Some men serving life sentences in California say they’re “political prisoners.” While there’s technically no legal definition for the term, some facts and evidence suggest they may be right.
At San Quentin State Prison, there are men who have served 40-plus years, continuously. These men are survivors of carceral Darwinism, having lived through changes in state politics, parole laws, parole boards, restructured prisoner classifications, a prosperous prison guards’ union, crime victims’ influence on laws, changes to the death penalty, and the most violent period in California prison history.
They’re called “7 Ups” in prison vernacular, a slang term for those sentenced to life and eligible for parole after serving seven years. That was be- fore 1977, when Senate Bill 42 passed and was signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown, the first time he held office from 1975-’82.
Seven-ups are serving life sentences under California’s old Indeterminate Sentencing Law, where judges imposed indefinite time. Under this law, different prisoners convicted of the same crimes spend fluctuating lengths of time in prison. Today, some 7 Ups have no idea when, if ever, their sentence will end.
Changes in California politics and the policies of all governors since Brown have politicized parole deci- sions. “They use this against all life prisoners,” said Johnny “Zakiy” Arafiles, 66. He’s been incarcerated since age 25.
Arafiles was sentenced to a 7-Up term for murder and was found suitable for release by the parole board in 1991. But Gov. Pete Wilson reversed the decision beyond the time allowed to do so. California’s Court of Appeals upheld that decision.
“This is bad law,” said Arafiles. He’s appeared be- fore 16 different parole boards while his sentence lengthens and his chance for freedom diminishes. “There are so many in here being illegally detained because they don’t know the law, and they’re (parole board) taking advantage of it.”
From 2000 to 2008, the parole board denied 98% of cases. The remaining 2% of cases that the parole board granted release during that time were overturned 60 % of the time by Gov. Gray Davis and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, accord- ing to author Keramet Reiter’s book 23/7.
“It has been clear to me that there is a general conspiracy to prevent life prisoners from paroling, especially those whose offenses include murder,” wrote Albert M. Leddy in a July 2000 declaration. He’s the former district attorney of Kern County, Calif., and for- mer Board of Prison Terms chairman.“I am in formed that Gov. Gray Davis has expressed his policy that no murderer offender will be paroled on his watch.”
Parole boards have become more punitive over the years, many 7 Ups say. When some of them were sent to prison, parole was granted by the Adult Authority. It later changed to the Community Release Board, then to the Board of Prison Terms (BPT). Today it’s the Board of Parole Hearings.
Allen “Squirrel” Ware, 64, was arrested in 1974 and sub- sequently convicted on a first- degree murder charge. He was the lookout on a burglary, not the actual killer. Still, he was given a 7-Up sentence under the rescinded felony murder law, changed last year by Sen- ate Bill 1437.
“Today we find you credible,” the transcript from Ware’s 21st Board hearing reads. He said the parole board apologized for not believing him sooner.
Ware was incarcerated at the peak of California’s prison violence, when between 1970 and 1974 there were 82 murders, 11 prison guards and 71 prisoners, according to Reiter.
“…there is a saturation point in practically every man’s servitude beyond which every additional hour is wasted and destructive punishment”
Tough-on-crime posturing, 7 Ups said, placed them in the cross hairs of political intrigue. In Leddy’s declaration, he wrote, “After Governor Wilson’s election in 1990, he substantially intervened to reduce parole grants; in actual effect his policy practically eliminated paroles. He accomplished this, first, by appointing and re- appointing BPT Commissioners known to disfavor parole or to favor a ‘no-parole’ policy.”
“Convicted murderers don’t deserve any more breaks,” Wilson said in his 1992 State of the State speech. In his 1994 speech, he said, “We can’t let killers walk out of prison early just because they’ve done a good job folding shirts in the prison laundry.”
“The most you would do is 11 to 12 years,” Arafiles said about the 7-Up sentence. “If you did 13, you were messing up.”
Terry “Duck” Alexander, 73, has been incarcerated nearly 43 years after his conviction for a 1977 murder in San Jose, Calif. He received a 7-Up sentence and has appeared before different parole boards at least 13 times.
“There’s no set guideline for what it takes to be rehabilitated in California,” said Alexander. “When you go to the Board and they read about you, they’re looking at past tense. They like to dwell on the past.”
Under the Indeterminate Sentencing Law, a prisoner’s individual conduct and rehabilitation was what the parole board considered to deter- mine who was released. But rehabilitation was expunged from the state’s Penal Code by Governor Brown in 1976, replaced with the Determinate Sentencing Law, which stated, in part: “The Legislature finds and declares that the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment.”
“Although the reluctance to grant parole began in the early ‘80s under Governor Wilson’s regime, BPT panels denied parole in over 99% of cases by employing procedures that violate the parole statutes and regulations,” Leddy wrote.
Some 7 Ups say for the state to release them now would be to admit its past wrong, which was to deny them parole for so long, because they’re intricately tied to past underground political decisions.
More than 30 years after many 7 Ups arrived in prison, Governor Schwarzenegger added the word “Rehabilitation” to California Department of Corrections. 7 ups say nothing has changed.
As former San Quentin warden Clinton Duffy wrote in 1952, “…there is a saturation point in practically every man’s servitude beyond which every additional hour is wasted and destructive punishment.”