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California Prison System Lays Off Teachers, Vocational Instructors

Due to a $60 billion budget deficit in fiscal year 2009-2010, California prison officials decided to slash funding for rehabilitative programs for prisoners. And while state employees affected by the resulting layoffs cried foul (and fraud), prison officials claimed the cutbacks would promote efficiency and ultimately reduce crime.

The California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced in late 2009 that it planned to lay off 850 teachers and vocational instructors, including prison staff who run substance abuse and anger management programs. As a result, the state will save $250 million in direct costs.

In the long run, however, the indirect costs to the state – in terms of increased prison violence and recidivism – may exceed the short term savings. Prior to the cuts, about 57,000, or one-third of California’s 170,000 prisoners, were enrolled in educational or vocational programs. About 12,000 (roughly 7 percent of the state prison population) were taking substance abuse classes. Those numbers will be reduced by approximately thirty percent as a result of the budget cuts and layoffs.

The wisdom behind the cuts was questioned by those who teach the programs. John Kern, a landscape horticulture instructor at Soledad State Prison since 1984, noted the benefits of providing job skills to prisoners that they can utilize upon their release. Most significantly, perhaps, prisoners who learn a trade are less likely to reoffend. Also, when prisoners are occupied, prisons tend to be safer. Lastly, much of the work done by prisoners in vocational programs can actually save the state money, such as by reducing prison costs associated with landscaping, printing and janitorial services.

“These programs give inmates hope, and inmates with hope are more easily managed,” Kern said. “We don’t change every guy, but we change enough to make it worth it.”

CDCR graphic arts teacher Cindie Fonesca, who received a layoff notice, agreed.
“They’re going to learn from their ‘cellies’” if academic and vocational classes are cut, she stated. “That’s what they’re going to do, which is how to be better criminals.”

Lending support to Kern and Fonesca, former San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, now California’s Attorney General, opined that cuts to rehabilitative programs would only increase the state’s recidivism rate – which, at 70%, is already the highest in the nation.

Further, the budget cuts and layoffs seem hypocritical in light of the addition of “Rehabilitation” to the CDCR’s name only five years ago – a point made by California Assemblyman Ted Lieu, an unsuccessful candidate for Attorney General. “I believe the best way to reduce prison costs is to inject money into rehabilitation programs. ... If it works for a certain percentage of people, that’s really all we need,” he observed.
Responding to CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate’s curious assertion that the cuts in rehabilitative services would somehow reduce crime, Lieu said bluntly, “It’s false.”

Not only is the premise of less crime resulting from fewer rehabilitative programs false, but the CDCR’s process of laying off prison teachers and vocational instructors was alleged to be fraudulent.

On January 8, 2010, CDCR vocational instructor Don Wiley, employed at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, received a 30-day layoff notice. The notice was dated December 31, 2009, and Wiley wondered why it took so long to arrive. Postal authorities determined that while the notice – and hundreds of other layoff notices mailed by the CDCR – had been metered on December 31, they weren’t actually mailed until January 6, 2010 in violation of postal rules.

“It was pretty obvious what they had done – they screwed up and they tried to cover it up,” said Wiley. “I’m convinced that someone in CDCR ordered their staff to pre-date all of these envelopes even though they couldn’t mail them for another week.”  

Wiley notified his union, SEIU Local 1000, which represents professional educators employed by the state, including those in the state prison system. Over 200 SEIU members then filed grievances protesting the pre-dated layoff notices, and as a result the layoffs were postponed for a month.

Meanwhile, SEIU Local 1000 pursued two lawsuits filed against the state – one related to budget cuts affecting prison rehabilitation programs and another concerning the layoffs.

In regard to the former suit, the state claimed that only prisoners had standing to challenge cuts to rehabilitative programs. However, the SEIU argued that the “CDCR has a mandate to provide a certain level of education in the prisons and that by laying-off teachers CDCR is failing to meet this mandate.”

In regard to the second lawsuit, the SEIU argued that under Government Code 1281.8, employees can file for a temporary restraining order if an employer’s actions – in this case action by the state – results in irreparable harm. The case settled in October 2010. See: SEIU Local 1000 v. Department of Personnel Administration, San Francisco Superior Court (CA), Case No. CGC-10-497156.

According to SEIU spokesman Jim Zamora, “A number of [prison staff] did lose their jobs,” but “a number of people were able to land in other positions, transferred to other positions or took demotions ....” Additionally, other CDCR employees took early retirement. The cuts to the state prison system’s educational and vocational programs, however, will have a lasting impact.

PLN has previously reported on California’s closure of parolee residential centers [PLN, Nov. 2009, p.35], reduction in funding for treatment programs for drug offenders under Prop 36 [PLN, March 2010, p.19], and slashing of CDCR rehabilitative services due to budget cuts [PLN, June 2010, p.26].

Apparently, state officials are determined to keep the recidivism rate as high as possible by denying prisoners rehabilitative and re-entry programs.

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle,,,

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