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Community Essay : An Inmate's Advice: 'Follow Through on '3 Strikes'

October 31, 1994|JOHN L. ORR | Proposition 184 would reaffirm the "three strikes" law enacted in March that can impose up to a life sentence on repeat offenders. The measure is driving fear into the hearts of inmates, says JOHN L. ORR. He knows from personal observation: The former Glendale fire captain, who was convicted of arson, has been been incarcerated since July, 1992, at the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in San Pedro. and

Those who question the viability of "three strikes" laws need only ask the opinion of a convicted felon.

I live with more than 1,100 of them. Terminal Island is one of the supposed "Club Fed" prisons, beachfront property with tennis courts and a theater. Let me reassure you--prison is no picnic--not at this or any other institution. Violence is only a word, or a glance, away. A seaside view from your dormitory or a two-man cell doesn't make doing time any easier.

I'm a former arson investigator and have successfully blended in with the general population so can speak as an expert on the subject of cons. I've been conning fellow inmates for two years. They don't know my background and have willingly shared their pasts with me. All they know is I'm a writer and many think their life story would make a great book, so I let them talk. And I listen, and I watch.

I watch them steal from the chow hall, offices, desks, break into vending machines and even rip off each other and sometimes, me.

I used to pride myself on being free from prejudice of any kind. Being forced to live with these animals has caused me to be biased about many, even before I meet or talk with them. I have found, almost without exception, they have a history of, and a propensity toward, trouble, dating back to childhood. They laugh about it, they are proud of the number of crimes they have gotten away with. Their crimes were a way of life. They have no concern for anyone's feelings but their own. There are few exceptions, so I generalize.

The typical inmate is slovenly, inconsiderate and perceives incarceration as a vacation from a life of crime. Three meals a day, clothing and a roof over their heads are provided. Jobs paying from $5 to more than $100 a month provide sufficient bartering power for cigarettes, snacks or drugs. Those who choose not to work, or do only the minimum to get by, will steal or terrorize others to obtain what they want. For the vast majority, this lifestyle will not change when they are released.

There are many who eat only once a day to avoid the chow hall lines. Waiting in these lines is tense, and close exposure to others is to be avoided. Inmates smoke, spit on the ground and floor constantly, cut in line, break wind and indiscriminately throw trash down--and this is just in the chow hall. The theater is the same. You cannot escape them.

There are few opportunities to better yourself in prison. Vocational and educational programs seldom fill their classrooms. The average inmate isn't interested. However, there is a substantial effort made to force all prisoners to obtain at least a GED (high school equivalency degree), but the end result is questionable.

Our TV rooms are seldom quiet. The cubicles double as game rooms, conference chambers, soapboxes and drug stores. The noise is constant, except when "three strikes" is discussed on the tube. Jaws drop, eyes focus on the screen and Camels burn down to blister fingers.

They are scared. Even after the TV segment is over, silence prevails and only a few expletives are uttered. I find it reassuring. Maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Since I am middle-aged, I tend to hang out with similar individuals. My observations show most criminals start to mellow between 35 and 40 years of age. They have learned patience, respect and tend to be motivated to make the system work for them upon release. With little or no rehabilitative efforts made by institutions, it appears the typical repeat offender finally tires of the prison rat race and caves in to conformity. There is a tremendous respect for each other among older inmates. Gang affiliations and prejudice fade, and even the younger prisoners seem to have respect for these father figures.

If you make it more uncomfortable for them on the inside, maybe one prison stay will be enough for some. If they want to get out, make them earn it by good behavior on the inside. I say build more prisons, incarcerate longer. The public should not have to tolerate violent, despicable behavior, or any form of law-breaker typical of what I see in here every day. Follow through on "three strikes." This "captive audience" is paying attention.

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