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California's Parole-Violator Cell-Study Education Program Portends Increase In Recidivism

California's Parole-Violator Cell-Study Education Program Portends Increase In Recidivism

by Marvin Mentor

A well-intentioned but struggling new rehabilitative in-cell, tutored, self study program for California parole violators (Bridging Program), participation in which cuts five days per month off eligible violators' return-to-custody time, is having the anomalous effect of increasing the state's recidivism" statistics. The paradox is that as fast as the California Department of Corrections (CDC) empties parole violators' prison beds with the benefit of their new life-skills schooling, poised prison-guards-union parole agents sweep the streets to refill those beds with technical parole violation recidivists.

As a result, rather than saving $51.5 million in the first year and $71 million in the second, the Bridging Program is costing $14.5 million more so far. If recidivism" in CDC were instead restricted to only new offenses, thereby eliminating the practice of bed-vacancy driven parole violations," California would not suffer its stigmatic 40% recidivist" violator population that exceeds that of 39 other states combined. The deception goes deeper than just a gloss on the term recidivism."

The [Bridging Program] is a front, a fake, a way CDC can say, We are offering education," declared State Senator Gloria Romero, who intends to hold hearings on prison education soon. Something is probably better than nothing. But is this the kind we should offer? No." Even prison teachers' union spokesman Andy Hsia-Coron was dubious. You know how Jesus turned water into wine? Well, we're turning wine into water.

Presently, nearly 20,000 prisoners are enrolled in the Bridging Program, following its launch in November, 2003. Teachers consist mostly of the 300 laid off" vocational instructors cut" to trim $35 million from the 2003 budget, who were in reality simply redeployed to deliver lessons to cells and dormitories. Resembling correspondence courses, the material covers self-study topics such as anger management, violence control, HIV/AIDS, parenting, and substance abuse. A smattering of reading, writing and mathematics is added.

Some exercises ask prisoners to inventory their day, keep a journal, write an autobiography or work on their vocabulary. Another exercise asks them to list 101 Little Important Reasons Not to Come Back to Prison." Yet other exercises inspire self-reflection on how others would remember a prisoner after they die, or what their favorite memories are. Whatever the prisoners think of the Program, to which they are expected to devote 6 1/2 hours per day, most are cooperative, said Deuel Vocational Institution Bridging Instructor Jeff Ringelski.

CDC Director Jeanne Woodford called the Program a beginning. Ideally, we would like to have a TV in every cell ... to provide education. But we don't have those dollars now." Notwithstanding budget concerns, 35% of the teaching positions remain unfilled due to recruiting problems. This saddles existing instructors with over 100 students, limiting them to no more than 1/2 hour per week on the volatile cell blocks with each enrolled prisoner. That is not enough instruction, opined Steve Steurer, executive director of the non-profit Correctional Education Association. John Berecochea, CDC's past research chief, said the Bridging Education model does sound ludicrous, a half-hour a week." His predecessor, Robert Dickover, felt the program does not sound promising." Using former vocational instructors does not make a lot of sense," Steurer added, because prisoners often need specialized help to overcome literacy limitations and learning disabilities. And since instructional materials are in English, California's many foreign-speaking prisoners are effectively shut out from meaningful participation.

Teachers provide feedback, but there are no grades or diploma credits. The immediate incentive to participating prisoners is that they earn 1/2 time credits (if their sentence permits), the same as if they worked in a prison job. But since there are no jobs for many prisoners especially the tens of thousands of parole violators who spend their entire return-to-custody time in work-ineligible Reception Centers the net result is that an estimated 45,000 qualifying prisoners each year will gain the benefit of 1/2 time over the otherwise automatic 1/3 time good behavior credits. Amounting to a net gain of 5 days per month, this adds up to 2 months reduction in incarceration per year. Put another way, the visible drop in the prison population should be 45,000 x 2 = 90,000 prisoner-months, or 7,500 prisoners (saving over $230 million) per year. When added to the 36,000 prisoners allegedly diverted to drug treatment programs under California's Proposition 36, there should be a manifest reduction of over 40,000 prisoners in CDC's population.

But CDC's population has instead swelled by 3,000 to 165,000, with parole violators packed into double bunks, 12-18" apart on cell block floors often for months while awaiting overdue Morrissey hearings. Guard overtime pay runs up to $1 million per month at each Reception Center prison. In budget negotiations in 2004, Governor Schwarzenegger got the guards to agree to delay 5% of their scheduled July 1, 2004 11% raise until January, 2005, publicly advertised to save a projected $108 million. But recent estimates from CDC are that they now project overrunning their $6.2 billion budget by $109 million. It would appear numerically that recidivist-driven overtime has repaid the delayed raise.

There can be no doubt that programs designed to increase self-esteem of prisoners can only aid their motivation to turn their lives around. But so long as CDC's automaton parole branch has the unchecked power to flip" the parolees back as fast as the Bridging Program can recycle them, the chronic hopelessness that infects these pawns of prison job-protectionism whom CDC euphemistically labels recidivists" will, like the prison population, only continue to grow.

Source: Sacramento Bee.

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