David Beck-Brown - Writer - Prison Reform is Not Happening

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David Beck-Brown

  Political Cartoon by David Beck-Brown
(Political Cartoon by David Beck-Brown)

Prison Reform is Not Happening

By David Beck-Brown
A New PATH newsletter October, 2006

Prison is prison. The inmate population is increasing and little is being done about it. It will take a mandate from the governor to reform the prison system.

The political pressure intended to reform the California correctional system has inadvertently galvanized it. Though well intended, our prisons have become little more than unproductive plantations and recruitment centers for street gangs. Genuine change requires political resolve from political leaders who are not intimated by unions.

California’s prison system must include basic and advance education as well as vocational education programs. Job training needs to be a priority for any prison reform to become a reality. A shift in attitude by correctional staff must take place. Inmates are incarcerated people in transition. Mandatory reenter programs to integrate inmates into the community must be coordinated with serious substance abuse programs.

Incarceration, job placement and group living facilities should be coordinated under the umbrella of corrections. Incarceration does not begin or end within a physical facility located in some remote area of the state; the failed prison system cohabitates in all our neighborhoods in every community.

Change is stressful and under stress, people tend to protect themselves. Correctional staff is feeling the stress of inmate overcrowding, working in a hostile atmosphere (under dangerous conditions) and the mounting political pressure to reform the system. The stress is compounded by the scrutiny of court ordered threats of federal receivership. High profile politicians and public hearings have put the prison system under a microscope. Every decision made by correction staff is watched and judged and has resulted in paralysis. No one wants to jeopardize their job by attempting something new and untested as “reformation”. Therefore, the old ways and decisions of doing things prevail.

California prisons are beyond maximum capacity with a current population of over 173,000 inmates and projected to reach 193,000 by 2011. This figure exceeds 300,000 when including people on parole. The effect of incarceration is no longer confined to a place but has been woven into the very social fabric of Californians. We now hear of elementary schools being placed on “lock down” status, a term once exclusive to prisons.

Tough on crime isn't serving us at all, but appearing soft on crime is a political death sentence. Supporting three-strike laws and sending non-violent substance abusers to life prison sentences is not the answer. One-strike laws are on the horizon with the introduction of Proposition 83, popularly known as Jessica’s law. It, along with three-strike legislation, will exacerbate prison overcrowding. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association is contributing to the stress of its union members by endorsing politicians supporting tough on crime laws adding to prison overcrowding.  

Inmates, under stress, violently act out.  What you hear from the media are the sensational riots.  What you do not hear are the everyday violent incidences and yard disturbances. For protection from violent thugs, young inmates will often join gangs and continue their gang affiliation once released from prison. Seventy percent of California prison convicts return to prison.  This is a far higher percentage than any other state. California’s prison system is a failure.  

Correctional officers also act out under stress. Over worked from long hours of overtime, correctional officers have been known to release stress by destroying inmate property during routine housing unit searches. The searches are justifiable and intended to locate drugs, make-shift knives, alcohol, cell phones and other contraband.  The environment is hostile by definition, however, the hostility goes both ways, and it is a self-feeding cycle.  Pouring creams and jells over inmate cloths, breaking precious personal objects, or drawing a mustache on an inmate’s pencil drawing is unconscionable. A portrait drawing may have taken an inmate hours to complete--hours to himself and away from trouble. Inmates are stressed after over-zealous housing searches and will once again act out. So, the cycle of violence continues much like the revolving door of prison recidivism.

A large segment of the inmate population is on medication. Though the numbers are confidential, a psychiatrist estimated that upwards to twenty percent of prison staff is also on medication for stress.

Positive changes are seldom made in a stressful environment. Stress does not encourage creative thinking or making decisions that are out of ones comfort zone. Under stress anything may be considered an escape device.

The political grandstanding on prison reform needs to stop. Reform is not in the foreseeable future. The jobs and careers of correctional staff are secure and the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association remains intact. Prison is prison and little has changed. Prison reform will require a mandate from the governor.

Beck-Brown is the Prison Reform chairman for A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing).