David Beck-Brown - Writer - Rebuilding the California Department of Corrections

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David Beck-Brown

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

Rebuilding the California Department of Corrections

By David Beck-Brown
April 18, 2004

Rebuild the California Department of Corrections. The determination it took to build the California prison system needs to be redirected towards developing behavior-modification and rehabilitation programs. The prison system has become a paramilitary operation offering little opportunities for rehabilitation.

California lags behind more enlightened places in the world, such as Scandinavia. Finland inherited the brutal prison system of the old Soviet Union. In the 1960s it had one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. However, by creating a mission of rehabilitation, Finland turned its recidivism rate around and presently has one of the lowest prison incarceration rates in the world.

An emphasis on prison programs, counseling and negotiations between the crime victims and the convict is now being practiced in Finland. Some victims of crime choose to negotiate an alternative to prison by agreeing that the convict becomes employed and send them money as restitution. All parties, including the victim, the convict and the state must be in agreement. These resolutions empower the participants of these agreements. Many convicts are still being sentenced to prison; however, they are now receiving meaningful counseling including substance abuse treatment.

Some criticism towards the Department of Corrections aired in legislation hearings is deserved, while some of it is not. The department does a good job incarcerating and housing inmates in a relatively safe environment. Abuses of power have taken place as it has in many respected organizations from faith based groups to the Red Cross. As the California Correctional Peace Officers Association often states, working in California prisons is the toughest beat in the state. Nine correctional officers are assaulted daily in the prisons. The expense of paying the salaries of these injured officers, along with their medical care, disability, workman’s compensation and rehabilitation, amounts to millions of dollars a year per California’s over thirty prisons.

What happens to prison inmates and staff affect all Californians. Prison hardens the attitudes of inmates. Being “tough on crime” by locking up inmates in tiny cells is not an effective way at reducing recidivism. It is comparable to a baby sitter attempting to improve the behavior of an unruly child by locking him in a dark box. In prison, a battle of wills takes place on a daily bases between inmates and prison staff. Inmates are able to make few choices. They are told when to eat, sleep, and exercise. The only real control they have is restricted to their thoughts and attitudes. It is their attitude towards authority and themselves that keeps them returning to prison, thereby contributing to the high rate of prison recidivism. After being confined for several years in an environment with little rehabilitation, they are released into the community worse off than when they were first incarcerated. This inhuman means of dealing with inmates needs to stop.

Attitude is the key to rehabilitation. For many youths, being sentenced to prison is viewed as a passage to manhood. Approximately 100,000 inmates, nearly two thirds of California’s nearly 160,000 inmate population, are members of organized crime or neighborhood gangs. These organizations have a profound affect on the attitudes of their members. Prison also influences inmate attitude. By being meaner and tougher on crime, we unknowingly perpetuate the myth that meanness is synonymous with manhood. This also needs to stop.

Provide youths with a passage to adulthood. As part of rebuilding the California prison system, we need to fully reinstate the historic Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). The original CCC of the 1930s Great Depression provided young adults with food, shelter and jobs. They worked on community and civic projects; learned new job skills and to work cooperatively. Today, our youth face greater social challenges than ever before. As with the passage to manhood, the camaraderie associated with gang membership was inherent within the CCC.

Investing in prison programs is an investment in the safety of our streets. In a prison system as massive as California’s, rebuilding the system will be an enormous undertaking. It may be as daunting as rebuilding the infrastructure of a heavily traveled freeway. However, in California we see this being done every day. At this time, we need to develop the will to change the mission of the CDC from one of detainment to one of rehabilitation. We no longer have the luxury to be meaner and tougher when fighting crime. We must be smarter and wiser when dealing with recidivism. Rebuilding the California Department of Corrections is our only hope of breaking the cycle of inmate recidivism.

 

Beck-Brown is prison-reform chair with the San Diego-based A New PATH (Parents For Addiction Treatment & Healing). PATH is a member organization of the Sacramento-based Coalition for Effective Public Safety.