Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nationby Sasha Abramsky
In September 1996, fifty-three year old heroin addict Billy Ochoa was sentenced to 326 years in prison. His crime: committing $2100 worth of welfare fraud. Ochoa was sent to New Folsom supermax prison, joining thousands of other men who will spend the rest of their lives in California's teeming correctional facilities as a result of that state's tough Three Strikes
In September 1996, fifty-three year old heroin addict Billy Ochoa was sentenced to 326 years in prison. His crime: committing $2100 worth of welfare fraud. Ochoa was sent to New Folsom supermax prison, joining thousands of other men who will spend the rest of their lives in California's teeming correctional facilities as a result of that state's tough Three Strikes law. His incarceration will cost over $20,000 a year until he dies.
Hard Time Blues weaves together the story of the growth of the American prison system over the past quarter century primarily through the story of Ochoa, a career criminal who grew up in the barrios of post-World War II L.A. Ochoa, who had a long history of non-violent crimes committed to fund his drug habit, who cycled in and out of prison since the late 1960's, is a perfect example of how perennial misfits, rather than blood-soaked violent criminals, make up the majority of America's prisoners. This is also the story of the burgeoning careers of politicians such as former California Governor Pete Wilson, who rose to power on the "crime issue." Wilson, whose grandfather was a cop murdered by drug-runners in early twentieth century Chicago, scored a stunning come-from-behind re-election victory in 1994. In so doing, he came to epitomize the 1990s tough-on-crime politician.
Award-winning journalist Sasha Abramsky uses immersion reportage to bring alive the political forces that have led America's prison and jail population to increase more than four fold in the past twenty years. Through the stories of Ochoa, Wilson, and others, he explores in devastating detail how the public has been manipulated into supporting mass incarceration during a period when crime rates have been steadily falling. Hard Time Blues deftly explores the War on Drugs, the Rockefeller Laws, the growth of the SuperMax Prisons, the climate of fear that led to laws such as Truth-in-Sentencing, and how the stunning repercussions of imprisoning two million citizens affect all of America.
In the tradition of J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground and Melissa Fay Greene's The Temple Bombing, Abramsky explores this new and dangerous fault-line in American society in a dramatic and compelling manner. From the opening courtroom scene through the final images behind the electrified fences of the nation's toughest, meanest prisons, Abramsky paints a grimly intimate portrait of the players and personalities behind this societal earthquake. Hard Time Blues combines a sense of history with a powerful narrative, to tell a story about issues and people that leads us to understand how The Land of the Free has become the world's largest prison nation.
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Hard Time Blues
By Sasha Abramsky
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Sasha Abramsky
All rights reserved.
Billy Ochoa had been living with his younger sister Virginia, her daughter, and her sick son Arthur, since he had been expelled from the Weingart Center halfway house on November 11, 1994, where he had lived after serving a couple of years in prison for welfare fraud in the early 1990s. Weingart had been a scary place to live, a shadowy home populated by ex-felons, many of whom were violent or sick. One time, Billy had seen a homeless guy just drop dead in the streets near the Center. Not surprisingly, he had leapt at the chance of living with his sister. He was at Virginia's house, on Danbury Street, when he was arrested. It was shortly after one in the afternoon of July 7, 1995. Virginia was at work, and Evette was at school. Only Arthur and Billy were at home. Arthur was in an electric wheelchair and needed help getting around, going to the bathroom, getting dressed, even feeding himself. When Billy wasn't there, Virginia would have to come home during her lunch hour to wash him and feed him. He felt uncomfortable with most people, but his uncle he let help him. They could talk about things; about girls, about feelings, about the recent escapades of O.J. Simpson, about fear – emotions a twenty-five-year-old man whose life was ebbing away might harbor in his heart without knowing who to talk to.
There was a knock on the door. Ochoa opened it. Outside was his parole agent, Paul Benedict – who knew Ochoa by the case number "D35968" and by the name of Richard Gutierrez, the alias Ochoa had been known by during his last stint in prison – along with several other parole office employees. The agents began searching the house while Billy and Arthur watched. In a box in the living room, the room where Billy slept, next to a credenza, Benedict found the evidence he was looking for. It was in an envelope stuffed away in the box. The officials arrested Ochoa. They took him downtown and they began questioning him. Then they booked him for thirteen counts of welfare fraud and thirteen counts of perjury – for signing false statements on government documents: case number 4466580.
When Benedict had first met Ochoa, at the parole office on Sixth Street, he had made him sign a "condition of parole" document, stating that Ochoa's place of residence could be searched by law enforcement officers at any time and without a warrant. Then he had taken a Polaroid photograph of the felon; this photo, when attached to a Department of Corrections identification form, would serve as Ochoa's I.D., for after spending several years in prison Billy no longer had a valid driver's license.
Shortly after that meeting, Ochoa whited out his name on the form and gave himself a new identity. He named himself Manuel Cortez. Between February and June, using copies of the original DOC letter, Ochoa created at least twelve more false identities. He would appear at Department of Public Social Services offices in northeastern suburbs of Los Angeles such as Pasadena, El Monte, and Pomona to apply for food stamps and emergency shelter vouchers using his many names – even at one point calling himself Kenneth Ochoa, the name of his kid brother. Ochoa was having heroin cravings. And since Virginia had made it absolutely clear that she would throw him out of the house if he brought his drugs anywhere near her family, Billy needed small sums of money every so often to rent flophouse rooms around Los Angeles' skid row, dingy little places in which he could inject the dope into his veins. That was why he was cheating the welfare department. For a man in his fifties, fraud was easier than his previous money-making pastime: burgling unoccupied houses and apartments and selling the loot to fences. He had switched over to welfare fraud sometime in the early 1990s, and had already served one term in prison for this activity.
Always, Ochoa would identify his parents as William and Josephine Cata. William and Josephine Cata Luna. William and Josephine Cata Sola. To DPSS worker Om, in the Pomona office, he identified himself as Joe Mata, born in New York and recently released from a short spell in jail. To another welfare system bureaucrat, Sandra Walker, he was David Luna. To Mario Palacios he declared he was Robert Sola from New York. To Sylvia Zepeda he introduced himself as Joe Raya. To Jacqueline Glaspar he was one Ruben Paco. To Charles Perry, he sought emergency relief under the moniker of Ralph Garcia. After the interviews, he would walk out of the offices with shelter vouchers worth up to $100, with food stamp vouchers ranging from $18 to $115. And then he would leave Arcadia for a couple days and disappear into the grotty netherworld of skid row. To find solace in heroin and women in the seedy, paint-cracked downtown hotels that catered to the city's lonely, destitute underclass.
With each application, Ochoa had to give his fingerprints – a recent DPSS innovation designed to catch people making multiple applications. He would sometimes cut his fingertips with a staple to try to smudge the print, but eventually the welfare department's AFIRM Match Computer System made the connection. On July 5, welfare fraud investigator Brent Smith brought a copy of one of Ochoa's fake identity forms to Benedict's office. Two days later, when Benedict looked in the envelope, he found Ochoa's doctored DOC forms. And Ochoa was arrested.
For Billy Ochoa, being arrested was nothing new, and certainly nothing to get upset about. Ever since he was a juvenile, back in the 1950s, he'd been in and out of trouble. Sent to juvenile camp, sent to California Youth Authority reformatories, sent to jail, sent to prison. Arrested. Arrested. Arrested. His last stint had been in Chino state prison, for the exact same crime that Benedict had just caught him committing: welfare fraud. He'd entered into an agreement with the prosecutor, John Gilligan, in which he would plead guilty to welfare fraud and accept a fairly stiff prison term, in exchange for which Gilligan would ask the judge not to take all Ochoa's priors into account when determining sentence. It was the sort of plea bargain in which everyone benefited: the judge's time wasn't taken up with a lengthy trial around a relatively petty crime, Gilligan got an easy conviction, and Ochoa avoided a potentially longer sentence. On June 8, 1993, Ochoa was sentenced to three years by Judge Jon M. Mayeda. He served just under two.
When Benedict's team arrested Ochoa on July 7, the small man with the long rap sheet assumed the process would repeat itself. His family, none of whom paid close attention to the news, assumed the same. Here we go again, they thought, Billy's off to prison for a few years. But something had happened in the three years since his court appearance with Gilligan. And that something was a new law called Three Strikes.
If Billy Ochoa had followed politics, he might have known that California's Governor Pete Wilson had won reelection in 1994 largely because he had portrayed himself as the toughest, meanest crime buster around. He might also have been aware of the mood that California's, and more generally the United States', electorate had been in recently. A fearful mood; a siege mentality produced by a series of high-profile crimes, the ongoing chaos generated by drugs and by gangs fighting for turf, and news programs that were focusing ever more heartily on the blood-and-gore footage of the crime scene. If Ochoa had studied opinion polls, he might have known how presidents from Nixon onward had played the law-and-order card to gather public support for their administrations, how crime and drugs had surged to the top of the public's list of concerns toward the tail end of the Reagan presidency, and had remained high up that list ever since. How George Bush had destroyed Michael Dukakis's presidential hopes through portraying him as "soft on crime," and how politicians of all political persuasions since then had been doing everything in their power to avoid Dukakis's fate. But Ochoa was just a chronic small-time crook with an addiction he had carried with him all his adult life. He didn't know that in the new political equations around crime, his many relatively petty, nonviolent offenses would be treated as seriously as – no cancel that, more seriously than – those of the murderers and rapists and armed robbers who had traditionally drawn the long sentences in the maximum-security prisons. For, except for the rare cases in which a death sentence was handed down, even a murderer would only get one life sentence; whereas a chronic repeat offender such as Ochoa could now receive numerous life sentences under the new laws that California was embracing.
In the roiling national debates over crime, California was now leading the way, building more prisons, imprisoning more people, and introducing more draconian laws than any other state in the union. Two and a half years previously, a massive popular campaign had led the state legislature to sign the country's most sweeping Three Strikes and You're Out law into effect; this law stated that anybody with two "serious" prior convictions who committed any kind of felony, no matter how minor, would receive a sentence of twenty-five years to life. And since in California law burglary of an unoccupied house was considered a "serious" felony – the argument being that the potential for violence existed in the commission of such a crime, if, by chance the house being burgled turned out to be occupied at the time of the break-in – defendants who had committed two burglaries years in the past and who had then been arrested for mundane crimes such as small-time fraud, shoplifting, or drug possession were now facing life sentences in maximum-security prisons.
In November 1994, the state's voters had overwhelmingly reaffirmed their support for this particular brand of Three Strikes by passing Proposition 184, locking into place the new legislation. Governor Wilson, who had promised to veto any attempts to narrow the scope of this new law, and his attorney general Dan Lungren, had been touring the state arguing for a One Strike and You're Out law for certain criminals, and massively increased sentences for prisoners across the board.
This was the new reality into which Billy Ochoa had stepped.
Jean Robinson, the DPSS welfare fraud investigator who had looked at Ochoa's case, had estimated his actions had cost the welfare system $2,100. Examining his criminal record, the investigator recommended that Ochoa be returned to state prison. After all, Billy Ochoa had been arrested at least thirty-one times since his first brush with the law back in 1957. He'd been a joyrider as a teenager; a heroin addict from the early 1960s; a burglar convicted six times for breaking and entering, and a welfare conman. He did have a rather more serious crime in his juvenile record: he and a friend nicknamed Pinky had been convicted of kidnapping a girl from a party, and they had both done time in a youth authority camp. But even that crime was more serious on paper than in reality: in a fit of drunkenness, Pinky and Billy had promised to drive the girl home and had instead gone on a thrill ride along one of the newly opened L.A. freeways. It was stupid, but nothing had happened. The girl had gotten scared, had opened her window and begun screaming to passing drivers. A cop had heard her, had turned his siren on, and chased after the car. But that was thirty-five years previously – and because it occurred when he was a juvenile – it wasn't even one of the prior convictions held against Billy Ochoa during the Three Strikes trial. Since then, he had never been convicted of a violent crime.
A probation officer had tried to visit Ochoa at the Correctional Facility in Wayside in order to evaluate him. But Ochoa, believing a prison sentence to be inevitable and not wanting to provide the probation officer any more personal information, had refused to see him. The parole board recommended that he "should be returned to the prison for as long a period as possible." Agent Kelly, who made the recommendation, was particularly outraged that Ochoa had violated their trust "by taking one of their identification letters that they had issued to him as a courtesy and altering it to use in his welfare fraud scams." The investigators for the D.A.'s office likewise concluded that Ochoa ought to face a long sentence. Summing up the various findings, probation officer Barry J. Nidorf wrote that the "defendant is a career criminal and if placed back on the streets he will just continue one type of illegal behavior or another. ... All options for defendant were considered by this probation officer but there is in fact only one recommendation he can make and that is for state prison."
Because of Three Strikes, Ray Clark had felt from the start that his client was doomed. A Floridian who had migrated to California in the late 1950s, Clark had spent the first half of his working life as an audio engineer and music producer. He had enrolled in Southwestern Law School – the university that the one-time Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, graduated from – when in his early forties, and he'd spent much of the next quarter century collecting small-change work as a court-appointed lawyer. "You never run short" of that kind of work, Clark believed. Recently, an awful lot of his clients, perhaps a couple dozen, mainly impoverished African American and Latino men from the inner city, seemed to be striking out on Three Strikes convictions.
For similar reasons, Tamia Hope had been confident that she would send Ochoa down for many years. In what she'd seen as a magnanimous gesture, Hope had offered Ochoa a single Three Strike prosecution in exchange for a guilty plea. Clark had practically begged his client to accept. But, since even that would have landed him a sentence of twenty-five-to-life, Ochoa had decided to chance it with a trial. And at that stage, Hope's boss, Don Eastman, who had set up the welfare fraud division of the D.A.'s office two years previously, had urged her to throw the book at the defendant.
Even though Ochoa's case was what Eastman described as "a wobbler," a minor crime that could be punished either as a felony or a high-level misdemeanor, Eastman felt that Ochoa was a classic recidivist, "a perfect example" of the kind of person the Three Strikes law was meant to stop in his tracks. In the sentencing memorandum that Hope had submitted to the court, the D.A. had urged the judge to impose a Three Strikes sentence, stating that "while the People do feel sympathy for the defendant, his prior record shows the type of criminal recidivist behavior that the Three Strikes law is intended to address." If, despite it all, the judge were to decide to ignore Ochoa's previous record, Hope urged that he be sentenced to the maximum possible term: ten years in a state prison.
But Hope needn't have worried. For Judge Alan Buckner as much as for the D.A.'s office, Three Strikes was an opportunity to rid Los Angeles of a troubling nuisance. So convinced was he of this that when Ray Clark asked him to use his discretion to ignore Ochoa's previous convictions, so as to be able to avoid giving Ochoa 325 years for a nonviolent crime that had cost the state only $2,100, Buckner responded with outrage. "Welfare is a sore subject in our society today," the judge informed the court-appointed lawyer. "I don't think that the Three Strikes law is absurd. And if it can be argued it is absurd in certain contexts, it is not absurd here, because what the prosecutor says is undeniably and very unfortunately true. 'This man is above the law. He is out for himself and he doesn't really care.' And he ran afoul of the fact that our society today doesn't look with favor on folks who rip off the welfare [sic]. I don't disagree with the Three Strikes law, and if I did, I would not disagree with it in this application to this case."
Two months after Buckner handed down the sentence, the District Attorney's Association of Los Angeles held their monthly get-together in the Board of Supervisors room of the L.A. County Hall of Administration. Close to three hundred lawyers were present.
Each month, the association honors one of their own. That month, the board of directors had decided to declare Tamia Hope their D.A. of the month. The president, John Perlstein, rose from his seat to present the one-time Orange County resident with the award. "The defendant got three hundred and twenty-six years to life," Perlstein told his audience. And at that point, Hope recalled with pride three years later, "they all broke out in applause. To me it reflected people really just don't like welfare fraud anymore, thumbing your nose at the system. It was nice to get the applause; nice to feel the support of my colleagues."
Excerpted from Hard Time Blues by Sasha Abramsky. Copyright © 2002 Sasha Abramsky. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
Sasha Abramsky is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, New York magazine, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. Originally from England and a graduate of Oxford University, he lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife. He has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism, and in 2000 he was awarded a Soros Society, Crime and Communities Media Fellowship. Hard Time Blues is his first book.
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