American Chronicle 

September 13, 2006

Prison Reform for Dummies: What's Right and What's Wrong
Dr. B. Cayenne Bird

Dr. B. Cayenne Bird is an ordained minister and a 37-year veteran op-ed journalist and publisher. She volunteers her time as founder and director of United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect UNION. The UNION is active in prison reform and criminal justice issues. She is a mother and grandmother and focuses on human rights and restorative justice. She is also the host of television series "Cayenne Common Sense" and publishes a daily online newsletter to subscribers. 

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently thinks that sending people out of state away from their court cases and families is a right way to create more beds in prisons. Locking people in cages has never worked to lower or prevent crime since civilization began. This desperate plan is more evidence of the total disregard that this Governor has for human life and due process. 

Moving prisoners out of state would be a wrong move because it treats people as if they were no better than livestock and it denies due process. Not that some people might not be desperate to get out of California's blood houses. I know of Israeli nationals who would love to be on the next flight out of here to our mutual benefit.

I can think of two reasons why the Governor would float such a callous and wrong-headed idea as contracting 10,000 people to private prisons out of state. One is so that he doesn't have to initiate any real reform and two, thereby alienate his Republican base whose Holy Grail is punishing instead of preventing and healing the actual causes of crime. Moving people is not a reform. Their cases and witnesses are here, and due process must be respected, cherished and preserved. 

Moving inmates who have little ones would punish the children unnecessarily and would not impact the gang culture, as gangs are everywhere in the country. Moving "gang" members to other parts of the country is simply a way to expand that culture. And who could ever trust the screening process to know who was moved? This mob-like organization does what it wants, and they could get a green light and move anyone they want. 

The idea of moving people in prison away from their legal cases and families is not only callous but it's ridiculous. However, if some prisoners want to waive their rights to due process or want to go out of state to be near their families, that would be fine -- but not if those prisoners are terminally or mentally ill, which would make them incompetent to sign their lives, family members, and court cases away. 

Since there is obviously a lack of depth and creativity on actual prison reform amongst the Republican lawmakers in particular and even some of the Democrats that will bring our society to a better place, I've penned this opinion piece. It has actually been voiced many times before with the help of thousands of prisoners’ families, many of whom are doctors, teachers, nurses, business owners, social workers and even attorneys and journalists -- in other words, intelligent, professional people who are living the nightmare of injustice by having a loved one incarcerated in California. They know better than any aging action hero or cartoon character making life and death decisions with people's lives what is needed, as they are the victims of these crimes against humanity brought on by all this political blustering and capitalization off human suffering that has brought us to this crisis.

Before any semblance of reform can be achieved in the overcrowded, overwhelmed, under-functioning, understaffed, unaccountable, out-of-control, out-of-step, and in-debt California prison system, two things need to happen: emergencies need immediate attention, and a metaphorical house cleaning needs to take place. 

Emergencies Must Be the First Priority Until Actual Reforms Which are Really Going to be Effective Are Agreed Upon

Families of ill or injured prisoners still have no place to go for help or information when they have concerns about what has happened to their loved ones. This heartless lack of common decency and accountability has resulting in countless cases of preventable illness, injury, and ultimately death -- followed by wrongful death lawsuits. To lower the mounting preventable death toll, somebody needs to put someone in charge of responding to inmates and their families in preventable emergencies. In this declared emergency, creating contact personnel for families in need of information and help should have been the first order of business. Yet it still hasn't been done!

Also, as part of the current emergency, the Governor needs to sign the media access bill. I know of at least four young men who were found dead by hanging in the past month or so. Suicide is a form of medical neglect, and reports are that two of these young men were badly beaten by guards the day before. Their deaths might not have been suicide, but when the media has no access, CDCR can literally get away with murder. If there is nothing to hide, the Governor should honor the First Amendment of the Constitution and sign it.

Cleaning Up the Big Houses

As for cleaning house, a reasoned, well-planned release of certain classes of inmates is not only the quickest way to ease overcrowding, it will also serve to right some wrongs. It is wrong to sentence non-violent people, especially women, to state prisons hundreds of miles from their children for low-level crimes. It is wrong to subject the mentally ill to prison regimentation they cannot follow, harsh treatment by insensitive guards, threats and a wide range of abuses by violent inmates. It is wrong to keep frail elderly inmates constrained, often in isolation, when they are no longer any possible threat to society. It is wrong to keep the seriously ill in prison, again often in isolation or without any way for their families to visit them, even in their final days.

Once the big house is cleaned of these wrongs, there will be greater opportunity to start the kind of reforms that will begin to heal a system, so broken, so dysfunctional, so paralyzed that in spite of good reform ideas having been presented over many years, little if anything has actually been accomplished. 

This second in a series of columns on prison reforms focuses on the remaining house-cleaning steps: (1) releasing women who are of no danger to society, (2) releasing other non-violent, low-risk inmates to appropriate community programs, and (3) releasing the frail elderly and terminally ill to their families. The first column dealt with the immediate need of putting the 27,000 mentally ill prisoners in hospitals completely out of the control of two failed agencies -- CDCR and DMH. Surprisingly, I have received hundreds of letters from prison guards and all levels of law enforcement personnel that they completely agree that the mentally ill have no business whatsoever being punished and further prosecuted in prisons, where they cannot follow the rules. There are plenty of unused military installations that could be used as facilities without having to waste more taxpayer money to build new ones. These facilities could be healing -- instead of punishing -- places. Here is the link to that column

It was actually the first one, and most important one, in the series

Release women who are of no danger to society. 

California’s female inmate population has increased dramatically in the past two decades: from 2,000 in 1983 to 11,404 in December 2005. The number of women on parole exploded even more dramatically - from slightly less than 1500 in 1983 to over 12,000 in 2003. The majority of women in prison (67%) have been incarcerated for non-violent, low-level offenses. Actually, far more women have been victims of violent crime than have been convicted of violent crime. When a woman is convicted of a violent crime, which is rare, it is typically connected with a partner (spouse or boyfriend). Psychologists say that her low self esteem, insecurity, a desperate need to belong or to avoid risking rejection can cause a woman to go along with her partner -- many times unwittingly -- in criminal acts she would rarely initiate on her own. Further, there is no near the level of violence inside women’s prisons that commonly exists in men’s prisons. 

Yet women are placed in high-security, geographically isolated prisons with total disregard for the differences between male and female prisoners’ issues, needs, and security risks. Comprehensive studies have shown that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) policies and regulations do not take into account the very different nature of the criminal experience for women. The Little Hoover Commission’s 2004 study, “Breaking the Barriers for Women on Parole,” concluded that the CDCR’s one-size-fits-all policy is seriously failing female offenders.

Other states have abandoned their tough-on-crime, punitive stance on women’s crime and have adopted more effective, proven methods. These states have reduced recidivism, saved money, and saved lives. Lagging far behind the rest of the country, California has only a few small community-based correctional centers and even fewer re-entry houses. These types of facilities have proven significantly successful in helping women become responsible, self-supporting, contributing citizens – at a fraction of the cost. Nonetheless, according to the above Little Hoover report, “. . . the State has remained focused, almost singularly, on a policy of punishment and incapacitation designed for male offenders.” 

Most of California’s female inmates are housed in Chowchilla, a remote San Joaquin Valley town, far removed from their children and families. The facilities there were designed like a men’s prison to minimize violence and prevent escape. Approximately 8,000 women, the largest concentration of incarcerated women in the world, are isolated and seemingly forgotten there. They live eight to a 246-square-foot cell designed to hold four inmates, which gives each woman less than 31 square feet of living space. These conditions violate fire and safety codes, space-allotment-per-inmate standards, and normal concern for general safety, health, and human dignity. To add insult to injury, during routine lockdowns due to fog, eight women must endure these cramped conditions nearly 24 hours per day.

As if this were not bad enough, the saddest consequence of imprisoning women like this is how it affects their children. More than 80 percent of these women are mothers of dependent children, and sixty-seven percent are single-parents. Many of them never get to see their children. The children may be able to stay with a grandmother or other family member, but often they go into foster care, a system rife with problems of its own. Studies have shown that children whose parents are incarcerated are five to six times more likely to end up behind bars themselves. Visiting is rarely possible for their children. Family member caring for children typically cannot afford the trip (the average distance is 320 miles round trip). For foster parents, state procedures or multiple other seemingly insurmountable problems are prohibitive.

The average female inmate is a mother in her early-to-mid thirties, substance abuser with mental health needs, and a victim of physical or sexual abuse. She will serve an average of thirteen months for a drug or drug-related crime. When she leaves prison, she will receive little or no help finding a job, housing, or counseling; nor will she likely be eligible for welfare benefits or qualify for public housing. Statistically 50 percent of these women will violate their parole and end up back in prison, almost always for non-violent behavior. 

Most of these women have histories of poverty and drug abuse. More than half of them report having been physically or sexually abused at least one point in their lives. These are all major contributors to their fate. Instead of being sent to prison, they should have been sentenced to substance abuse treatment programs, or small healing-oriented, community-based centers near their children. This approach certainly can provide infinitely more support and cost much less, plus it can reap even greater benefits for generations to come. 

Women who have unjustly landed in prison deserve better. It is not too late. It is time for city and county governments to pick up the ball and provide facilities for these women. State and federal aid is available. Initially, the CDCR Parole Board will need some basic guidelines for releasing these women to their communities, coordinate with their local parole offices and community support facilities for appropriate support in terms of mental health counseling, drug abuse programs, job assistance, etc. 

Some women are safe enough to go home and be with their children. Ultimately, cities and county governments, the courts and will need to be held accountable for being responsive to the needs of their communities so that the wrong people do not end up in prison due to lack of community facilities and support. In addition, sentencing law revision will be necessary to allow judges more discretion in alternative sentencing and mandated community service.

If they are safe enough to be in community housing, they are safe enough to be released back to their families

Release the non-violent people. 

But do not simply cast them back to the street with only $200 in their hands. Set up work projects and coordinate with Parole and community agencies for needed community support. Divert the drug addicted to treatment programs. Due to political posturing thousands of people have been given life sentences for non violent crimes under the failed 3 strikes and mandatory minimum laws. Other states with similar problems released non violent people immediately. We should do no less. 

Release the terminally ill and frail elderly. 

Taxpayers do not wish to pay to imprison sick people who are no longer a danger to society. Those who are dying often have families who are willing to care for them. Some of this expense can be born by federal programs instead of the State if the inmates are released. Prisons aren't hospitals and prison guards aren't nurses. Prisons are no place for the ill because punishing those who are sick doesn't serve the public safety in any manner whatsoever. This is beyond cruel and unusual punishment to lock people in cages knowing that medical care cannot be delivered

These emergency and house-cleaning reforms alone could result in about 40,000 beds getting freed up without the expensive price tag that farming punishment out to other states would incur of our badly needed resources.

Future columns will present reforms that might be categorized as repair and maintenance steps involving the entire system, arrest through parole. I will discuss such reforms as:

1. Revising sentencing laws from the one-size-fits-all approach to something more reasonable and sane and to allow the flexibility needed to allow inmates to earn their way to release through rehabilitation. Alternative sentencing options (e.g., mental health and drug programs, job training, and doing community service) should be incorporated into the law. 

2. Eliminating conveyor belt laws such as Three Strikes and preventing the latest so-called child protection initiative (Jessica's Law) from being approved by the voters.

3. Revamping the parole system to release some 4,000 people being held long past their parole dates.

4. Holding unscrupulous prosecutors and judges criminally accountable for their misconduct (lying, distorting/withholding evidence) and appointing truly unbiased judges (former prosecutors, who typically are focused on mindless punishing that never has been a solution to crime, should not qualify).

5. Giving anyone imprisoned since Pete Wilson took office a chance to have a new trial, allowing actual investigations and trials for the poor instead of automatic convictions regardless of guilt or innocence. 

6. Stopping elected officials and candidates for office from pandering to law enforcement and the prison industry and instead empowering the healers in our society -- teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, and ministers. 

This just the tip of the iceberg of what is needed to clean up a system that is corrupt from arrest through parole just so law enforcement can have jobs and the politicians can continue to receive big checks from them.

The National Prison Commission has some great recommendations for reform as well. These reforms would bring our entire society forward and remove California's black reputation for torture, in which no one should be proud to have participated. If you don’t believe these reforms will ever take place, consider this: three million voters are connected to state prisoners. This does not include those in juvenile halls, federal prison, the l.5 million on parole or those in jail. The voting lobby potential here is huge -- and as their loved ones are literally tortured in prison and education spreads that the families of prisoners can organize and vote the bums responsible out of office, the Reign of Death by law enforcement labor unions can be ended. We could make healing and prevention a big industry too. Let's empower the doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers and get people back to their families.

The public is learning that 70% of the prisoners are in there for non violent crimes and many who have died unnecessarily had minor sentences. This inhumanity is going to be reflected at the polls. In fact, anyone who would like to work to achieve these reforms by the power of the vote and organizing with us to do initiative campaigns is needed right now to exorcise the Capitol of people who don't know the difference between right and wrong.

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Three million potential voters are connected to a state prisoner alone, this does not include the l.5 million on parole, or the family members of those in jails, juvenile halls, and federal prisons. With some organizing work we can put take the people who voted against SB1547 by Romero out of power, including the cowards who didn't vote. Politicians need to realize that the da ys of ignorance and apathy amongst the oppressed are over. 

How about righting these wrongs before the moms get together and take the whole thing away from you? Everyone may have noticed our protest was a huge success covered by Associated Press, we're putting up a website with photos now, which I will post with my next column.

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