Tuesday, March 30, 2010

California Prisons: The mass release that wasn't

by Rina Palta on Monday, Mar 29, 5:41pm

 Last year, a panel of federal judges ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDRC) to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. The state has about 170,000 inmates, which is almost double its capacity. So, California had a few options: build more prisons, transfer inmates out of state, or contract with private prisons.

But in the midst of a massive budget crisis, the state decided to do something many didn’t expect, something that prison reform advocates have been wanting for years.

California decided to implement changes that actually reduce the number of people in prison. You may have heard this program referred to as “early release,” but CDCR spokesman Gordon Hinkle says that’s not quite right:.

GORDON HINKLE: That is something that’s kind of a misnomer out there. There’s no blanket release of prisoners or even an actual headcount of prisoners who are being released early whatsoever.

Instead of releasing inmates, CDCR is cutting back on the number coming in. But are they doing it the best way? KALW’s Rina Palta reports.

RINA PALTA: Every morning around 8 o’clock, a van pulls up to the San Rafael Bus Depot with a delivery: ex-prisoners, fresh from San Quentin State Prison. This particular morning, the van is jam-packed. There’s even an inmate in the trunk.

Everyone lines up in front of the van to receive $200.
Chad Stevens is getting out after 8 1/2 months and says he’s thrilled.

STEVENS: Absolutely. Wouldn’t you be?

Stevens is headed home to San Francisco.

STEVENS: And I have a job lined up. Basically stay out of trouble.
But his first task is to check in with parole within 24 hours. Parole officers help released inmates transition back into normal life. The officer also checks to make sure the parolee doesn’t fall into bad behavior like drug use or hang out with the wrong people.

STEVENS: Basically, to me a parole officer is like a baby-sitter. You do what they tell you to do and you’re ok. Otherwise, you’re headed back to prison.

That’s the problem with California’s parole system: 66% of parolees return to prison within three years of getting out. Over half of them don’t go back to prison for new crimes, but on technical parole violations that range from failing to report for a parole appointment, to going into a neighborhood they’re not supposed to be in.

As flawed as the parole system is, almost every person coming out of prison has had to deal with it. Until now.

GORDON HINKLE: The hard thing is going back and determining who’s eligible.

That’s CDCR Spokesman Gordon Hinkle. In response to prison overcrowding, Governor Schwarzenegger created what’s called a “non-revocable parolee.” These parolees don’t have to check in with an officer, and won’t be sent back to prison on technical violations. But Hinkle explains that not every inmate is a candidate.

GORDON HINKLE: They can’t be a sex offender, they can’t be a serious or violent predator, they can’t be a gang member.

Hinkle says the state expects that 20-30% of felons leaving prison will be put on non-revocable, unsupervised parole.

HINKLE: Then we do expect to see the populations in our prisons, the overcrowding, go down. That number that we’ve projected is about 6,500 individuals in the first year.

But not everyone’s so sure that taking newly released inmates off of parole supervision will keep them out of prison.

Seventh Step is a halfway house in Hayward. On a sunny day, Brian Condan is watching daytime television. Condan says there’s one major reason he’s at Seventh Step.

BRIAN CONDAN: No place to live, and no address to give to my parole agent. So they sent me here.

Condan served 8 months in San Quentin for 2nd degree burglary in 2006 and has been on parole ever since. He just got out of Santa Rita jail after getting caught on a parole violation.

CONDAN: Absconding. It was because I would get out and start using drugs. I didn’t feel like doing my parole. Didn’t feel like getting help yet.

Everyone here is a parolee, brought here by their parole agent. As is everyone on the waitlist, 30 people long. Like many community-based programs, Seventh Step gets money from the state to treat parolees, but that doesn’t include this new group of non-revocable parolees.

MICHAEL SMITH: Just to let someone out in society and say, oh, you’re off parole, with nothing is just, that’s bad.

Michael Smith got out of prison a year ago. Smith completed the Seventh Step program in September and now works here, answering phones and filling out paperwork. A drug dealer with no disciplinary problems and no history of violence, he probably would have qualified for non-revocable parole if he were let out now. But he’s glad he didn’t.

SMITH: You’ve got years and years of stuff to deal with. So I’m all for letting people off of parole early, but without treatment or resources for them to get housing or the counseling they need for their drug problems, or employment, then I don’t think it’s a good idea.

CDCR spokespeople say that many of the inmates let out on non-revocable parole will have received rehabilitation and vocational training while in prison. But those working inside the state prisons tell a different story.

ALLYSON WEST: There have always been waiting lists. There have always been more prisoners who need programs and want programs than are available to them.

Allyson West has run a non-profit program in San Quentin for ten years. She says that after the state cut $250 million from rehabilitation programs, the waiting lists for programs have gotten longer and the chances that offenders will get help is minimal.

WEST: And then the vocational programs -- San Quentin had sheet metal, machine shop, janitorial, sign painting, print shop. There were at least six or seven of them. And we’re down to two. So there were waitlists to get into those programs and now most of them are gone. So even real life job training that they would have has is taken away from them. Not to mention the opportunity to earn the weeks off in credit.

West is talking about another new prison initiative. Inmates can now earn weeks off from their sentences if they complete certain programs or work in prison factories. This is in addition to parole reforms. This is what most know as the ‘early release program.' Even though CDCR doesn’t expect many early releases to come of it—less than a thousand over the next two years--it’s gotten a lot of media attention. That worries Allyson West.

WEST: When they see crime rates go up and they see an increase in incarceration rates, they’re going to blame early release, without looking at the great loss in programs which were insufficient to begin with, grossly insufficient.

That said, West expects the parole reforms to bring the prison population down slowly over the next couple of years. But what will happen in the long run? At the moment, CDCR seems serious about cutting down the number of people entering prison. But cutting rehabilitation services and reforming parole were both born out of the financial crisis. What happens when the money comes back?

WEST: Which way is the rehabilitation and punishment pendulum going to be swinging at that point? And what are you going to do with a name, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in the intervening time now that you’ve cut all these programs?

West says that there are senior managers in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who desperately want to keep the ‘R’ in CDCR’s name. They also know that without rehabilitation, even parole reform won’t necessarily keep these inmates from ending up back behind bars.

For Crosscurrents, I’m Rina Palta.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Voter-mandated drug treatment program headed for extinction | California Watch

The groundbreaking 2000 ballot proposition that mandated drug treatment instead of jail sentences for low-level offenses is barely running and may soon be history, according to testimony during an Assembly hearing.

Treatment advocates have hailed the program as transformative for those who kicked the drug habit. About 13,000 California residents per year finished drug treatment under the law.
Their success wound up saving public systems the cost of incarcerating them – and many became taxpayers, a UCLA report found.
Voter-mandated drug treatment program headed for extinction California Watch

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

First Solve Prison Crisis, Then Fix California’s Budget

by Dick Price posted on Saturday, 13 March 2010

To get a handle on the damage California’s current approach to incarceration is having on its citizens, consider this: In a recent 23-year period, California erected 23 prisons—one a year, each costing roughly $100 million dollars annually to operate, with both Democratic and Republican governors occupying the statehouse—at the same time that it added just one campus to its vaunted university system, UC Merced.

Speaking at an American Civil Liberties Union meeting in Pasadena this past Tuesday, prison reform activist Gary Gilmore pointed to several root causes for California’s move away from its earlier leadership role in progressive prison management:

■A prison guards’ union that can and does intimidate politicians at all levels of government in California,

■A three-strikes law that incarcerates those convicted of even rather minor crimes for unconscionably long sentences, and

■A failed war on drugs that has pushed the state’s prison population from less than 30,000 30 years ago to over 170,000 inmates today—each costing $50,000 per year to house.

“But the real problem is a lack of political will to change an intolerable situation,” said Gilmore, who works in the Bay Area with The California Prison Moratorium Project and Californians United for a Responsible Budget. “So it’s up to us, regular citizens.”

From Top to Bottom

California’s public education system has been hard hit by the state’s preoccupation with building more prisons and locking up more people. Since the late 1970s, California has fallen from first in the nation in per-pupil spending, nearly to the bottom at number 48. With California’s annual budget falling from $103 billion three years ago to $80 billion currently during what’s often called the Great Recession, schools—including the world class University of California system—continue to face deep cuts in funding, fewer teaching positions, and a reduced ability to educate students.
Meanwhile, the prison budget and population has grown in lockstep with its expansion: “Thirty years ago, 2% of California’s budget went to prisons,” Gilmore said. “Now it’s supposed to be 9.7%, but the Department of Prisons has already overspent its budget by $1.2 billion and nobody seems to care.”
California’s prison system has gotten so far out of hand that the federal government has taken over the states prison medical system—“One prisoner per week is dying of medical neglect and mistreatment,” said Gilmore—and the entire system is under federal court order to cut the prison population by 40,000 beds. Otherwise the federal government might step in to take over the entire prison system.
The nature of the people we incarcerate bears scrutiny as well, according to Gilmore, who cited these facts:

■“Half the people in California’s prisons held a job for the year before going to prison. So, if you’ve got 174,000 people in prison, that’s 87,000 people who had jobs, going to work everyday and paying taxes.”

■“Over a third of prisoners are in prison for drug possession or possession of drugs with intent to sell.”

■“Nationwide,70 to 90% of crimes were committed when the person was high on drugs or drunk or were trying to get drugs.”

California has a program called the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act—also known as Prop 36—which passed in 2000 and which provides drug treatment for first- and second-time nonviolent drug possession offenders, but it’s seriously underfunded.
“In any case,” said Gilmore, “it would be far better if people got drug treatment before a conviction”.

How We Got Here

In looking for culprits in California’s interrelated budget, education, and prison crisis, many observers look immediately to Prop 13, the antitax initiative California voters passed in 1978 to limit annual real estate taxes to 1% of a property’s value, along with a two-thirds legislative majority requirement to pass a budget and raise taxes.

Clearly, there’s a direct link between Prop 13—especially the fact that commercial and industrial property that changes hands slowly is included in the antitax protections—and the widespread destruction of California’s education system. And clearly the two-thirds majority budget requirement has made a laughing stock of our state legislature, calling into question California’s ability to govern itself.
“But Prop 13 doesn’t explain everything,” Gilmore said. “Each decade after that initiative passed, California’s budget doubled—from $20 billion in the 1970s, to $40 billion in 1980s, to $80 billion in the 90s. So the State had money to build its prisons, but the local communities and school districts couldn’t build and operate their schools.”
The change had more to do with a shift in approach—you hesitate to call it a philosophy—toward incarceration. Gilmore cited this example:

“In 1978, then Governor Jerry Brown planned to tear down Folsom and San Quentin prisons, which even then were considered antiquated and inhumane, and build instead, small, therapeutic 500-bed prisons designed to rehabilitate prisoners and return them to society,” said Gilmore. “But then Republican Governor George Deukmejian took over and instead built standard 5,000-bed prisons that were quickly filled.”

And so the “build it and we’ll make them come” program began that has landed us in our current fix. Historically, California had led the nation in progressive prison management:

“In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, California embraced a philosophy that the state could successfully treat individual offenders through education and psychotherapy. Wardens wrote books, including the groundbreaking 1952 study “Prisoners are People,” and held advanced degrees in social work. The department’s research wing had 80 experts on staff.

California was leading the rest of the nation,” said John Irwin, a professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University who is a living example of the rehabilitative philosophy. Before he got his degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in the late 1950s, he spent five years in Soledad Prison for armed robbery.”

Calling All Sheep

“It’s political suicide to suggest that we’re going to incarcerate fewer prisoners—that’s what you always hear,” said Gilmore. “But it’s interesting to note that Ronald Reagan, when he was governor before Jerry Brown, shrank the prison system by 30%, largely through sentencing reforms. So it can be done.”

The key questions are how do you fight the entrenched interests—principally the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA)—which hold so much sway in Sacramento.
“Sure, CCPOA is the 800-pound gorilla here,” said Gilmore. “So what you need is a few 500-pound gorillas on our side, like the Service Employee International Union (SEIU), the two teachers unions—California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT)—the California Nurses Association (CNA), and other pubic sector unions.”

Their members are affected by this emphasis on incarceration—both in their jobs and in their communities—and some of them, like the SEIU, are already working on prison reform.

Then there’s the question of political leadership. Who’s going to step up and advocate for dramatic prison reform when everyone thinks its political suicide to even raise the topic?

“Senator Mark Leno is good, and Shiela Kuehl was a strong advocate when she was in the Senate,” Gilmore said. “Jackie Goldberg was a real dynamo on prison reform when she was in the Assembly, too. But she got worn out when she couldn’t find enough others to follow her. So in her last couple of years in Sacramento, she turned to education reform.”
“What you need is not more leaders,” concluded Gilmore. “What you need is 40 sheep to line up and follow the leaders. That’s what we don’t have.”

To that end, the LA Progressive plans to begin a California prison reform report card, much as other groups have them on progressive environmental or labor or immigration issues. Like them, we’ll reach out to prison reform activists across the state to help us determine which of our California Legislators are stepping up to the plate on prison reform, which are phoning it in, and which are actively pursuing the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach that is harming so many Californians.
Dick Price, Editor, LA Progressive

Thursday, March 11, 2010

When men leave their cages - Editorial - Opinions - March 11, 2010 - Chico News & Review

Cuts in prison rehab programs will only make a bad situation worse

This article was published on 03.11.10.
 Here’s a stark fact about California’s prison inmates: Most of them—about 95 percent—will be released someday. And most won’t be prepared to handle freedom. They won’t have job skills, they won’t have taken substance-abuse classes, many won’t even be literate. And so they almost inevitably will drift back into the only work they know: criminality.

Then they will be caught and returned to prison, which is why California has the worst recidivism rate in the country: 70 percent.

Is that what we want? Right now, many people are upset that some prisoners are being released early, as a budget reduction measure. But these are mainly nonviolent and aging offenders near the ends of their terms; they pose little threat. The inmates still in the prisons are the ones to worry about.

Currently the state spends $11 billion annually on the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Until recently, $560 million, or about 5 percent of the total, was budgeted for rehabilitation. It’s worse this year. The DOCR, forced to slash $1.2 billion from its budget, is cutting $250 million—almost 45 percent—from rehabilitation.

As the Sacramento Bee reported this week, the result is a 30 percent trim in high-school equivalency and other literacy and vocational courses—800 of 1,500 instructors have been laid off—and a 40 percent cut in substance-abuse programs. Gone are such programs as landscaping, janitorial maintenance, printing and graphic arts, roofing, drywall and cabinetry classes.

The consequences are predictable. As Jean Bracy, principal of the school at Folsom State Prison, told the Bee, “You cannot take people and throw them in a cage and expect them to be OK when they get out without rehabilitation.”

If you want to see a stark illustration of the consequences of Republicans’ cuts-only approach to the budget deficit, this is it.

When men leave their cages - Editorial - Opinions - March 11, 2010 - Chico News & Review

Monday, March 1, 2010

California Decides to Scrap Rehab and Cultivate Crime

by Sam Harnett
Published February 28, 2010 @ 07:09AM PT

California's 70% recidivism rate –- the highest in the nation -– was always an indication that the prison system was horrifically broken. Well, that astronomical rate is about to go even higher.

Over the next few months, California will cut $250 million in prison rehab programs as part of the budget decision last July to reduce state prison spending by $1.2 billion.

The Modesto Bee reports that by the time the state finishes eliminating that $1.2 billion, two-thirds of all inmate rehab and education programs will be eradicated. Already gone is Harrison's 35-year-old mill and cabinetry class, as well as the graphic art shop at the Sierra Conservation center.

Statewide, there's many more on the chopping block, and that means losses for prisoners as well as staff jobs. This first round of cuts will yield about 850 job losses: bad news for a state with unemployment rates ballooning over 10%. As for the direct impact on prisoners, The San Francisco Chronicle has some good numbers on what saving 250 million bucks really means: for example, 17,000 fewer prisoners will be able to enroll in academic or job-related programs, and access to drug treatment for 3,500 prisoners will likewise be cut off. As the Chronicle reports, "At San Quentin State Prison alone, 13 of the 19 programs currently offered are slated for elimination...including all but two of the six vocational programs, an anger management course and a high school program."

Who needs anger management courses and a high school program when you've got shiv-making class, criminal activity brainstorming, and gang networking 101? Without rehab programs, prisons really are just a breeding ground for more crime. Cellmate networking served as a convenient plot mechanism in The Usual Suspects, but it's a real phenomenon, and it means more crime and prisoners serving repeat sentences.

These cuts mean more recidivism and fewer cases like that of Orson Aguilar, who writes in the Chronicle about how a rehab program “saved his life.” He grew up in L.A.'s Boyle heights, shot someone in the arm and pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. But while in prison, he managed to get a job in the attorney's office as part of a work-furlough program. After getting out, he finished college, completed a master's degree and is now executive director of the Greenlining Institute, a social justice advocacy group.

Rehab works. It's an essential part of the prison system. The Chronicle, for example, points out how Schwarzenegger himself added the word “Rehabilitation” to “California Department of Corrections.” Too bad he isn't putting the money where his mouth is.
California isn't the only one struck with this apparently "brilliant" plan of short-term savings and long-term disaster. On February 16, for example, Texas state leaders proposed cutting $294.3 million for prisons and rehab programs -- axing nearly 3,100 jobs in the process. A real twofer.
The twofer for California is the sharp reduction in forward-thinking prison funding, coupled with a new early release program. In other words, California's pulling out the rehab rug and shoving inmates onto the street, only to take them back later on different charges. If we continue to cut programs for prisoners, stories like that of Kevin Peterson (which I blogged about earlier this week) will only serve as a prelude.
Photo Credit: Sean Hobson