Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Parole: An Overview, and a Personal Story

As prison population grows, the parolee population grows too. A series of pieces on the North County Times has recently highlighted the experiences of parolees and the challenges of parole agents.

One of these articles discusses the impact of a constantly growing parolee population on the ability of parole officers to supervise - and rehabilitate - their clients successfully:

This is California's parole system, an overworked, underfunded system that is ill-equipped to deal with a crushing caseload of former prisoners who leave prison with a meager $200 allowance to feed, clothe and house themselves.

It's a caseload that stands to get much worse if a panel of federal judges conducting a trial in San Francisco to address overcrowding orders the early release of nearly 40,000 men and women now behind bars to ease prison overcrowding.

"California's parole population is now so large and its parole agents so overburdened that parolees who represent a serious public safety threat are not watched closely and those who wish to go straight cannot get the help they need," said a federally funded report released last month by three experts on the criminal justice system.

Interestingly, the article sees imprisonment and parole as inversely impacting each other. Naturally, the ecology of imprisonment, release, and reimprisonment, is something that merits attention; but is the problem really the growing rate of release, and if so, is the solution for parole officers' caseload simply to release less people? Curious to hear your thoughts.

Another piece recounts the optimistic story of George Loving, a parolee who managed a group home in Vista. Among other things, he says:

"I didn't think I was ever gonna change. I was either gonna die on the streets or die in prison. I didn't grow up with a whole lot of schooling, so I basically only knew one thing: how to steal. I really didn't know nothing else.

"You know, the (parole) department can make all the changes they want, but if you're not ready to change, it really doesn't matter. And then a lot of us don't be ready to change. And when you basically been spending your life out and in, out and in, you don't have no education and all that, you only really know that one way. A lot of people, you get my age and you don't wanna be talking about going back to school and all that. So you just, like, feel hopeless, like maybe this is all I will ever do.

"And then I took a few programs in prison. After sitting there and listening to people tell their stories, I'd sit back and be thinking, 'Damn, I did some (stuff) like that,' and 'Damn, am I that (messed) up and don't know about it?' The programs have a lot to do with me wanting to change, because I thought that there was nothing wrong with me. But there was a whole lot wrong with me.

"It just clicked. I was tired. I was tired, I was getting older, my kids was getting bigger. I just got tired. I been doing this since I was 11.

"This job (at a sheet metal company) don't pay a whole lot of money, but it beats 10 cents an hour or whatever I was getting in prison.

"I just feel good where I'm out now. Sometimes I think about what took me so long to realize that it's actually not hard to do that right thing. You know, and I really don't even get all them old thoughts of doing this and doing that no more, you know. Life has just been good. Just living it the best I can."

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Fiscal Meaning of Prison Explosion

Sunday's editorial in the Sacramento Bee provided a critical take on the impact of prison overcrowding on state expenditures. The emphasis is particular on the aging prison population and the costs associated with medical care.

Those in prison aren't eligible for Medicare, the federal health program for the nation's elderly. Nor are they eligible for Medi-Cal, the health program for the poor in which costs are shared between the state and the federal government. So the entire cost of health care for older, sick prisoners falls on the state.

All of this is now in the federal courts because the state has refused to create alternatives for dealing with feeble, chronically ill prisoners to reduce prison population – or to pay for building facilities to house these prisoners.

One court is examining whether to cap prison population. Another is looking at whether to force the state to pay for seven 1,500-bed facilities. Both courts could make decisions as early as January.

However, a recent empirical study by John Pfaff from Fordham University suggests that prison overcrowding seems to stem more from masses of parole violators being returned to prison for short periods of time, than from people "housed" in correctional institutions for a lengthy period of time. How much of those sentences translate to more prison expenses remains unclear. I strongly recommend reading the full article; beyond the important implications, the study is beautifully done and is a great example of good quality empirical scholarship.

(The Sac Bee piece brought to my attention via the fabulous Sentencing Law and Policy blog. Thanks!)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Women Defenders Fall Seminar on Prisons

For those interested, here's the program for this coming Saturday's Women Defenders Fall Seminar, which will focus on prisons. It seems a great program.

And, while we're at it, do not forget to save the date for our upcoming California Corrections Crisis Conference at UC Hastings, on March 19-20. More details will be posted to the blog very soon.

Court of Appeal Strikes Down Voter-Approved Restrictions on Released Sex Offenders

(image from Megan's Law website)

As many readers may know, many states have implemented laws that meticulously regulate the lives of released sex offenders after imprisonment. These restrictions often include a requirement to register on a sex offender database, which can be searched online, and a requirement to notify the community about a paroled sex offender who has moved in. In addition, some states impose residence restrictions on sex offenders.

In 2006, CA voters approved Prop 83 ("Jessica's Law"), which included a series of such restrictions. Yesterday, the 4th District Court of Appeal found the residence restrictions to be unconstitutional. Per Prop 83, sex offenders were prohibited from living within 2,000 feet of a school or a park; the court, according to the Chronicle, has ruled that Prop 83 is "banishment by another name".

This ruling is quite interesting, because, as the good folks blogging on the Criminal Appeal blog astutely observe, CA district courts have interpreted other pieces of sex offender related legislation in deference to, and consideration of, the perceived voters' wishes. For example, the court has interpreted a discrepancy between laws regarding the two-year-commitment of sexually violent predators in favor of the voters' perceived wishes. It seems, though, that the residency requirements in particular were more controversial and more "ripe for constitutional attack", as per the other team of good folks blogging on CrimProf Blog.

To get a sense of the extent of the limitations, I recommend you click on the Family Watchdog link, which will provide you with a map of registered sex offenders in your area, as well as information on each and every one of the registered sex offenders. As you'll see in the maps, which include school locations, residence restrictions might rule out many areas for living, including much of San Francisco.

The Chronicle reports that the 4th District Court ruling will not change the situation for new offenders, but will only impact limitations imposed on people whose crimes were committed prior to Prop 83's passage.

A couple of other interesting things regarding sex offender registration, which probably would merit posts of their own: The UC Irvine Center for Evidence-Based Corrections' report on the implementation of GPS tracking of sex offenders, and a fascinating study by J.J. Prescott and Jonah E. Rockoff, which finds that notification and registration laws might have a much different effect on reoffending than lawmakers intended.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bogeymen? The CDCR's "Operation Boo"

This story comes in a bit too late for Halloween, but I think it merits some reflection. The CDCR parole department conducted a special operation on Halloween, called "Operation Boo".

The plan, according to the CDCR, was for parole officers to make sure all sex offenders spend Halloween with their lights out and their doors locked. The reason, according to Tom Hoffman, CDCR Director of Parole, is to "ensure kids are free to have fun without added worries about potential predators and that communities are safe from potential contacts with sex offenders".

I should probably mention that CA is not the only state to have taken such measures. ABC news report similar measures taken in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, where parole departments sometimes even require all sex offenders to be present for a special counseling program on Halloween night to make sure they are not on the street. Here's another interesting report from Rochester.

Given the recent emphasis on creating fact-based parole proceedings, one would expect some factual basis for these broad operations; I have searched the internet for statistics on sex offenses related to Halloween trick-or-treating and have yet to find one such incident. In fact, the only isolated violent Halloween incident I managed to find from recent years was this tragedy in South Carolina, which had nothing whatsoever to do with sex offenders (note, though, the fact that the shooter is described as an ex-felon in the headline).

Moreover, and contrary to public opinion, sex offender recidivism is actually quite low. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports a 5.3% recidivism rate, and that statistic does not distinguish between child abuse and such things as public exposure or statutory rape. Also, as Chrysanthi Leon, from University of Delaware, has found, punitive measures against sex offenders in California have risen with no connection to actual sex offense rates.

Parental concern on Halloween, while not entirely justified by the facts, is nevertheless understandable. But there is something else at operation here. Halloween is by nature a holiday that makes the veil between our daily lives and their dark side particularly thin. Its Pagan origins can be traced to seasonal memorials of the dead, both in Celtic culture and, as we know, in the widely observed Latin American Dia de los Muertos. As such, it has always been a magnet for dark myths, such as the infamous poisoned candy myths. As the Chicago Tribune explains, these stem from a very small number of incidents, which were, for the most part, committed by relatives of the children. Incidentally, this is similar to the heightened concern about sexual assaults committed by strangers, when most rapes are in fact committed by a person known to the victim.

So, the Halloween policies regarding sex offenders could be the combined product of two powerful cultural narratives: the Halloween mythology and our communities' fears and concerns about sex offenses, which have not followed factual evidence, but which cannot be discounted. Fear of crime is a very real phenomenon, and in recent years has proven to be a very powerful narrative driving policies that extend much beyond law enforcement. For more on that, I strongly recommend Jonathan Simon's recent, and excellent, Governing Through Crime, and his fabulous blog.

It is, of course, also difficult to discount the trauma and horrors of victimization. For those looking for a more emotional - possibly even visceral - understanding of the complexities of these multi-sided dynamics, I've recently seen the magnificent, and masterfully acted, 2006 movie Little Children, based on Tom Perrotta's excellent book, which provides some frameworks for understanding the multiple perspectives on sex offender release. My intention in this post is not to argue that these horrors do not exist; I would, however, like us to be more aware of the power of cultural myth and of the differences between facts and fear.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

CJC Update: The Aftermath of Prop L's Failure


One of the less reported developments following the elections was the failure of Prop L, which aimed to provide more financial support to the Community Justice Center. As reported this morning, Opponents of the new court, led by Supervisor Chris Daly, are gathering some momentum, encouraged by Prop L's failure. Others, however, point to the broad consensus behind a court that aims to solve social problems in the Tenderloin, and to the flaws in the opponents' position. The CJC is still scheduled to open in February; stay tuned.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fixing the Prison Medical System: More Hurdles?

The Chron reported yesterday that Governor Schwarzenegger won a reprieve from the 9th Circuit Court, after failing to come up with the money required for fixing the medical system.

As some may recall, last month Clark Kelso, the receiver appointed by Henderson to fix the prison's broken health system, filed this motion against the Governor, arguing that the State's financial crisis could not be used as an excuse not to turn in the 8 billion dollars required for the plan. Judge Thelton Henderson stopped short of finding the Governor in contempt for refusing to turn in the money.

As the Chron reports, after a break in the proceedings before the 9th Circuit, which granted the stay, Kelso expressed more willingness to work with the Governor to find a solution.

Incidentally, while the paper suggests that part of the problem is the secretive nature of Kelso's plan, there are actually abundant materials about it readily online. Kelso's full reports on the plan, his projects (such as the prison pharmacy project and the construction projects), are all on the California Prison Health Care Services website.

So, is Kelso running a "parallel government", or should the government cooperate with the plan and produce the necessary funds? You be the judges of that.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The “Othering” of Crime: A Call for Empathy in Corrections Policies

In his 2001 book The Culture of Control, David Garland tries to make sense of the many contradictions in current criminal justice policy. As part of his “history of the present”, he argues that we seem to have somewhat of a split personality, believing simultaneously in two narratives: the “criminologies of the self” and the “criminologies of the other”. On one hand, we buy into a narrative that tells us that crime is a phenomenon that affects “others” – the underclass, minorities, drug fiends – and on the other hand, we are very involved in situational crime prevention and avoidance, crafting preventive strategies based on the premise that criminals are “just like us”, that is, rational, free agents, who need to be correctly incentivized in order for deterrence to work.

I have been reflecting on Garland’s analysis for a long time, and today it spoke volumes to me, when I tried to make sense of some of the great contradictions of the latest election results; on one hand, a presidential choice that promises a dramatic paradigm change, and on the other hand, the passage of Prop 8, the passage of Prop 9, and the rejection of Prop 5. What really drove things home for me was not just Garland’s terminology, but also reading these powerful words on this very blog this morning:

I was always under the impression that prison was something that happened to other people. Bad people, that did bad things; not people like me. When members of our social milieu had problems with the law, it was almost always of the sort that could be dealt with via payments and, when someone did on occasion end up in jail, it was only spoken of by adults in hushed tones and treated as some sort of mistake or aberration. All the way through my early twenties, even once I should have known better, prison just seemed like somebody else's problem.

This is exactly what we have done in passing Prop 9 and, by doing so, keeping the “others” in prisons for longer, and making it more difficult for them, representation-wise, to leave. And this is exactly what we have done in defeating Prop 5 and, by doing so, extinguishing the flame of hope and possibility, in the form of drug treatment, for “others”. We would not have done so had we not been trained to think of criminals, drug dealers, drug fiends, corner loiterers, as “others”. We would not have done so had we had some empathy. We would not have done so had we felt that we are all in this mess together.

In many ways – and this may be surprising for some – I have come to see the rejection of Prop 5 and the passage of Prop 9 as the product of the same sort of social disconnect that produced the passage of Prop 8. Granted, Prop 8 is mostly a product of religious zealotry, while Prop 9 is more a product of fear; but both religion and fear have acted in this election as convenient vehicles for lack of empathy, and of separation from others. Indeed, the shared philosophy seems to be that others’ plight does not affect “us”, except in a way that harms us; that the only way to appropriate some of our limited resources is at the expense of someone else; that if the “other” is granted a right, or a window of hope, I am consequently deprived of something meaningful. That regardless of fact and empirical evidence, if the “other” leaves one of California’s correctional facilities, I and the likes of me are put in danger. That if the “other” gets drug relief unaccompanied by a conviction and imprisonment, I and the likes of me lose resources. And, yes, that if the “other” gets married, my marriage becomes less stable, and my children are at peril.

My concern is that, in our worry and our fear about the dangers of the “other”, we have created an impermeable and false boundary between “us” and “them”, whoever we take “them” to be. And it speaks volumes about the sense of alienation and partisanship that many have felt for a long time.

In his presidential acceptance speech, Barack Obama said:

To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn -- I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too.

Let us hope that this sort of empathy, which transcends political, economic and religious boundaries, will reflect itself in how we treat one another and in our willingness to hear each other’s voices in the years to come. Let us hope that we will not be deaf to the plight of addicts - even when they fall off the wagon once, and perhaps even twice - as well as to the no less real plight of victims; to the happiness and support of families of all kinds and sorts; to the converted, overcrowded gym at San Quentin as we sleep in our comfortable beds. Let us hope that we can open our eyes, ears, and hearts, to acknowledge that, really, there is no “other”. Can we?

New Parole Violation Approach

In early October, CDCR announced that it was "moving forward with a new evidence-based system for dealing with parole violations." The new model is designed to rationalize CDCR's use of prison as a punishment for parole violations, by focusing "custody resources on higher risk offenders while targeting less serious offenders with proven treatment programs that seek to address the root of their problems."

This sounds like an important development and certainly one worth monitoring. If anything needs rationalization, it's California's broken parole system.

For more information on the new parole instrument, see:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Personal Perspective

Growing up in rural Northern California, in a middle to upper-middle class white household, I was always under the impression that prison was something that happened to other people. Bad people, that did bad things; not people like me. When members of our social milieu had problems with the law, it was almost always of the sort that could be dealt with via payments and, when someone did on occasion end up in jail, it was only spoken of by adults in hushed tones and treated as some sort of mistake or aberration. All the way through my early twenties, even once I should have known better, prison just seemed like somebody else's problem.

I mention all of this because I believe that my experience isn't an uncommon one. Our prisons aren't filled with people from privileged middle-class backgrounds, so many of us come of age never having known someone who has spent time in prison. Without that first-hand knowledge, it's only too easy to forget that the people in prison are real people too, with hopes, dreams, fears, and so on. I imagine that anyone who has taken the time to find this site and read our entries is already aware, at least on some level, of all that I've said. I mention it not to inform you, but to remind you- many people aren't concerned about the problems in our prison system, or aren't interested in prisoners' rights, not because they're cruel but because they're uninformed. Not because they're callous but because they don't understand what's really happening.

When I met John*, I simply knew that he was a friend of a friend, that he was decent looking, and that he was interested in me. It was only after we had gone out on several dates that I learned that he was also an ex-convict, recently off parole. He had been in San Quentin not once, but two or three times, for both violent and non-violent offenses, for several years at a time. He had two strikes and was paranoid about going back to prison- afraid he'd get a third strike and be stuck there for the rest of his life.

John was a troubled man in many ways: a rough childhood, followed by a stint in the military that had left scars both physical and psychological, hadn't given him much of a foundation to build on. My friends and family thought I was crazy to keep dating him once I learned all of this but for one reason or another, I did. The really sad thing for me was that it was clear to anyone who cared to look that John was a smart guy with a good heart. Even his violent crimes had been the result of caring too much and not knowing how else to protect someone he cared about. He was also sporadically homeless, unemployed, and prone to outbursts of verbal rage. I thought that maybe if he had some help from someone who cared, he could make a better life for himself. I thought maybe I could be that person.

While we were dating, I was never sure how much I could ask him about what prison was like. I realized then that I really had no idea what life in prison was like. Sure, I'd seen television shows and movies set in prisons but never before had I known someone who had actually been inside and I thought this was my chance to finally know. Whenever I asked, though, he was evasive, shunting my questions aside or laughing them off. Finally, one day he just looked at me and told me that he really didn't want to talk about it. That it wasn't like I'd seen on tv, but that it was terrible and that he'd rather die than go back. I still remember the troubled look he had when he told me he didn't want me to see him that way; I think we both knew that wasn't really possible. One of the most defining experiences of his life was one that was so foreign to me that even in trying to understand, I offended.

In the end, I had to end the relationship. Not because he had been in prison, but because of what prison had done to him. At 34, he was a broken man. He had constant health problems, due in part to the years he had spent with inadequate medical attention, making him seem much older sometimes. Socially, on the other hand, he was stunted. I was the younger by a good ten years but when we went out in public, I was the one that ended up embarrassed by his inappropriate words and actions. When people tried to help him or be friendly, half the time he'd scare them off or drive them away with preemptive rudeness. All those years behind bars had taught him how to fight, but they hadn't taught him how to interact with people. He couldn't keep a job, or a housing situation, or even friends. At some point, he just gave up. I don't know whether it happened while he was in San Quentin, or when he got turned down for job after job because of his record; more likely it happened gradually, as the defeats accumulated and he decided there was nothing he could do to stem the tide. He decided that the system had given up on him, so he gave up on it.

These days I'm a little bit more educated regarding our prison system, a little bit more aware of its many flaws, but I still see men like John on the streets around Hastings every day and I wonder: how many of them have a similar story? How many of them started life with hope and decent prospects, made a few foolish decisions in their youth, and ended up so distrustful of our society, so broken by the system, that they too just gave up? The other day I saw John himself, walking down the street in the Tenderloin. He didn't see me, and I let him walk by without saying anything. I hate to be one more thing that failed him, but I'm only one woman and I realized years ago that the wounds he had were far beyond my lone ability to heal.

*For reasons of privacy, the name has been changed

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Greening of Prisons?

(image from Chronicle article)
The Chronicle reports today of an interesting trend in some prisons, albeit not in CA: greening, composting and recycling. In Indiana, North Carolina, and Oregon, prisons are installing solar panels, using energy-saving equipment, and composting food scraps.

While this is, in principle, a cost-saving measure, it has had some heartwarming "side effects." The Chron reports:

The responsibility of caring for the prison's three hives of Italian honey bees falls mostly to Daniel Travatte, 36, a soft-spoken former drug addict who is serving 10 years for attempted armed robbery.

Under the supervision of prison counselor Vicki Briggs, Travatte has learned to harvest honey - which inmates occasionally eat with breakfast biscuits - and use beeswax to make lotions. He's become an expert on their habits.

"I'm trying to change myself," said Travatte. "A lot of people go through prison with no intention of changing. I love working with the bees. It keeps me busy. I have a lot of responsibility to take care of."

While there isn't scientific evidence that such activities are helping inmates, Nalini Nadkarni, an environmental studies professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., notes anecdotal evidence that it's working.

"They were stimulating their minds and having conversations that were different than 'How much more time we have left?' " said Nadkarni.

While Cedar Creek went green out of economic necessity - it had to conserve because it didn't have the wastewater capacity to expand four years ago - it is now embracing other benefits, said Dan Pacholke, a state prison administrator who helped implement many of the practices.

What about CA, which has pioneered greening efforts in so many other arenas of public and private life?
(image from CDCR website)
Well, as per this press release from CDCR, a series of energy-saving projects, including solar plants, are beginning to be implemented in prisons. These seem to belong more in the cost-saving family of changes; no composting, not to mention no community gardens or beehives. One can only hope that someone at CDCR will see the broader perspective and involve the inmate community in greening efforts; something very good might come out of this, beyond saving money.