Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Is Three a Magic Number?

Rodrick, Greg & Manny
In the brick house in Boston where I lived in the 1970's, there was a basement.  In the basement, there was a TV.  On weekend morning, my siblings and I would wake up extra early to go down there and watch cartoons.  

In between shows, the station would air Schoolhouse Rock! - short animated musical clips about multiplication, history and science. Today, it is almost incomprehensible that the networks would allow anything between shows besides ads for sugar cereal, but those were the good old days.  I loved those cartoons even more than the shows themselves.  My favorite was the piece about the Number Three entitled, "Three is a Magic Number."

Wandering through life, the lyrics and tune of this song have stayed with me.  It's catchy.  If you are of a certain age, maybe you can sing along.

Is three, in fact, a magic number?  Three is a prime number, it's a charm. In the song lyrics, they mention the holy trinity, the tripod, and the tricycle. Magic indeed. Here are some more:  bacon, lettuce and tomato; Harry, Hermione  and Weasley; fork, spoon and knife.  If you look, the Magic 3 is everywhere - what is your favorite?

For me, one of the best examples of the Magic 3 is sibling groups.  The third one adds that extra something.  Three requires alliance-building and negotiation.  My brother, sister & I are 3.  Jaime and his siblings are 3.  My cousins come in sets of 3.  Back in the Schoolhouse Rock! days, seems like there were lots of sibling triads.  Nowadays, seems rarer and, from that, all the more special.  There are my nephews out in Portland, three boys.  Precious.  The Greeks in Stony Creek, three boys.  Que guapos! I'll leave it up to the demographers to explain why 3 faded into 2, but I'd say it has something to do with car safety.  Now that kids have to be strapped into giant plastic seats in the back, Three requires a mini-van, or at least a big station wagon. Newborn me came home from the hospital in an unsecured basket, lying on the back seat.  Life got complicated.  

One of my favorite trio of siblings is the Heffley boys who arrived in their latest iteration at my doorstep last week thanks to the new Amazon Spain.  If you haven't heard of/read the Wimpy Kid books yet, I would suggest you hustle over to the library as soon as you crawl out from under the rock where you have been living.

In this latest WK book, the sixth in the series, our protagonist runs into trouble with the law. He didn't do it, or rather, he didn't mean to do it. (Join the club, Greg!) Luckily, his socio-economic privilege helps him to get away with just a slap on the wrist - no probation for this white Suburban boy.  His reflections on police surveillance and the prospect of prison are, like everything else in the book, hilarious. He visited a local prison during a "Scared Straight" school trip and decided that one of the worst things about jail would be having to use the toilet in the cell "right out in the open" (p. 152).

Several of the women that I interviewed would probably agree with Greg on this point.  When women first arrive at York Correctional, they go through intake in the medical unit.  This process generally takes about a week.  During this time, they are living in a cell with 3 other women.  The room has 2 bunk beds, a toilet and a shower.  Women leave this cell only once a day for a 30 minute Rec. inside the unit. The rest of the time (23.5 hours a day) they are locked up, unless they are meeting with a counselor or medical provider to complete the intake process. 

All three meals are delivered, on a tray, to the cell where the women eat on their beds. Participant 13, in particular, found this disturbing, "I don’t believe in eating where you have to remove yourself at." I think Greg would concur. 

When not reading my son's graphic novels, I have been plowing through Lawrence Friedman's 500+ page tome, Crime and Punishment in American History.  Which brings me back to the Number Three. Have you ever wondered why it's the third offense that delivers the hard time?  The colloquial name by which these policies are known - Three Strikes Laws - suggests that the inspiration came from baseball. Probably not the best way to design criminal justice penalities, but maybe that's what you get when a bunch of white guys write the rules. Let's investigate...

A mini-search on the Internet uncovered the fact until 1889 it actually took 4 strikes to be out in baseball.  According to Friedman's book, harsh penalties for the third offense were in place long before that.  So maybe it was sentencing policy that influenced baseball?  In colonial Massachusetts, "a first time burglar was to be branded on the forehead with the letter B; a second offender was to be branded and whipped; only for third offense would he suffer death, 'as being incorrigible'" (p. 44). Similarly, Oklahoma law in the 1920s dictated that, "if a person was convicted three or more times of 'felonies involving moral turpitude,' he could be sterilized" (p. 338-339). 

The Three Strikes Laws of the 1980s and 1990s contributed enormously to how the US got to where we are today - with the highest rate of incarceration in the world:  731 inmates per 100,000 US residents.  States passed laws that removed judicial discretion and required judges to impose long, mandatory sentences on individuals convicted for the third time of specific crimes, most related to drugs.  What is it about that #3?  Seems that throughout history our patience with crime and deviance has been short.  Doesn't take much to be incorrigible around here, especially if you are poor, brown, or otherwise in the way.  Too bad it isn't 8 that is the Magic Number.  Maybe we wouldn't have gone bankrupt ruining the lives of petty drug offenders if the song had been different.