Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Shame of Three Strikes Laws


March 27, 2013 | Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone

Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Shame of Three Strikes Laws

While Wall Street crooks walk, thousands sit in California prisons for life over crimes as trivial as stealing socks

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, over­enthusiastically 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.

Read the entire story in the April 11th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

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