Voices from the inside

In prison for life for helping his cousin


By: Santos Reyes and Marlene Martin

Santos Reyes has been in prison for the past 13 years under the “three strikes law” in California. His third “crime” was taking the written part of a driver’s test for his cousin who could not write English.

Santos had two previous brushes with the law, one when he was a minor, and the other for a break-in, but in neither of these cases was anyone harmed. Santos spent the next 10 years working and raising his family and had no further infractions.

California is the only state that locks people up for life even when the third strike is just a misdemeanor. Efforts to change the law so only violent crimes count as the third strike failed in 2004. On March 10, 2011, the 17th anniversary of the law, Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes held a demonstration outside the Hollywood police station in Los Angeles. The group plans to organize for another ballot initiative next year.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 by a 5-4 vote that such sentences do not violate the Eight Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Santos Reyes was interviewed by Marlene Martin for the New Abolitionist.

Can you explain what you did in order for you to receive a third strike?

Perjury. I was charged and later convicted for sitting in on the written portion of the Department of Motor Vehicles test that my cousin, who didn’t read English, was taking.

How have you been able to survive in prison? What is your daily routine?

Only by the grace of God! Being in prison for what I am here for has definitely humbled me in ways that I didn’t know it could. To be incarcerated for the crime of perjury and on top of it sentenced to life is not only humiliating but also insulting to the entire judicial system in this country. I have been forced to acclimate to this environment that on a daily basis takes me through the gauntlet of emotions.

My daily routine I suppose is like any other prison throughout the country. There is time spent inside the housing unit, and due to my lengthy sentence, my day outside concludes at 3 p.m. I spend time out on the exercise yard, but most importantly I am enrolled in a GED program. 

How has this imprisonment affected your family? 

It has destroyed it. At this time, I’ve been literally left behind, and my wife and children have moved on with their lives. It breaks my heart, but I also know that this is my experience, and to some degree, it is best that they don’t suffer with me. I yearn to someday some how see my children and, like any father, know how they are doing in school, give them sound advice, and ultimately love and encourage them.

I have not seen my children for over 13 years—the length of my incarceration. All I’m left with are the memories of them as little boys. I know that I’ve made mistakes in the past, and those growing pains/errors were used to bury me, but this injustice has affected every person in my family. 

Do you feel you were discriminated against because you are Hispanic?

Absolutely! I am a clear example of the racism of the American Justice System. To them, I am the worst of the worst, and what happened to me doesn’t matter—“he’s an illegal, he doesn’t belong here, so f#*k him” seems to be the feeling I’m left with.

What would you like people to know about you? 

I want people to know that I am not the person they say I am! That I also have a mother, brothers and sisters who I need and who need me. That I want to get out of prison. And yes, it was wrong of me to cheat on a DMV test, but I think I’ve done plenty of time in prison, and I’m sorry. 

What do you hope for? 

I hope that this infamous “three strikes law” will be amended so that more than 4,200 men and women serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses will finally be liberated. Enough is enough.

Santos Reyes K-92997

Folsom State Prison

P.O. Box 715071 5-BB2-38

Represa, CA 95671-5071