Rehabilitation or Revenge?
Uncle Bill from Porterville
have been visiting prisoners inside Corcoran State Prison under
the auspices of the M-2 (Match-Two mentoring outreach) program
for the past 6 years or so. The young man in his mid thirties I
am presently visiting is doing nine years for stealing a bicycle.
He is a striker (three felonies). He has spend half
of his life in prison, with a heavy drug problem getting him back
in jail each time he has gotten out.
Sam (not his real name) was paroled from Corcoran
three years ago after doing five years on a drug charge. While in
prison, he had gotten his GED high school diploma. Not bad for someone
who ran away from home and lived on the streets from age 14. He
had also nearly completed an AA degree in Bible Studies. He is an
accomplished artist, and made spending money by drawing
greeting cards for other prisoners. His prison job paid all of 8
cents an hour, from which was deducted a restitution
payment percentage. When Sam got out, he was broke, and had gotten
no meaningful rehabilitation that would help him survive on the
outside. Now when a prisoner is paroled, they get $200, from which
is deducted the cost of any civilian clothes they need,
and they have to buy their bus or train ticket to their place of
parole from that. One even has to find a place that, for an outrageous
fee, will cash that check on a prison ID. One might say that most
parolees are going out into guaranteed disaster.
Readjusting to life on the outside is not easy.
Driving in the car, Sam was very nervous in traffic, and had a hard
time going into a super market surrounded by people, hustle and
bustle. When he arrived in Ventura and went to his parole officers
office, they gave him a months support in a halfway house
($500). The parole office was suffering from the budget crunch and
could do little more. At the end of that month, he was supposed
to get a job and pay his own way. Still, he had high hopes that
he would make it on the outside, and vowed never to go back inside.
The only job he could find was doing some low-paying
part time work in a bookstore. Ex-cons, even with skills that
are in demand have a hard time finding work at all. After the month
was out, he did not have enough to pay the rent and buy food.
His next problem had to do with his sex life and
his health, being HIV positive from his early adventures with needles.
Somehow, the preachers daughter just doesnt date parolees
with HIV... Having been deprived of contact with the fairer sex
for several years, he fell in with a just-released lady in the halfway
house who didnt mind his condition and background, but who
unfortunately just happened to be a heroin addict.
He took the only job he could find that would pay
the bills...operating a jackhammer busting concrete. His health
rapidly declined, and soon he was too ill to work. His girlfriend
helped to sooth his despair by providing drugs, and soon he too
was hooked on heroin.
Dealing drugs was the only thing he knew how to
do that paid enough to survive and support the habit. Soon they
were homeless, and in violation of parole, having moved to Orange
County near his former pals. One day in a park, he borrowed a stolen
bike from another homeless person, and wound up in the County Jail,
where he spent two years awaiting trial and sentencing. His public
defender only showed up in court to keep requesting postponements.
Finally Sam had had it with the county jail, where he was cooped
up in a tiny cell with a succession of cellies , many
of whom had serious mental problems. He decided to cop a plea,
as being a striker (two previous drug-related felonies), he could
have gotten 28 years to life. He thought he had a good chance to
get into a live-in 2 year drug rehab program such as Gerry House
of Delancy Street. The judge chose to give him 9 years instead,
which will cost the taxpayers a lot more than a good rehabilitation
program. He is back in Corcoran now, where I am allowed to see him
once a month.
Now, most of us that have not been in prison have
no idea of what is like to be cooped up for years on end sharing
a cell about the size of most of our kitchens with cellies not of
your choosing...often ones with serious problems.
Can you imagine being in a small airless room with
the temperature of around 100 at night? (He sleeps on the bare concrete
floor in the summer as it is cooler.) Can you imagine having only
a small range of things you are permitted to do, often deprived
of your time out on the yard due to a lockdown because
of a gang fight? I am not even allowed to send him colored drawing
paper or books Im finished reading. If prosecutors, judges,
and people who vote for stiffer sentencing and treatment bordering
on revenge were required to do a month in a maximum security prison,
I think you would see more emphasis on helping inmates and parolees
get more rehabilitation, humane treatment, and re-entry opportunities.
There seems to be some sort of notion in the publics
mind that prisons are country clubs, and that even being allowed
to exercise, watch the Disney Channel, or anything that makes life
more bearable while being penned in should be denied to inmates.
People who think this way have probably never even set foot inside
the walls, and not many would volunteer to trade places with them.
Many people on the outside dont stop to think
that 85% of these inmates are going to be back on the street, possibly
living next door someday. If they are ill-equipped to be assimilated
back into society (if they ever were in the first place), or if
they have become embittered and hopeless, the costs to us all, in
both monetary and human terms, is going to be enormous.
As budgets are cut even further, prisoners are deprived
of more and more activities, with no corresponding increase in the
number of rehab programs.
Now is the time to do some serious re-thinking about
our views on punishment and rehabilitation.
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