets. After his mother died when he was 16, he fell in with a bad crowd, and in 1981 he served as a lookout in a series of robberies. He was quickly caught and sentenced to six years in prison. After he got out, he found work as a forklift operator, and distanced himself from his old life.
But that day in the mall, something came over him. He wandered from store to store, bought a few things, still shaking his head about his girlfriend's hair appointment. After a while, he drifted into a department store called Mervyn's. Your typical chain store, full of mannequins and dress racks; they're out of business today. Suddenly, a pair of socks caught his eye. He grabbed them and slipped them into a shopping bag.
What kind of socks were they, that they were worth taking the risk?
"They were million-dollar socks with gold on 'em," he says now, laughing almost uncontrollably, as he tells the story 18 years later, from a telephone in a correctional facility in Soledad, California.
Really, they were that special?
"No, they were ordinary white socks," he says, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. "Didn't even have any stripes."
Wilkerson never made it out of the store. At the exit, he was, shall we say, over enthusiastically apprehended by two security officers. They took him to the store security office, where the guards started to argue with each other over whether or not to call the police. One guard wanted to let him pay for the socks and go, but the other guard was more of a hardass and called the cops, having no idea he was about to write himself a part in one of the most absurd scripts to ever hit Southern California.
Thanks to a brand-new, get-tough-on-crime state law, Wilkerson would soon be sentenced to life in prison for stealing a pair of plain white tube socks worth $2.50.
"No, sir, I was not expecting that one," he says now, laughing darkly. Because Wilkerson had two prior convictions, both dating back to 1981, the shoplifting charge counted as a third strike against him. He was sentenced to 25 years to life, meaning that his first chance for a parole hearing would be in 25 years.
And given that around 80 percent of parole applications are rejected by parole boards, and governors override parole boards in about 50 percent of the instances where parole is granted, it was a near certainty that Wilkerson would never see the outside of a prison again.
The state also fined him $2,500 – restitution for the stolen socks. He works that off by putting in four to five hours a day in the prison cafeteria, for which he gets paid $20 a month, of which the state takes $11. At this rate, he will be in his nineties before he's paid the state off for that one pair of socks.
~ from Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Shame of Three Strikes Laws by Matt Taibbi ~
I touched on this overall issue previously when commenting on a column by Dave Lindorff. It's just maddening that corporate criminals can get away with almost A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G with little fear of imprisonment -- they generally receive no more than a slap on the wrists, IF that much -- while common folks receive extra long prison sentences for far less damning offenses. I mean, which is the more heinous crime? Running the world economy into the ground or stealing a pair of tube socks?
There are two main reasons WHY we have legislation like "Three Strikes and You're Out." The first is rather obvious. Pandering politicians win votes by being tough on crime. If you can convince law abiding voters that you support locking up the no goods, they will give you lots of moolah and votes.
The second reason has to do with economics. As prisons more and more are being turned over to for-profit corporations, these enterprises can only realize tremendous profits if there are prisoners to incarcerate. With crime rates going down across the board, this creates a real problem. Less inmates means less money, so you need to find a way to ramp up the prison population. And what better way to guarantee a steady flow of inmates than to advocate for and support -- behind the scenes, of course -- nailing people with long prison terms by fiat.
You see, the prison-industrial complex doesn't care if the system is unjust. In fact, they thrive on it. They don't care if we lock up people for life for stealing a pair of tube socks. All they see is the $ sign.
Yet another reason why privatization doesn't really benefit society!