If Youíre Not Familiar with It, Donít Try to Fix It
By David Beck-Brown
A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) Newsletter
The California prison system is often blamed for the State’s problems. From outside the prison system, the solution may seem simple. However, from inside, it’s a different story. Even people working with criminals in the courts -- the attorneys, law enforcement personnel, public prosecutors, politicians and police officers -- may not fully understand the complexity of the prison system. Working daily with inmates gives one an idea of what works and doesn’t work on a systemic level. Some inmate programs may look discriminating or foolish from the outside. However, these programs were implemented for specific reasons and are often not understood by the public.
There may be a reason for the implementation of certain procedures. Why? Success. For example, a new law has the California prison system desegregating its inmate population. At this time, California inmates must select their race from one of four categories: White, Black, Mexican and Other. After the selection process, inmates are assigned to a two man prison cells with someone of their own race. It works.
However, the courts have reversed this procedure and race can no longer be considered a factor when assigning California inmates to a two man cell. Being in the trenches with inmates (literally shoulder-to-shoulder) and supervising them for many years, has provided me with a realistic perspective on what works within the prison walls. If one wants to truly know how many teeth are in a horse’s mouth then open the horse’s mouth and count the number of teeth.
Simple, no? Race takes care of race, inside. The courts didn’t ask the Black man what he thought. He lives, eats and exists in the trenches of the prison system. The courts made their desegregation decision based on a grievance filed by a Black inmate who said the policy of categorizing inmates by race was discriminatory. By the way, he was a gay, black inmate and wanted to share his intimate cell with his gay white lover. He won the case. Since the courts made their decision to desegregate the inmate population, the black inmates have taken care of business (as inmates do) and that gay black inmate is now in protective custody. That’s how it works in prison. The races take care of their own. If they didn’t, a race riot would erupt. Try to explain this to someone in the free world, looking from outside the prison system.
Another example of fixing something that didn’t need to be fixed was removing the weight piles from our prison yards. The inmates lifting weights weren’t the ones causing trouble or giving the guards a hard time. The weight lifters were much too preoccupied with sculpting their bodies to be involved in petty jail house crime. However, because of one felon committing a crime while on the streets, the entire program was shut down.
Yet another example of “fixing” something that didn’t need fixing was the decision to abruptly remove the Arts from prison programs. Hobby Crafts and Arts program for inmates opened a new world of experience to incarcerated individuals who were only familiar with crime and the criminal culture. The arts ARE the “R” in the word rehabilitation, a word which has been added to the name of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Offering inmates a new trade as in SB 618 does not rehabilitate them. Trade programs simply create convicts with new skills. Most convicts had jobs when they were arrested and some of these jobs were well-paying. Although providing new skills for inmates is part of the solution, the overlooked value in the Arts program is that it offers an avenue for inmates for inward reflection. Granted, new skills are part of the rehabilitation solution. However, documentation has shown that the Arts program is what truly contributes to rehabilitation and lowering of the recidivism.
But, that’s not what it looked like from the outside. Public perception sees prison Art programs as foolish, as it does the removal of weight piles and the policy of categorizing and segregating inmates by race. It doesn’t matter if these programs actually reduced violence, prison riots, the destruction of State property or assaults on inmates and staff alike. Before supporting legislation that may be counter productive to public safety, we need to familiarize ourselves with the prison system and its complexity. One should consult with people working and living in the trenches of the prison system on a daily bases to get a better idea of what is truly effective within the inmate population.
David Beck-Brown is the Prison Reform chair with A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) and has worked with incarcerated convicts since 1977.