Prison and Politics – Part III

The success of any criminal justice initiative is judged on outcome. You and I think in terms of safer communities and prisons. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Policies, programs and sentencing strategies all woven together to reduce crime and allow for safe prison operations. The problem with this idea is that politicians aren’t normal folk, and they define a successful program outcome on dollars saved.

Now, don’t take this the wrong way, I’m all for controlling runaway government spending. Saving a buck at the expense of public safety however, is not smart spending. When prisoners are released from prison prematurely, or left unsupervised in the community, the politicians claim victory for a fiscal savings. In reality, those saved tax dollars are plowed back into the criminal justice system for the prosecution of new crimes committed by these released criminals and in assistance to their new victims. A few dollars saved this fiscal year, only to be deposited in the prison piggy bank next year is a false and shallow victory.

image by takomabiblot via flickr creative commons

image by takomabiblot via flickr creative commons

In California, Federal Court orders mandated a population reduction, a reduction aimed at the system’s ability to provide a constitutional level of heath care services to the incarcerated. In other words, if you can’t staff and improve the medical programs to manage the prison population, the court ordered the population reduced.  You don’t have to treat them if they aren’t incarcerated. The court wasn’t concerned where all these sick newly unincarcerated men and women were going to find medical care in the community.

Beyond the impact of community health care, when over a span of a few years, the prison population is cut from 172,563 (Aug. 2005) to 125,840 (Aug. 2015), you have to wonder where else the impact is being felt. These felons didn’t magically become good citizens by court order. New crimes are committed and local county jails are running at near capacity. Parole supervision has been reduced from 128,840 (Aug. 2007) to 44,892 (Aug. 2015). The politicians claim a win because the prison and parole population are lower, saving taxpayer dollars. Are they? Or is the spending being pushed somewhere else on the financial ledger? Time will tell.

image via

image via

What everyone seems to agree upon is that the system doesn’t do enough to prepare inmates for release. And guess what folks? Except for those who will never be released from behind the walls, they are coming home. Home is perhaps down the street from you. What is the system doing to make that newly released felon less of a public safety risk for you?

There are a few programs and strategies, proven to reduce crime and prepare inmates for reentry. While working in the system, I saw dozens of programs come and go, everything from religion, to acupuncture, from basic education to bootcamp. Even yoga. Yoga’s probably great and will make for a burglar who can effortlessly strike a downward dog pose, but don’t we need something that will prepare them for life on the outside?

From my experience, two lines of offender programs offer improved safety inside for correctional staff and inmates as well as better public safety in the community. Intensive drug treatment and relevant vocational training.

Drug treatment sounds easy – just say no. Simple programs based on abstinence and shame don’t cut it. By the time these offenders make it to prison, they have pretty extensive drug and criminal histories and need a program with intensity and duration to impact their way of thinking. A 28 day rehab program won’t make a dent in a established pattern of behavior. A long term, 9 to 12 months of treatment in a therapeutic community modeled program, where they live and participate in a program 24 hours a day, seven days a week, does impact drug offenders. Successful programs use credible contract staff to provide these programs. Credible means the organization has provided service to this hard to reach population, and may include staff members with a prior criminal background. Such programs are not without risk of contract employees bringing contraband inside the prison, but carefully monitored in-prison programs deal with long term drug issues and also see reduced levels of violence in the yards where these programs operate.

Continuity is the key. The in-prison programs must maintain the level of treatment post release, in a community setting. You can’t simply shotgun the participants into any community based program. The programs must be consistent with, and offer a continuation of the treatment experienced on the inside. The community treatment must combine with intensive parole supervision. The experienced parole agents who do this work are sensitive to behavioral cues of drug relapse and can intervene before the parolee returns to a drug and crime cycle. The threat of a return to prison is a powerful motivator.

Vocational training provides meaningful skills the inmate can use after release. This isn’t your grandfather’s vocational training. For decades, the system pumped out laborers, license plate stampers and landscapers, with very little hope of obtaining a self sustained lifestyle upon parole. We are seeing a change in approach, with focused training on new skills and abilities that are in demand in the labor market. Inmates in California’s Prison Industry Authority – Inmate Employability Program are being released with marketable skills, in computer coding, as optical technicians, skills in the construction trades, electrical repair and other trades. Some of the programs report a low recidivism rate of 9 percent.

Participation in programs like drug treatment at vocational training won’t be the right fit for every inmate. There is a segment of the population, who have such a commitment to violence and gang activity that they will never adjust to society without a threat to public safety, our safety. There is no incentive for these malcontents to change their behavior, as the law says they will be released when their sentence has been served, no matter the disruptive and violent potential they prose to the community. Perhaps, we need to think about bringing back the indeterminate sentence in California, where inmates weren’t released back to society until they had earned it.

5 Bldg. Folsom Prison from the Folsom Prison Museum

5 Bldg. Folsom Prison from the Folsom Prison Museum

For successful programs, or a change in sentence structure, a fiscal investment may be necessary. That is what is needed to change the cycle of crime incarceration, not some political decision to open the gates to save a buck. Aren’t we, as citizens worth the investment?


  1. I like your idea of prisoners earning their release. I hope it goes viral.

    1. There is very little incentive for good behavior under the current system. Eventually, no matter how much of a turd you’ve been, you will be released. If the inmate actually has to earn a parole date, it might just put the incentive back in place. Thanks for listening, Jan!

  2. Barbara Lauinger · · Reply

    Jim, this has been a real eye opener piece of writing. I, as a sheltered retiree housewife, had no idea of the reality of prison life. I’m so glad you are retired from there, and are doing so well in your new life. Keep up the good writings.

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