Sacramento County 'three-striker' freed under Prop. 36 learning to live with freedom

04/09/2013 12:00 AM

04/09/2013 8:49 AM

Eugene Dey knew what he had to do.

He had just gotten out of the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad as one of the first Sacramento County "three-strikers" released from his life sentence under last year's voter-approved Proposition 36.

Dey said he knew what the data said, what the studies showed: Two years of in-prison drug treatment, followed by a year of sober living in a program on the outside, and he would have an excellent chance to make it all the way back.

On March 29, he was heading home to Sacramento, his girlfriend at the wheel. But after 14 years in prison and as many years sober, the old voices from the street echoed in his brain.

"You don't need this aftercare," they told him. "You can do it on your own. You don't need any program."

Dey's girlfriend had given him a smartphone as his first gift of freedom. His first call was to be to the halfway house in south Sacramento, where he was supposed to be living for the next year. Only those voices from his past life as a robber, burglar and dope dealer demanded to be heard.

"Call tomorrow," Dey said they told him. "Call later on. You don't need to call now."

It took awhile, nearly two hours, but he finally punched in the numbers. He made it to the halfway house in south Sacramento with the hardwood floors and the lavender paint job and the weight room in back. He made it to aftercare.

Now he's trying to learn how to live with freedom. He is the 12th of 16 three-strike prisoners from Sacramento County released from prison since last November's approval of Proposition 36. In California, 3,700 prisoners doing 25-to-life terms on lower-level third felonies qualify for possible resentencing.

"The hardest phone call I ever made was calling this place," Dey said in an interview at the halfway house, a week after his release from Soledad. "For those of us who have lived the criminal lifestyle, the criminal thinking kicks in when you get out. The thought of going into a program with rules, structure – it does not sound like fun. It sounds like a drag."

The Sacramento DA's Office had filed no opposition to Dey's release, and Superior Court Judge Roland L. Candee resentenced him March 22 to nine years on his third strike – a 1998 conviction for transportation of methamphetamine. The new sentence amounted to time Dey had already served.

The lawyer who argued for Dey's release is confident he will make it. "We are thrilled that he has been released," said Assistant Public Defender Amanda Benson. "He has gone above and beyond to rehabilitate himself. And we have no doubt that he is going to be a productive and contributing member of our society."

The prosecutor mostly responsible for Dey's life sentence wishes him well, too. But Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully is less certain of Dey's prospects on the outside.

"I hope for his sake and the community's sake that he is successful, because his track record has not been good," Scully said. "He has done some positive things in prison. But the first time he went to prison, he got an AA degree and a GED, and then he came back out and reoffended.

"I hope he is successful and crime-free. If he isn't, we'll be here for him."

The pace of three-strikes resentencings has picked up. Through the end of February, 93 three-strikers had been released. The number increased to 241 as of Monday. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials believe none has since returned to custody.

Michael Romano, director of the Three-Strikes Project at Stanford Law School, which pushed Proposition 36 to approval, encouraged the state's judges to take a deliberative approach to resentencings.

"We want to make sure that everybody who is released under Proposition 36 has a realistic and robust transition or re-entry plan in place," Romano said.

Dey, 47, grew up in a good family in middle-class Citrus Heights. He said his problems began as a teenager. "I'm a product of sex, drugs, and rock and roll," he said.

He played sports as a kid, but gave them up in his teens to get high and hang out.

Dey called himself "an adrenaline junkie," and he said armed robbery gave him a rush. He said he developed a reputation as a neighborhood tough guy and once was challenged by a 16-year-old, a dispute quelled at the point of a knife. It took 200 stitches to close his opponent's wounds, Dey said.

Imprisoned for robbery and other charges in 1988, Dey got out in 1994, dodged a third strike despite several arrests, but was back in prison with the life term in 1998.

About eight years into his sentence, Dey said he became a "rehabilitation activist."

He created a program to connect inmates to college courses and drug and alcohol treatment.

"I felt it was time for me to move away from pointing out what the problems were within the department (of corrections)," Dey said. "It was time for me to become part of the solution. So I shifted my energies to finding solutions. Since addiction was such a huge problem I figured that made the most sense."

Dey, who earned a sociology degree from Sacramento State while in prison, said he has been hired by a nonprofit company in Tennessee to develop a plan for prison internships. He said it is a blueprint for recovering addicts who want to become treatment counselors. He expects to work out a salary agreement with the company this week.

Two years ago, Dey and other three-strikers in prison learned the Stanford group was putting together Proposition 36. He said many of the strikers were dubious. They thought some of the provisions inserted to help the measure gain voter approval, such as allowing judges the discretion to keep offenders they deemed dangerous in prison, made the initiative not worth passing.

"A lot of guys were stressed out over that," Dey said. "They were saying, 'It's a trick.' When it passed, there were a lot of guys who hated Proposition 36."

Dey found out in December the Sacramento Public Defender's Office included him in its early call for resentencing. He was still in Soledad and got the news from a friend who attended his March 22 resentencing hearing, when Candee in effect granted Dey his release.

His moment of truth came the next week, on the freeway from Soledad to Sacramento.

He wasn't on parole. He didn't have to go to aftercare. He didn't have to do anything.

Then Dey thought of the men in Soledad he worked with in drug treatment, "who had me up on a pedestal," as the activist and writer whose pieces appeared in numerous publications over the years, including The Bee.

His life wasn't just about himself anymore.

"I completely felt them there with me in the car," Dey said. "Maybe I've let people down in the past, especially myself, my friends and my family. But this is the one thing I've done in my life the right way.

"The last three years at Soledad, I've developed these friendships, these kinships, these huge attachments, developing these programs," Dey said. "These are my main guys. They're counting on me, and I can't let them down."

Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

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