California’s prisons need a greater culture of rehabilitation

Inmates in the exercise yard at San Quentin Prison. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

California spends over $12 billion on its prison system each year. Given that stunning investment of public dollars, the residents of California deserve to understand the actual impact of incarceration: Does it create public safety and rehabilitate those who are incarcerated under its care?

Until recently, rehabilitation was not a central part of the mission of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the rehabilitative programs that did exist were mostly available at lower security prisons.

The proportion of the total budget devoted to rehabilitation has actually dropped from 2.6% of the budget to 2.4%.

Few programs were designed for, and made available to, men and women incarcerated at high security prisons serving life sentences.

Assembly Bill 2590, which was passed by the California Legislature and signed by Gov. Brown in 2016, attempted to push CDCR towards a more rehabilitative culture.

This law was enacted to create more opportunities for people who are serving life and long-term sentences and were convicted of violent felonies. It states that “programs should be available for inmates, including, but not limited to, educational, rehabilitative, and restorative justice programs that are designed to promote behavior change and to prepare all eligible offenders for successful reentry into the community.”

While CDCR has increased the amount of funding for rehabilitation over the past four years — from $234 million in fiscal year 2013–14 to $298 million in fiscal year 2018–19 — the proportion of the total budget devoted to rehabilitation has actually dropped from 2.6% of the budget to 2.4%.

A recent report from the State Auditor indicates that CDCR still has a long way to go in directing more of its resources toward rehabilitation and identifying programs that meaningfully assist people in long-term success at reentry.

The auditor’s report, which focused on cognitive behavioral programs, found that to date, CDCR’s investments have not had a significant impact on recidivism. There was no difference in recidivism rates between people who had taken CDCR’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy rehabilitative programs, and those who had not received these programs.

But the auditor’s report paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the range and impact of rehabilitative programs in California’s prisons.

Most of the participants in our network of in-prison programs rejoin their families and communities successfully.

Its focus on recidivism represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the interlocking societal failures that drive mass incarceration, ranging from racial targeting, to criminalizing poverty and mental illness, to the deficiencies in our economy and public education system. Formerly incarcerated Californians face insurmountable barriers to housing, employment, health care, and other basic needs when they come home.

As providers of “Transformative Prison Programs” and people directly impacted by crime and incarceration, we care deeply about the efficacy of such programs. We know from direct experience that these programs, provided by community-based organizations and focused on healing, accountability and transformation, help initiate and support the inner work required to heal from trauma and return home successfully to their families and communities.

These programs are keeping families together across bars, providing access to healing from trauma, carefully stewarding restorative dialogues about harm and accountability, and preparing people to return home.

They support successful re-entry because they support incarcerated people in re-envisioning themselves as people who have the capacity to be productive, contributing members of society upon their return.

Thanks to these programs, we (Jon and Kenneth) were able to reunite with our families, and now use what we learned to lead in-prison programs. And we are not the exceptions.

Most of the participants in our network of in-prison programs rejoin their families and communities successfully, many working for community-based organizations programs, including lifers who have a 99 percent success rate of staying in the community after they return.

Had the auditors looked at these programs, we are confident the findings would have been quite different. Shockingly, these programs receive only a minuscule level of funding. The total committed for the current year is less than one percent of CDCR’s budget.

Edit0r’s Note: Rebecca Weiker, (Restore Justice), Jon Grobman (Root and Rebound), and Kenneth E. Hartman (The Catalyst Foundation) are members of the Transformative Prison Workgroup (TPW), a collaborative of nonprofit organizations that work to provide meaningful programming for incarcerated individuals in California.


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