Inside the Three Strikes Project: An Inmate's Letter

Courtesy of Larry Williams

Stanford law students volunteer to help people imprisoned under a law that makes no sense

I had to leave a thing or two out of our new article in Rolling Stone on California's insane mandatory sentencing laws, "Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Shame of The Three Strikes Laws."

The piece was based largely on interviews I did with Three Strikes prisoners as well as students, professors and other members of Stanford University's Three Strikes Project, which was instrumental in passing a 2012 ballot initiative fixing some of the worst aspects of the notorious law. I went out to the Palo Alto area and spent a fair amount of time with the Stanford crew, and also talked a good deal with prisoners, largely by phone, often at odd hours. And it was a strangely emotional experience.

Stanford, first of all, is a physically beautiful place, an Eden of colossal pines and shade laid out in striking contrast to the self-conscious brick-and-Ivy compounds of the East Coast powerhouse schools. When you drive through the campus, you're not overwhelmed by the architecture and your eyes aren't drawn to some dazzling library or conservatory named after an oil baron or a hedge fund billionaire; you just feel like you're in a giant forest with a few half-hidden buildings and picnic tables. It may be just an affectation, but it's an attractive one.

When I first met some of the law students, it was outside the law library at one of those picnic tables, under some of those trees. It wasn't lost on me that most of these Three Strikes student-volunteers were about ten minutes away from being millionaires, senators, CEOs, anything they wanted to be – soon-to-be card-carrying members of the ruling class.

And they know it, too. I don't mean in a bad way. It's just that if you look at twentysomethings like Bailey Heaps and Ashly Nikkole Davis and Laura Bixby and Sherri Hansen with the eyes of an admissions director or an H.R. administrator, it's impossible to miss the intellectual self-confidence that they've probably all had since high school or before. They know they're going places and that's okay. Some of them have already arranged to start work at high-powered corporate law firms as early as next year.

So these kids are winners. Their clients? Not so much. The Three Strikes lifers whom these students ended up representing, as part of either a class or a clinic program at Stanford, are mostly broken down into two groups.

Many are homeless and mentally ill, doing life for piddling nonviolent property crimes, the kind of people who are sympathetic because they may not be wholly responsible for their actions – they're either not capable of functioning without help, or damaged by gruesome childhood abuse, or schizophrenic, or all three things and more.

Another group is all there mentally, often very intelligent, but just made incredibly bad choices (often as teenagers or very young people) and had correspondingly incredible bad luck.

These are people like Shane Taylor, doing life for allegedly possessing a few grains of alleged meth, or Larry Williams, who got the max for buying a stolen cell phone, or a third, recently-released inmate (whose name is being withheld because he wants to get on with his life) – who got busted for trying to shoplift $28 of plumbing supplies from Home Depot by hiding them in a bag under some bricks that he'd actually paid for.

You wouldn't think that these prisoners would have much in common with the ivory-tower hatchlings who are defending them, but one of the most interesting things about this story is that they often did genuinely become close. Ashly and Bailey, for instance, represented Shane Taylor, the guy still doing life for those few grains of alleged meth even though the judge who sent him away has spoken out against the sentence.

The two Stanford students are the ones considered experts in the law already, and are about to start prestigious legal jobs next year, but it was Shane Taylor who over a decade ago refused to skip bail and came to court knowing he might get a life sentence for nothing, and he did it because, he says, he had faith in the legal system. Ashly and Bailey might have learned law in the classroom, but Taylor bet his life on it.

Isolated from the outside world and from his own family, Taylor sometimes lived vicariously through his student representatives. "Shane talked to us a lot about the 49ers," Bailey says. "He was really interested in whether or not we went to Stanford football games. He was really happy to learn that we did."

"He talked one time about how we were younger than his kids," Ashly says.

"They're glad that there's someone there helping them, but they also just want someone to talk to," says Bailey.

Emily Galvin, a Harvard grad with an extremely unlikely bio – she grew up in rural Iowa and Wyoming with not one but two professional poets as parents – is no longer a student and actually works for the Three Strikes program as a fellow. As a young woman she wrote an innovative book of poetry of her own and on some level will probably always consider herself a writer and a poet, no matter how long she practices law. But one of the best things she ever read wasn't anything published, it was a Christmas letter from Larry Williams, the client of hers doing life for buying a stolen cell phone. This is the first paragraph:

Dear Emily,

When the guard has mail for me, he stops at the cell door and calls my name, and I recite my number . . . to verify that I am the right Williams. When I get mail I avert my eyes so I can't see who it's from. Then I sit down on my bed and peep at it real slowly like a poker player peeping at his cards. For some unknown reason I can feel when I've gotten a letter from you, and when I peep up on your name on the envelope I let out a big yell. It's like having four aces . . .

What is worse is when the guard passes my door without pausing. I can hear his keys jingling. When he stops at my door the keys sound like Christmas bells ringing. But when he keeps going, they just sound like – keys.

"I cried when I got that," Galvin says.

Galvin at that point had never met Williams in person. They had only ever corresponded. "It really hit home how much every bit of news, of advice, of ressurance and of simple human contact means to someone in his circumstances," she says.

At its heart, the fight against Three Strikes is a story about people with great privilege and every social advantage meeting and genuinely connecting with people at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum – the broke drifters and hard-luck cases who got caught up in the middle of a political tidal wave, and found themselves locked away in prison forever for trifles after mainstream America decided that it would rather throw away the key than face problems like poverty, mental illness, addiction, child abuse and homelessness. On some level, this is about the next generation going back and trying to re-bridge that divide.

I don't want to make too much of the fact that a couple of well-heeled law students talked a little football with a prisoner or two. But what was cool about this story was how quickly the rationale for this horrible law crumbled once a relatively small group of people decided to reach out just a little bit.

Again, most of these kids know they're not going to be spending their lives working as public defenders or handing out blocks of cheese in Compton or East St. Louis. They're going to go off and make their money and run for office and do all of those things. But the difference between doing something and doing nothing at all turns out to be a huge difference.

"You don't need to make it your life's work to make an impact," says Bailey. "There's so much that can be done, has to be done, needs to be done – on a smaller scale."

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