Progressive Writers Bloc

Rehabilitation or Revenge?

“Uncle Bill” from Porterville

I 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 officer’s office, they gave him a month’s 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-con’s, 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 preacher’s daughter just doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 I’m 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 public’s 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 don’t 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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