Archive for August, 2009

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?


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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.

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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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