Two Inmates' Views on California's Prison Overcrowding Crisis

Two Inmates' Views on California's Prison Overcrowding Crisis

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Editor's Note: This January, a panel of three federal judges ruled the State of California must reduce its prison population by up to 40,000 inmates, bringing it to 137.5 percent of its designated capacity (which, at 160,000 inmates, is currently at 200 percent of capacity). The order grew out of lawsuits alleging inadequate medical and mental health care in California’s prisons, primarily the result of overcrowding, which had brought the state prison under court receivership.

The court, however, stayed its order until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the appeal filed by the Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger administration, which will not likely be decided before the end of this year. In the meantime, the state has put forth its own plan, which would increase prison capacity, divert some prisoners to county jails, reduce some parole revocations, and grant certain prisoners additional credits toward early release.

Below, two of those prisoners respond to the proposals of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and to the conditions they face on a daily basis. Both are serving long prison sentences in Salinas Valley State Prison (Soledad). They represent opposite ends of the age spectrum.

What Will Not Work
Michael Cabral

I once heard that there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong” — that there is only “that which works” and “that which does not work.” At the time I was presented with this philosophy, I immediately discarded it as a simple cop-out, as a way of justifying one’s disregard for consequences as long as something desirable comes from it. That was, however, before the great state of California decided that the safest, most effective solution to its grossly over-crowded prison system problem was to dump thousands of neglected, uneducated, untrained prisoners back into society, the same (if not more) bitter men they were, with the same personal and social issues they had when they came to prison in the first place. Now, I understand that action, right or wrong, is necessary, especially in the name of that which works. The only question to ask is: “What works?”

There has been much public outcry over the state’s plans to grant early releases to certain non-violent prisoners, and rightly so. But I’m not sure that people opposed to this plan are outraged at the right things, or for the right reasons. For as detrimental to public safety as such releases are potentially, making inmates serve out their entire sentences — given no rehabilitation programs — only delays the inevitable. And that should make people mad. Just like it makes mad those of us on this side of the walls.

I have been in prison for seven years now, and in that time, yes, I have met some of the meanest, nastiest, most cold-hearted human beings. But for the most part, I have met men who hate where they’ve ended up; who actually want better (for themselves, their families, and even their communities); who are embarrassed and frustrated with themselves — and starving for that which works. Yet, over the past year alone, we have seen many excellent rehabilitative programs with proven results, such as various vocational training courses, college programs, a number of self-help and substance abuse programs, and even, for a while, GED classes, all disappear. What’s worse is that the very programs being eliminated are the same ones that the public believes inmates are required to complete before being released early, when actually, the only inmates for whom rehabilitation is a requirement before being released at all, are those of us who likely will never be granted parole.

When I asked Ben, a thirty-year-old fellow prisoner serving nineteen years, eight months, what he thought about the early release program, he summed it up as accurately as I’ve ever heard, and in two simple words: “It’s bullshit!”

A little deeper into our conversation, Ben also made the observation that if any inmates really are required to complete rehabilitative programs, or even given access to such programs, it must only be those inmates in Level 1 or Level 2 prisons who have been deemed “low risk” by the CDCR. Meanwhile, Level 3 and 4 (the highest security level) prisoners, who have committed the most serious offenses, or committed offenses more regularly, proving the greatest need for rehabilitation, are consistently being denied the necessary tools (e.g. anger management, substance abuse treatment, job training programs) to build even a chance at becoming successful, contributing members of society.

Against popular belief, most of us incarcerated people actually want to be better and make things better. We have the heart and we have the desire. What we are lacking, however, is support. Which is perplexing to me. Because whether anybody likes it, whether it is “early” or according to schedule, we will be on your streets again. And once there, we will either know how to succeed, or how to get ourselves back to prison. Whichever works for you.

Magicians, Creating an Illusion of Change
by Dwight Abbott

The three judges who stayed their order to reduce the state’s prison population , I believe to be naïve, or possibly tired and becoming fatalistic. Schwarzenegger has absolutely no intention of complying, only delaying. Before the Supreme Court considers the state’s appeal, he and his bunch will be long gone, and another administration will begin the process anew — using our system of “justice” to grant a seek a postponement until California’s new ruler has had time to “study the proposal,” and in turn, begin submitting his discourse, and “revised plan.”

It has now been nearly fourteen years since this fiasco began, fourteen years of evasive legal maneuvering. All the while, inmates continue to die unnecessarily, the direct consequence of the overcrowding that perpetrates violent confrontation and overworked doctors, unable to provide reasonable, basic medical care.

The facts today are now known by anyone who reads the newspaper; California’s Corrections Administration has always known them. Yet, it took a federal takeover to squeeze out an admission that “there are problems.” This from the same people who immediately after, refused to comply with demands to repair what is broken. All the while, both sides — the courts who have the authority to force the reform, and the state officials not wanting it to — appear to have forgotten the inmates who are continuing to die unnecessarily because of the inhumane conditions being wrangled over… Collateral damage.

End overcrowding? End warehousing and abusing incarcerated juveniles? Compel California to act on previous court orders issued through the years? The Administration has no fear of the courts, with good reason. No person calling the shots in this matter has yet to be charged (much less jailed) for being in contempt of a court mandate after refusing to comply. Until that changes, the children will not be “rehabilitated.” They will not be allowed an education (locked inside a 4’x4’ screened cage five hours a day), participate in therapy, or to partake in vocational training, watched over by an independent watchdog group assuring what is supposed to be happening. The 90% recidivism rate among juvenile offenders will not change. They are fodder to fill the state’s bloated adult prisons.

What programs could be brought to life to change this dismal, unending record of failure? In the long run, only a return to indeterminate sentencing, with built-in incentives (like early release) for prisoners to participate can work to reduce a cycle that no one seems able or willing to break. If prisoners knew that immersing themselves in programs that teach them to read, to address their addictions, to learn violence reduction strategies, to have access to vocational training that actually prepares a prisoner for meaningful employment, you would see a dramatic decline in the worst aspects of prison life, and a dramatic increase in legal and productive behavior when they hit the streets, as almost all will.

What to do right now about overcrowding? Admit parole is a fake! Under California’s sentencing guidelines, those today being paroled have, in reality, completed their sentence. The problem lies with the courts adding on years of parole, to be served after a sentence is completed. Implemented, perhaps, with the best of intentions, in truth, parole only serves a huge number of men and women employed by the state as Parole Officers at a cost of over a billion dollars annually. They in turn guarantee the CDCR its prisons remain overcrowded with “technical parole violators,” which then guarantees prison guards (whose annual salary ranges between $50,000 and $60,000) an opportunity to pad their checks with an additional $100,000+ of taxpayer’s money in overtime pay each year.

What should be obvious to anyone reading this: there is no need to release so much as one convict who has not yet completed his/her sentence. Instead, release those who have, and are presently among the 30,000 “technical” parole violators who, at any given time, languish in California’s overcrowded prisons for up to one year, trapped by a broken system which has recidivism rates of close to 70%, the highest in the United States.

If you want to know what you get for the $32,000 it costs to imprison these parole violators (a billion dollars annually), take a look, for example, at San Quentin’s South and West cellblocks where hundreds of men lie sweltering in bunks stacked three high out on the tiers, who must duck and dodge 24/7 the trash thrown from the four tiers above. They are among the 30,000 parole violators who should be released, and thus end — even if only temporarily — the overcrowding crisis, eliminating the need to release inmates who have not completed their sentences. Once prisoners have completed a prison sentence, they should remain in society, unless they commit a new crime.

Thus, having temporarily resolved the overcrowding problem, those truly interested in serious reform of this failed system will then have time to sit back, take a deep breath, and present a multitude of ideas that have worked in other states, without the necessity for short-term fixes demanded when the system is in crisis, and inmates are dying.

I cannot end without drawing on my five decades of experience in this system to add that whatever plan is given over to CDCR to improve conditions inside its prisons, will be abused. I have lived it. The CDCR is comprised of magicians, creating the illusion that it is a faithful steward of the people and their billions of tax dollars that allow them to operate. Their magic gives those who want to believe the illusion that its intentions are honorable. The truth is quite the opposite.

Dwight Abbott, the author of I Cried, You Didn’t Listen , is serving four life sentences at Salinas Valley State Prison, Soledad, California. Michael Cabral is in his sixth year of a 15-Life sentence at Salinas Valley State Prison, Soledad, California.