Three Strike Lifers Freed from Prison

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

California voters were probably not aware when they backtracked on the three strikes law that a new population was created. The “time tunnel generation.” Most of the three strikers that were paying the price for three offenses are now 50ish folks, who had never even heard of a cell phone when they were incarcerated, let alone an iPad, but some of these ex-offenders are making the best of a peculiar situation. The average length of time the “three strikers” spent away from society is nine years.  Image courtesy eii.org

Statistics prove the determination of these misplaced baby boomers with a 2% recidivism rate. Perhaps their reentry success is the product of growing up in an industrious generation.

Most of the released inmates merely made poor decisions when they were in their teens and twenties and fell victim to a hasty legislative calamity. Now that California voters reneged on their seemingly sound choices for policies to “lock-up” the drudges of society, after decades of imprisonment the “time tunnel generation” is paying a bittersweet price for their freedom.

Some of these transformed “lifers” are using the passing of proposition 36 to their advantage. Originating from a generation of old-fashioned work ethics these ex-cons know how to make it in the real world no matter what it takes. The 50ish newly released hustlers share courageous stories of surviving in a world that has made more technological advances in the last twenty years than any other generation.

Novel reentry employment strategies range from handyman jobs to making gyros. 

Spectators pressed their faces and cell phones, taking pictures through the glass windows of McDonald’s in downtown Martinez. Stephan Williams was released last winter from Contra Costa County Jail after a 19-year stint of a life sentence for his third offense, which was for stealing a car. Williams walked out of jail with only the clothes on his back. People stared at Williams as though they were looking at a cave man descending from his cave. Not only did Williams look like a cave man, but he felt like one, too. The cost of everything had hit the roof. Readjusting to society was an immense astonishment for the humble man. The Bay Area was more crowded and more ethnically diverse than it was in 1994 when Williams went to prison. The traffic and noise jolted him. In the new world, organic foods were now replacing Jack-the-Box.

Even though Williams regrets having so much time robbed from him, the countless hours Williams spent inside Soledad Prison copying and addressing campaign mailers campaigning for proposition 36 paid-off. He now has a second chance to establish a strong foundation.

Williams started humbly, putting the word out that he was looking for odd jobs such as cutting grass and gutting houses to prep them for electrical work. His happy adventures of freedom came in the form of signing up for computer classes, creating his own email address and opening a bank account. He also secured a cellphone.

This month, Williams reached a major hurdle: He replaced his faithful bike by buying a car, lovingly dubbed his "hustle mobile." The 2003 Volkswagen Jetta Sport Wagon brings him closer to his dream of restarting his own mobile car-detailing business.

41-year-old, Pakistani-American, Sajad Shakoor was a three striker that was destined to serve his time in prison until at least 2022. But thanks to proposition 36, he is delighted to spend his time making gyros and shish kebabs at the Falafel Corner in Fremont. He is obliged to work as many hours as his boss allows.

"I have friends who chose to go to transitional housing just to ease back to society, but some of them have been there a year now," says Shakoor, happy to have personally managed his own re-entry.

"That transition back to society is pretty daunting," he says about typical ex-convicts. "They don't have transportation, so they can't travel to get to work. They don't have housing that's either permanent or stable. Alhamdulillah, I was able to get both."

Shakoor’s transition from a bullied Muslim honor-student to a gun slinging gangster is what earned him his third strike. He decided if he couldn’t beat the tormenters, he might as well join them. Two residential burglaries he committed in the same week got him locked up for 3 years. His third strike happened years later, and under most circumstances it wouldn't have carried such a harsh sentence. Police accused him of instigating a fight between two friends and next-door neighbors that resulted in serious injury.

Although he didn't commit the assault, the trial came to focus on a moral question that gave the judge and jury a bad impression of him: Why didn't he call 911 to help a friend he knew was seriously beaten? Shakoor thinks his flustered answers to a judge's pointed questions cost him a sentence of 25-years to life.

A revival of his Muslim faith while in prison helped guide Shakoor toward repentance and contemplation. He relished the educational offerings at San Quentin State Prison, studied literature and even earned a bachelor's degree through an Ohio University program for prisoners.

Like Williams, Shakoor was also influential in the movement that freed him and others by co-founding and managing San Quentin's Hope for Three Strikers, a group that collaborated with Stanford law professors in drafting Proposition 36.

50-year old native of East San Jose, Martin Stagi is another reformed “third striker” that was no stranger to prison from the time he was a teen, but today Stagi is no stranger to work. Stagi juggles a 12-hour a day job cleaning a large shopping center parking lot, DUI classes, and weekend electrician school. He is so determined to get his life back on track that he peddles his bike 10 miles a day to keep up with his schedule. Stagi’s only refuge, when he is not working or taking classes, is a tiny cubicle at a homeless shelter.  

When Stagi was 34, a minor drug offense was the third strike that put him away for 26 years to life.

The reason for Stagi’s determined attitude is he needs to make up for lost time. The past nine months have been tough since he got out of Pleasant Valley Prison in Coalinga with only $200 in gate money.

Stagi doesn’t blame his sons for resenting him because today he realizes it was his hostile attitude that landed him in prison, leaving his sons to grow up without a father. Stagi took a hard look while he was incarcerated at how he caused his family so much grief.

Stagi was planning to say “goodbye” to the InnVision homeless shelter on Montgomery Street because his time was up the next month. But, thanks to the help of Stanford University's Three Strikes Project and Santa Clara County's Re-entry Resource Center, his stay was extended.

Stagi next plans to apply for rental assistance under a new Santa Clara County program intended to help third-strikers get back on their feet. Even though Stagi struggles to keep his head above water, he doesn’t plan on giving up anytime soon.

Another 2,000 inmates are eligible for release in coming months. Many of the newly released are not as optimistic as these three men. They are lost because the system that released them didn’t plan for re-entry support. Basic help such as, housing, drug treatment and employment needs to be figured into the equation for these former third-strikers to survive on the outside after being locked up an average of nine years. Some of the released inmates are nearing 50-years of age and are prone to physical and mental illnesses. Yet they don't receive the same assistance afforded parolees and probationers who have been behind bars for shorter periods.

California is preparing to release thousands more three-strikers to alleviate prison overcrowding, which is a lingering symptom of the war on drugs and three strikes policies. Unfortunately, the state isn’t prepared to provide re-entry programs that will be in demand if California releases the prison population being proposed by a federal three-judge panel.

Many activists are clamoring for the state and counties to invest in support programs because incarceration costs are much steeper.

Not every released inmate is as persistent as Williams, Sajad, and Stagi; especially if they are physically or mentally ill.