“Release from prison after the Three Strikes Law was reformed turned many people into activists… For them, activism was a form of catharsis.”
Jessica Delgado, a public defender in Santa Clara County for sixteen years, was one of the key players in California’s Three Strikes reform as well as a speaker at TedxSantaCruz’s annual event held at the Hotel Paradox on March 8th. Delgado and two former prisoners turned activists, Bilal Chatman and Dave Gomez, moved the room to tears with their speech “The Incalculable Cost.”
The Three Strikes Law has had devastating effects on California’s prisoners. The law has sentenced thousands of inmates to life in prison for non-violent, petty crimes since it was first enacted in 1994. Gomez served 18 years and Chatman served 10 for car theft and sale of drugs, respectively, prior to their release from prison in June 2013, which Delgado, the Stanford Three Strikes Project, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund helped secure.
Both men described the incredible hopelessness and sense of defeat they felt after finding out they would be spending the rest of their lives in prison. Delgado stressed that their experiences were just two of many of California’s incarcerated individuals, who are predominantly marginalized people of color. For them, life in prison is a life disconnected from family, opportunity, and hope.
Since their release, Chatman and Gomez have not wasted their second chance at life. Gomez is attending school and acts as a mentor to other men who are struggling to pick up the pieces of their live. Chatman works full time and serves as a sponsor to those in recovery. Along with the help of Delgado and others invested in prison reform, they are doing everything they can to ensure justice for California’s prisoners.
I spoke to Delgado after the event about her work’s impact on LGBT people of color. The conditions of confinement which are “incredibly difficult” for anyone have even harsher consequences for transgender individuals who must deal with “antiquated self-identification” that puts them at risk for violence.
“People with multiple identities are shut out,” Delgado continues.
“Change only comes through legal advocacy… Our goal is to not pathologize trans people and to work on improving education and cultural competency in Santa Clara County.”
For people of color, who have long been neglected by the government, aid often comes from church communities. Delgado gratefully acknowledges the assistance for re-entry services from community agencies in the area, many of which are faith-based and provide clothes and temporary shelter for recently released inmates.
She would also like to extend her appreciation to the Equity Project, which ensures fairness and respect for LGBT youth in juvenile delinquency courts and the National Center for Lesbian Rights for the work they have done for LGBT prison justice.
The theme of this year’s TedxSantaCruz event, Activate, came alive in Delgado, Gomez, and Chatman’s speech. Their work has renewed our inspiration and our quest for social justice.