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Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.

Hurricane

by Bob Dylan

Judge H. Chittick

The hero in our story, Fresno Superior Court Judge Hilary A. Chittick.

Congratulations to California Superior Court Judge Hilary A. Chittick. She had the courage to smack down one of the toughest gangs in Fresno County. The leader of that gang, County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan, sent one of her soldiers into court to destroy the lives of 26–year-old Enrique Gonzalez and his friend Travis Gorman. For putting a grape-sized tattoo on the seven-year-old son of Gonzalez, Egan tried to send both of them to prison for the rest of their lives. Justice? Don’t expect justice from a gang shot-caller.

You may be confused because the county District Attorney in stories like this is not usually labeled the head of a gang. But in this case, Egan leads a gang every bit as nasty and immoral as the local Fresno street gang that calls itself “Bulldogs.” If we can believe the local police, Gonzalez and Gorman are members of the Bulldogs. And what Judge Chittick faced was nothing less than one small battle between the Bulldogs and the district attorney office gang run by Egan. But this time Egan overreached, and her soldier, prosecutor William Lacy left the courtroom with his tail between his legs, too embarrassed to even say anything. “Prosecutor William Lacy declined to comment as he left the courtroom,” is how all the news stories carried it.

Villian E. Egan

The villian in our story, Fresno District Attorney Elizabeth Egan.

I’ve heard this story a thousand times from prisoners, and the injustice of it is repugnant. Here’s how I believe this story unfolded. Gonzalez, who appears to be estranged from his child’s mother, was hanging around with his seven-year-old son one day. That’s what a father should be doing. Wanting to be just like his dad, the son said he wanted a tattoo; father Gonzalez has lots of tattoos. Gorman applies tattoos, although he is not licensed to do so, and judging from his work, he is also not very good at it. So Gonzalez made the mistake of having his friend Gorman tattoo his son. His second mistake was to have the tattoo apparently look like the Bulldog gang logo – a dog paw print. Again, Gorman’s work is pretty poor so this is a matter of interpretation.

Most of us are disgusted by Gonzalez giving his seven-year-old son a gang tattoo. It’s a stupid thing to do. But being in a street gang is perhaps the most stupid thing any human can do to begin with so Gonzalez already doesn’t exhibit the best judgment. But, he is a father, and he has a son who looks up to him and needs him. As the story continues, next the boy’s mom sees the tattoo and calls the cops. They take Gonzalez and Gorman to jail. The police tell the District Attorney that Gonzalez and Gorman belong to the Bulldogs street gang. Egan and her gang decide she can protect the public by putting these guys in prison for a long time. Never mind that the act of tattooing a minor is a misdemeanor offense that might get you up to six months in county jail. In the Egan gang, justice is decided solely by her.

Defendant E. Gonzalez

The hapless father Enrique Gonzalez. Poor parenting and a street gang affiliation had him facing life in prison.

The prosecutor offers Gorman and Gonzalez a deal. (This is where I’m speculating based on what I know usually happens.) They can plead out (admit guilt) and take a 10 or 15 year sentence or else they will go to trial on a charge of aggravated mayhem, not simple mayhem, but aggravated mayhem and face life in prison. Most defendants in these situations are so scared of the possible consequences they take the deal. They know if they go into a courtroom, they will be labeled vicious street gang members and career criminals. The jury will see their tattoos and intimidating demeanor, and they’ll end up as lifers on a maximum security yard of some state prison. And the public defenders, known as “public pretenders” by prisoners, almost always advise taking the deal; they have heavy caseloads and they don’t need the aggravation of a trial taking up a lot of their time.

This story however took a different turn from the normal “take the deal” case. It didn’t go quite the way the Egan gang had it mapped out. Either Gonzalez and Gorman had some rare good sense or they had public defenders who recognized Egan had gone too far, and they advised the defendants to challenge the outrageous charge. Gonzalez and Gorman went to court, and they challenged the charge. Judge Chittick, after appropriate political maneuvering, (She took a few days to “think” about it.) told Egan to take a hike. The aggravated mayhem charge was dismissed. That took a lot of courage. That’s what a judge is supposed to have, few of them actually do. Chittick did what a good Judge is supposed to do, and she prevented one more terrible injustice that puts so many people in prison in this state.

Imagine yourself in a prison cell. Your new cellmate asks why you’re in prison. You tell him you allowed your seven-year-old son to have a tattoo, so now you’re doing life. After he finishes laughing, you’re cellmate then says, “Seriously, man, what you in for?” Even in prison they wouldn’t believe it. Maybe that has something to do with why California prisons are overstuffed like the Thanksgiving turkey at a fat man’s house!

I haven’t read anything that mentions father Gonzalez having a father or what part he played in his son’s life. Experience suggests his father is probably a gang member and in prison. I hope not, but it’s more often than not the case. What kind of upbringing did Gonzalez have? Did anyone teach him to be a father? This is a case where the criminal justice system could have done some actual good. Gonzalez should have been convicted of the misdemeanor tattooing charge and then sentenced to a good parenting class that fulfills the parenting education requirements of the California Welfare and Institution code. An additional touch would have been some well supervised community service in a place doing child care. That would have given him much-needed parenting education and just as importantly, kept him as a father in his son’s life instead creating one more child with a father in prison.

Egan, on the other hand, would do well to spend a little time in prison — as a prisoner; it would teach her something about the real meaning of justice.

Our prison system in California is the social equivalent of an 18th century butter churn. You know, the wood bucket with the long wooden handle and dasher. To make butter, you put milk in the bucket, put the handle through the hole in the lid, push the lid down tight and get some low-level person in the family to push the handle up and down vigorously for hours. Here’s an enlightening definition from that period:

Churna vessel in which butter, by long and violent agitation, is separated from the serous part of milk.

“Long and violent agitation.” That’s not a bad description of the prison experience for most inmates today. As a society we churn people through the system at an alarming rate. In a typical year around 125,000 inmates are released from California prisons. If none of them came back and no one committed any more crimes, the prison population would drop to 45,000 inmates just like that. But they do come back and there are new crimes, so for each prisoner released this year there will be another person coming in to take his place. Rarely will the replacement be a person who has never been in prison; this is someone coming back again. That’s why discussions of “early release” to achieve an overall population reduction of 40,000 are so meaningless, maybe even silly.

The classic butter churn

The classic 18th Century butter churn.

At any given time, we have around 170,000 inmates in the California prisons. There are another 110,000 persons on active parole out on the streets and another 20,000 parolees at large, etc. That’s 300,000 people at some stage of supervision (or lack of it) by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That’s the size of our total churn. Oh, once in a while, a few new ones come in and a few old ones don’t come back, but our core group is pretty stable – “doing life on the installment plan” as most inmates describe it. When you look at it that way the real question begins to emerge – how do we reduce not the number of people sleeping in prison beds on any given night but the total number of people being supervised/managed/watched?

From a churn standpoint, we must either produce more butter – meaning more people get “rehabilitated” and don’t come back, or else we reduce the amount of milk in the churn. Staring this real question straight in the eyes, you come to understand we don’t know how to do either of those things that would reduce the churn. Socially and sociologically speaking we’re Neanderthals. In 1800, we were churning butter by hand in wooden buckets. Being the dawn of the industrial revolution we believed there could be faster and better ways to do this. Today, using technologies we’ve developed over those 200 years, we have machinery that quickly and consistently produces all the good butter any of us could ever want – and it seems almost effortless. We now can go to any supermarket in this country, get the highest quality butter humanity has ever known, take it home and use it in cooking, baking, whatever. Why has the “science” of corrections, penology if you like, fallen so far behind?

Today's butter churn.

This is the modern version of a butter churn.

There’s an old saying about weather – everybody talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Corrections is sort of like that. Ask any person you meet, they’ll instantly offer an opinion about what’s wrong with the prison system and what it will take to make it work. These range from the basest know-nothings who say lock them all up and throw away the key to knowledgeable, experienced folks who have contributed to reports of the Little Hoover Commissions, Dr. Joan Petersilia who has offered so much good direction the last few years, and other credible observers. Yet we never seem to get past that old wooden bucket and the never-ending churn. Why is this? Here are my favorite probabilities:

1. We’re too ignorant to figure out how to be better at butter. When it comes to human behavior – what makes some people do hurtful things versus doing helpful things, we are dumb as dirt clods. Look at the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) of the American Psychiatric Association, and you would think we knew something about human behavior. But obviously we have at least 300,000 people in California we don’t know how to “fix.” For the most part, we throw up our hands at their behavior and just give up. We do know enough about chemistry to keep a lot of them semi-permanently sedated, but that doesn’t make any butter for us. We made some advances in the nineteenth century, (Osborne, Brockway, MacCormack, et.al.) but in many ways we seem worse now than 100 years ago. I was in San Francisco a couple of years ago and the social workers were in town having their annual conventions – literally tens of thousands of social workers. I talked to one as we looked over a menu posted outside a prospective restaurant, and I asked him, “If we have so many social workers, why do we still have so many social problems?” He sneered at me, said “That’s a ridiculous question,” and walked off. I do have a lot of questions. The answers don’t seem to be that great.

2. We don’t care about getting better at butter. There appears ample evidence that we’ve become a narcissistic bunch; we don’t really care much about one another. As long as my buds can come over on Sunday and watch the game on my big screen and somebody brings the beer, who cares! Until something happens to interrupt the fun, we don’t take an interest in much outside ourselves. That’s bleak, but the facts are there. We don’t care enough to take homeless women and children off the dangerous streets; our infant mortality rates approach third world status; the education system falls farther behind other countries each year. Prisons are always low priority in social services, and if we don’t care if many of our fellow citizens live or die, why would we care about a few desperados in prison?

3. Great politics is pragmatically more useful than getting better at butter. Richard Nixon got himself elected president in 1968 by scaring people about crime and civil unrest. There were riots in the streets and he promised “law and order.” Politicians ever since have been getting themselves into elected office claiming to be “tough on crime.” And if some tough-on-crime is good, more must surely be better. To look tougher than the other guy, we passed ever more draconian laws and built more prisons – essentially making our churn bigger and adding more and more milk with no expectation we’d ever get any butter. Pragmatically, it’s more productive to fight about it than fix it. Rising costs may be making this less politically effective than in the past, and politicians are now hiding from it every chance they get. Maybe that’s progress.

4. Being bad at butter has simply become a deeply entrenched aspect of the U.S. economic system and changing it would be too disruptive. In a capitalistic system, you must either produce or you must consume. If you produce, you must have the means to produce (capital, work skills, raw materials, production machinery, transport capacity, etc.), if you consume, you must have the means to consume (money). If you have no work skills or you don’t want to work, or if you’re mentally or physically defective, a capitalistic system sees you as unnecessary at best and a detriment to good economy at worst. The system does not want to expend production resources on you and since you haven’t the means (money) to consume, you don’t fit; you really aren’t wanted. But we can’t have you out there making life unpleasant for the producers and consumers either. So prison is a convenient alternative. And the movement from helping people (mental institutions, vocational training, physical rehabilitation, etc.) to the crass warehousing of humans has taken place very effectively over the last 30 or 40 years and, in fact, been institutionalized in itself. So successful has it been, we now have a flourishing private prison industry to provide efficient warehousing. Recently I read a business forecast that suggested buying stock in companies providing private prison capacity would be good, sound investing. That’s capitalism for you.

If you think our current system of so-called criminal justice is good, I suggest next time you want butter, travel back in time to 1750. Just grab that churn handle and sit down for a good, long session of hard work. And hope you had good milk to start with and the butter you end up with is actually edible. If we want a better system for treating people, we better get to work. We’re a long, long way behind.

Daniel Quinn authored the book Ishmael, published in 1992. I read it at the time and was annoyed when he referred to the student uprisings of the late 1960s in this country as the “children’s revolution.” That societal upheaval seemed important to me, especially as part of my own personal history, and he was calling it childish. Sadly, I now think he may be right. More importantly he seems to have captured the whole picture of a society of immaturity that is now this country. Everything from political gridlock to road rage to overcrowded prisons seems like it can be traced to “adults” who simply never grew up. These are people who have all the rights and privileges of adults, yet they throw tantrums like little children.

Formally, he is referred to as "The Honorable" although here, Congressman Joe Wilson dishonors himself by acting like a child yelling at the president.

Formally, he is referred to as “The Honorable” although here, Congressman Joe Wilson dishonors himself by acting like a child yelling at the president.

Last night a United States congressman called the president of the United States a liar to his face in a joint session of the Congress. It was an unprecedented breach of protocol and an outrageous display of disrespect. Here was a 62-year-old man whom his fellow citizens thought well enough of to represent them in the highest level of government. Yet he was too immature to control himself in the most public arena of the land. It was a shameful, childish tantrum, yet so revealing of a disintegrating society.

Although it was a long time ago, there is one thing I do remember as a child. You were never supposed to misbehave, but if you did it at home it was understood as just childish behavior that needed to be corrected. But when we went out in public, the edict was iron – you do not misbehave in public and embarrass the family. If you did, the consequences were not trivial. And yet, even the harshest consequences did not involve physical or emotional abuse – or abandonment. In a lot of ways, that’s what we do with our misbehaving adult children today; we send them to prison with abusive terms and if they’ve misbehaved more than a few times we simply abandon them to prison. It was not always this way.

Last Sunday marked the date of 60 years since probably the first non-military, mass murder in this country. On the pleasant, sunny Tuesday morning of September 6, 1949 a 28-year-old man spent 20 minutes murdering men, women and children in his neighborhood of Camden, NJ. With a pistol he brought back from the war, he shot and killed 13 people. Any rational person would clearly see it was an act of insanity. When the police finally got him in custody, one of the arresting officers is quoted as asking, “What’s the matter with you? Are you a psycho?” And Unruh replied, “I’m no psycho. I have a good mind.” No one believed him, of course; his behavior was plain to see. At least it was plain to adults.

Although indicted for the murders and assaults, Howard Unruh has never been tried. Within a day he was placed in a maximum security institution for the criminally insane, and he has been there ever since. A psychiatric assessment said he “is suffering from a malignant, progressively deteriorating schizophrenic illness.” He is now 88 years old.

Howard Unruh (in suit and bowtie) placed into custody minutes after calmly murdering 13 people in Camden, NJ in 1949.

Howard Unruh (in suit and bowtie) placed into custody minutes after calmly murdering 13 people in Camden, NJ in 1949. [Image courtesy CourierPostOnline.com]

It never occurred to the adults running the world at the time that Howard Unruh was anything but insane, and there was no cure for him in the courts and prisons. While his acts were unimaginably heinous, he was seen as a human being who was sick, not as a fellow human we needed to extract revenge from. That seems to me the difference between how adults treat one another and how children treat one another.

There was a story yesterday in New Jersey newspapers about the death of a man whose parents were killed by Unruh. His children said he had waited all his life for a phone call saying Howard Unruh had died, but the call never came. A comment made by a reader of that story is: “What a pity Mr. Cohen didn’t get his lifelong wish to see this scum die.” For that reader, Unruh obviously does not exist as a human being. The totally depersonalized label “scum” characterizes him. And I would suggest this is how children see the world. Some human lives are worthy of respect and others are not. A more humane view requires emotional maturity.

It’s easy to respond to Howard Unruh as “scum.” It’s easy to open your mouth and throw a tantrum during a joint session of the Congress of the United States. It’s easy to put a man in prison for 25 years to life because we don’t know how to cope with his behavior anymore. And it’s easy responding like children, without personal or societal discipline to anything we don’t like. Being mature, restraining our base instincts, that’s hard. But that’s what adults do. The good parent does not murder his child when he throws a stone through the neighbor’s window. He treats him like an adult who does not yet have the emotional and intellectual tools to act like an adult, and he provides rehabilitation through consequences and loving discipline.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzennegar delivering a speech to the citizens of the state. Childish that he didn't feel a need to dress for the occasion and that he decided a huge knife was a good prop.California Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger delivering a speech to the citizens of the state. Childish that he didn’t feel a need to dress for the occasion and that he decided a huge knife was a good prop.

I don’t know where we are going to find the adults and good societal parents we need today. I feel as if I’m living in a real-life version of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. If you aren’t familiar with it, a group of young boys are stranded on a deserted island after their airplane goes down in the ocean; there are no adult survivors. Although they attempt to create civilization in their little island society, they simply descend into vicious savagery. That’s what I fear when I look at our prisons and our political “leadership” and the disintegration of our families.

As the comedienne Joan Rivers always said, “Oh, grow up.” I hope we can.

William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies.

William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies.

 

Outside of sheer of boxing excellence, I could never find anything to recommend in Mike Tyson. Nevertheless I recently found myself watching the 2008 documentary movie about him, Tyson. It’s summertime when the world seems to slow down, and nothing else in the video store really snagged my attention – and it was a free rental anyway. I ended up watching it twice. There’s no way I could say I like the man, but I was fascinated at how perfectly he shows the personality of most prison inmates. Were it not for his boxing successes, fame and money, I’m certain he would be spending most of his life in prison.

Mike Tyson with probably the only person he ever trusted in his life, boxing trainer Cus D'Amato.

Mike Tyson with probably the only person he ever trusted in his life, boxing trainer Cus D’Amato.

“Iron Mike” as he is familiarly known, turns out to be scared to death. He has lived his life in abject fear, and that fear has motivated just about all he has done. In the movie, he graphically talks about this, time after time. He nearly fled the dressing room for his first professional fight because he was so afraid. He said every time he walked into a boxing arena for a big match, he was afraid. And unlike most of us, Tyson’s fear was not for the physical pain. He was terrified of the humiliation of being beaten, literally of being found out for what he sadly believed himself to be, a bum, a loser, a worthless wretch. “I’m just afraid of being physically humiliated in the streets,” is the way he expressed it. Turns out he was a fat kid who was bullied. Obviously, he’s never gotten over it.

Prison inmates are afraid. I’ve found that to be a dominant characteristic. It’s what makes many of them so dangerous – just like Tyson. That was the first serious lesson I ever learned about inmates, and what it takes to deal with them. I had only been working in the prison a few months. An inmate and I had a disagreement about the way things were going to be. Within a group of inmates he challenged me in no uncertain terms. I didn’t back down, and he moved closer to me, an intimidating move. I wasn’t having any of it, so I got right up in his face. And when I looked in his eyes what I saw was fear. I could not have been more surprised.

When he saw I was not going to be pushed around his psyche crumbled. He looked down and backed up. I was almost afraid he was going to cry. This loss was humiliating to him in front of other inmates. The whole thing was dangerous, and I’m lucky I escaped my inexperience without encountering any kind of physical violence. If this inmate had as much fear as Mike Tyson, I’d probably have been a knockout victim.

One astonishing thing Mike Tyson said in the movie was that he was surprised to learn most people are afraid of him. His own deep fear prevents him from correctly assessing the intentions and feelings of other people. I watched him brutalize his opponents in the ring when he was young. And it seemed like there were countless news items about him getting into altercations around motor vehicle incidents or perceived slights. He was convicted of rape (probably wrongly) and did three years in prison, much of it in a control unit according to him. My impression of him was an animalistic brute with a hair trigger temper. I’m sure if I’d ever found myself someplace where he was present, I would have left. And this surprises him. It surprises him because he is the one who is afraid, and it’s his poor self-esteem that nurtures his fear.

I know very few inmates who had good family experiences growing up. Poor self-esteem is a hallmark of their upbringing. And that poor self-esteem is what prevents people from coping successfully with defeat and presumed humiliation. The kid with low self-esteem gets beaten up a few times so he gets a gun and shoots someone, or he joins the local gang thinking they will protect him from what he fears. The kid with good self-esteem, and probably a supportive family, gets beaten up and uses it as a learning experience. He may have his family talk to the school about the bullying (the very best way to handle such things) or he may learn to box or take martial arts lessons or something that will give him confidence to deal with physical aggression in the future. Either way, he grows as a human being and is more likely to be a healthy adult. The child with the low self-esteem is probably on a path to becoming a scared inmate as an adult.

Strong, mature families are so important to our society. That’s something Mike Tyson never had. The only time he was ever successful in his personal life was when one man (his boxing trainer Cus D’Amato) became a father figure whom he could trust. He died when Tyson was only 19, and I believe Tyson’s life has been falling apart ever since. If you are a parent, I urge you to use the resources available everywhere to learn the best parenting skills. One thing I do is subscribe to a free email message every weekday from Family First. It’s not the only resource out there, but it’s dependable and credible, just like a good family should be.

Institutional failures are  everywhere today. Most paroled inmates come back to prison, and college students can’t write. I believe there is a root cause for both of these tragedies, and I think tragedy is not too strong a word. But is it the institutions that are failing us, or is it the wider society? What is the common linkage?

Prison or university? Points given for correct answers.Prison or university? Points given for correct answers.

I learned today that students in college nowadays cannot write. College professor Stanley Fish published an opinion piece on the Web site of The New York Times (8/24/09) where he said college students not only can’t write, but they aren’t being taught to write. While grading papers of his graduate students, he said: “I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors in the college’s composition program.” When he went to the basic freshman English composition courses he found the students were not learning to write, but rather “…spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.” What are these people to do when they finish college?

The college graduate who cannot write is surely not going to law school. He is not getting a job in journalism or publishing. Marketing and advertising are out; they require highly developed verbal skills. Business management requires excellent written communication skills. If you can’t write basic English, how do you put together a coherent business plan?

Most sadly, the foundation of good writing is good thinking. If these folks can’t write, it means they cannot think, and that will surely doom them in this highly technical society. Like ships with no motors, no sails and no moorings, they will drift wherever the currents and tides choose to take them. In so many ways this is the way I see inmates being paroled from our prisons today.

Here in California, the prison system pays some lip service to the concept of rehabilitation. The very foundation of parole is a supposedly rehabilitated person, a person ready to resume his role of productive and responsible citizen. But California prisons rehabilitate damn few of its citizens.

The past few years California has paroled around 125,000 inmates from state prisons each year. Strangely, that same number enter prison on parole violations and new terms every year. That rather conviently keeps the beds well stocked with bodies and maintains the status quo. The recidivism rate is said to be around 70% over three years. That means of the 125,000 people paroled last year, in two more years over 87,000 of them will be back in prison or will have been back.

The perpetual question is always why? Why do we have so many people coming back to prison, year after dreary year? Prisoner administrators say they want to know. Prison activists are desperate to find the reasons. The very few citizens who are actually interested in prisons (mostly families of inmates or crime victims) want to know. And the legislature should want to know, but they have shown they have no stomach for the ugliness of prison issues (at least the California Assembly) so they really don’t want to hear about it. Every interest group has its answer — and offers its plan to solve the problem. The hardened hearts say the felons simply learn to be better criminals in prison and shouldn’t be let out in the first place. The soft hearts will say they weren’t given job training or substance abuse programming or basic educational skills or basic life skills, etc. The cacophony is wide and sometimes loud.

My answer to the question of why we keep churning the same 300,000 or so people through the prison system comes from interacting with inmates over many years, and it’s fairly simple — most of them don’t have anything better to do. Yes, most people who come back to prison are returning to the best alternative in their lives.

My overwhelming impression of most inmates is that they are simply unemployable. Most do not have the basic skills necessary to do any job worth doing. The few who have marginal skills don’t have what it takes to get the few available jobs. The world is a tough row to hoe for people who have never been to prison and have sound basic education and some desirable workplace talents. Without those assets, what do you do?

I often talk with returned inmates about their experiences out in the free world. They are always disappointed to be back, but there is one thing almost all of them say that clearly indicates a serious social issue. “I just couldn’t talk with those people” is usually how it is expressed. Over years, prison inmates get comfortable with one another, in their language, their shared shame, their shared deprivations, etc. Suddenly thrust into the free world, they do not feel equal to other people. They tend to feel regular people (non-criminals) look at them and immediately see them for what they are. And what they most often are contains a lot of poor self-esteem, fear and hopelessness. It’s often said employers can smell fear and desperation on job applicants. When you go into an interview with a prison psyche (and hoping your long-sleeve shirt will cover the tattoos), you can’t possibly project the kind of confidence employers want.

For most people coming out of prison, the degree of difficulty they face often convinces them it’s just easier to go back to prison. They may not say that out loud, but it’s at the heart of the matter. And the saddest thing I have to admit is that many inmates I’ve seen are truly better off in prison than they are on the streets. I’ve worked with homeless people on the streets; most of those folks would be better off with the regular meals, regular sleep, clean clothes, unavailability of drugs, and medical care provided in prisons.

A female inmate comes to mind from many years ago. Let’s call her Cecelia (not her real name). She was around 40 and soon to parole to her home county, a rural one. She was finishing up a substance abuse program where she had done well and was respected for helping other inmates. A basic office services class had given her some rudimentary computer skills along with filing, office procedures, etc. On paper, she was a model of rehabilitation, and she would seem to be set for success. And yet, when you looked into Cecelia’s eyes, you knew she was not going to succeed and you knew she knew it too. Seeing that, I asked her to be honest, and she honored me with her truth.

The depressing story Cecilia kept hidden like so much dirty laundry was heartbreaking. Her reality, hidden under all her successful programming, was that she was “going home” to no place to live and no hope of a job – and most likely drug relapse. The residence address she gave the parole folks was the address of her mom’s house. She and the mother had been fighting all her adult life and had never managed to be civil to one another for more than three days. So she knew she’d be on the streets within the first week. She had no other family, and overnight shelters were the only alternative to life on the streets.

The job opportunities in her rural county were nearly nonexistant to start with. On top of that everyone there knew her, and to hear her tell it she had pilfered, robbed, burgled, bad-checked and disappointed her way out of trust from anyone. I can tell you it’s a sad thing to look into the eyes of such a person, to see the desperate hopelessness and to know there is nothing you can do. In the controlled prison setting, Cecilia did well. She succeeded at challenges given her, she got along well with other inmates and staff. And yet the institution, well meaning as it was, could do nothing but fail to help her realize the successful life she so desperately wanted.

We are all failing Cecelia. Her family fails her. The schools failed her. The social services network persistently fails her. The criminal justice system fails her. I feel I personally failed her; when she asked me what she should do, I had no answer. Our society apparently does not care enough about Cecelia to do anything but let her go back to prison, again and again and again. So she comes to accept that she has nothing better to do.

Hope in our society would seem to lie in the bright young people. Surely their college educations will give them what it takes to find a way to help Cecelia. But if we are failing them by not teaching them to write – and THINK – then how will they help themselves let alone the people we imprison because neither we nor they have anything better to do?

Offender-in-Chief Arnold Schwarzenneger speaking at California Institution for Men at Chino. Left is CDCR Secratary Matthew Cate. Right is Aref Fakhoury, acting warden.

Offender-in-Chief Arnold Schwarzenneger speaking at California Institution for Men at Chino. Left is CDCR Secratary Matthew Cate. Right is Aref Fakhoury, acting warden.

If I asked how Arnold Schwarzenneger, generally acknowledged to be the governor of California, and Phil Spector, currently convicted murderer in prison, were alike, you’d probably say they both come from the pop culture entertainment industry. Schwarzenneger made movies. Spector made music. And you would be correct. But today they are also people in denial sending messages from prison.

The Los Angeles Times shows Schwarzenneger standing in a riot-torn dormitory at California Institution for Men at Chino. He is quoted as blaming it all on “politicians in Sacramento,” apparently hoping we don’t notice he is a politician in Sacramento. I was glad to see the newspaper point out the misleading aspect of his statement. It went down like this:

Schwarzenneger says: “We have one of the highest rates of recidivism in the nation….The politicians in Sacramento have swept the problem under the rug for so long. California is quite literally losing control of our prisons.”

The newspaper immediately pointed out: “Schwarzenegger has failed to bring the prison system under control since his election almost six years ago, despite pledging to do so. A federal judge seized control of inmate medical care on his watch. The governor reorganized the corrections agency to emphasize rehabilitation, but recently suggested gutting rehab programs to save money.”

Speaking from California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran, Spector, in a letter to “friend and music journalist Steve Escobar,” is quoted as wanting “… to get a better prison with people more like myself in it … instead of all these lowlife scumbags, gangsters and Manson types.”

While the messages from both men may sound different, they look the same to me. Behavioral psychologists, I believe, would suggest both men were in denial about their current situations. Spector is now a convicted murderer. He is now considered by society to be a lowlife scumbag. On a much larger scale, Schwarzenneger denies responsibility for the riot at Chino specifically and the odious prison mess generally.

Spector is exhibiting the typical early adjustment period of imprisonment. He denies his guilt, and therefore he denies that he belongs in a place with people who are guilty just like him. Accepting your place in the prison system can take years, and for Spector, a man accustomed to wealth and unusual autonomy over many years, he may never reach a point of acceptance. I give him a pass on his statements.

Schwarzenneger, on the other hand, deserves no such pass. He has been given the prestige and power of the highest office in the most powerful state in this nation. Yet he is not a big enough man to admit his own failure. Spector profoundly affected many lives; he caused much emotional trauma and pain. Schwarzenneger continues to cause pain to millions; inmates die, officers die and are injured, children grow up with no possibility of connection to fathers and mothers, the citizens of California are uncertain about the viability of their own government and the very laws that support it.

It’s okay with me if Phil Spector is in denial. It’s not okay with me when the governor of this state is in denial.

fa_keyPrison used to be for criminals, at least in California. But now we are all imprisoned, every citizen, every adult and child, every politician, every clergyman, every police officer, every teacher. No less than the most heinous criminal in Pelican Bay state prison or San Quentin or Chino, we are all in prison. Over the past 30 years we have created a society that imprisons and supervises far more citizens than we can afford.

Up until the mid-1970s the California prison population had been statistically stable throughout its history. In 1975, there were around 25,000 inmates in our prisons, and the state population was 21 million people thereabouts. If my math is correct, we imprisoned just over one-tenth of one percent of our population, or one per one-thousand citizens. Today, we have around 170,000 inmates in our prisons, and the state population is edging toward 38 million. So today we are putting nearly five-tenths of one percent, or five people per thousand in prison. In simple economic terms the free citizens today are paying to support five times as many prisoner citizens  as we did in 1975.

The California state budget in the 1975-76 fiscal year was $11.5 billion — just over the dollar number now consumed by the state prison system alone. (Obviously, that’s 1975 dollars versus 2009 dollars.) The prison budget in the 1975-76 fiscal year was about  $370 million or 3.2% of the total state budget.  The newly created California state budget for 2009-10 is somewhere around $140 billion, depending on who is interpreting the numbers and how. The prison allocation of that total is around $10 billion. This year, the prisons use over 7% of the total state budget — more than twice what was being used in 1975.

Finding a way to spend less on prisons is a key to one of the doors that gets us out of prison. But we can’t get any closer to that key than a prison inmate can get to the keys that open the doors keeping him from freedom. Having fewer inmates in the prisons seems like the simplest way to go. Politician of all stripe, some wearing suits, others wearing badges, scare the bejesus out of us with dire warnings of our neighborhoods overrun by violent rapists, murderers, muggers and armed robbers. So we quake in fear and say we surely don’t want that. Then a few other political voices get together and say the people who staff and run the prisons are wildly overpaid and we can cut the prison budget there. Opposition to that quickly wells up on all sides, and there is no political will for entering that arena. When we compare California prison costs to other states it seems out of line. Average annual cost to support a California prison inmate is somewhere near $40,000. Over in Alabama, they get by on $13,000 per inmate. Why is that, we wonder, and satisfactory explanations usually get bogged down in thick detail, and soon we lose interest. So our finances seem to be the biggest lock in the biggest steel door holding us in prison. But that’s not all that stands between us and freedom.

The federal government says we do such a poor job operating prisons here in California, they have taken away our right to do so in a couple of areas. So many inmates die needlessly in our prisons (one every week), the feds say, that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Medical care, the feds tell us, is so bad they have to take it over and tell us how to do it. And part of doing that threatens to add billions of dollars more to our prison costs. Coming up with that kind of money just tightens the bonds of our own incarceration. Adding a little razor wire to the already electrified fences is a federal government order to reduce the total prison population by around 25%. So, not only are we trapped in our own prisons, but it feels as if the guards don’t really like us.

As citizens here in California who pay the bills for prisons, we are actually worse off than most of the prisoners whose freedom we take away. Almost all inmates can look forward to a day when they will leave the prison and taste something of freedom. Most have release dates, and well over 100,000 are released every year. On the other hand, those of us who pay the bills, and would appear to be free, can look forward to no date when our burden is removed, no time when we can reclaim the percentage of freedom we had as recently as 1975. Hope, it seems is denied us.

In the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, the Andy Dufresne inmate character writes to the ‘Red’ Redding inmate character, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” If that’s true, the prisons of California and their policies and politics have robbed the citizens of hope, and that is truly a bad thing.

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