Budget cuts slash California rehabilitation program for prisoners

Mar. 8, 2010

California prison officials began touting a new public safety reform in January that would encourage inmates to complete a rehabilitation course and earn six weeks per year off a sentence.

Inside Folsom State Prison, though, inmates and instructors leading such courses are skeptical it will work.

In reality, they say, budget cuts approved by legislators last year, needed to cope with an unprecedented fiscal crisis, are devastating programs that are the basis for the new credit and for helping inmates stay straight once free.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is slashing $250 million – almost 45 percent – of the $560 million it was to spend on rehabilitation this fiscal year.

That means a 30 percent trim in high school equivalency and other literacy and vocational courses – 800 out of 1,500 instructors have been let go – and a 40 percent cut in substance-abuse programs.

“I just hope someone up there has a brain and can see what the impact of this will be,” said Folsom State Prison school Principal Jean Bracy.

“You cannot take people and throw them in a cage,” she said, “and expect them to be OK when they get out without rehabilitation.”

Vocational courses cut

Bracy applauds the new six-week credit as a needed extra incentive for inmates. But she wonders how it will work at Folsom after she was forced to eliminate 10 of 18 of the prison’s vocational courses and half the teachers who also taught basic literacy, high school and GED classes.

Gone from Folsom and most other prisons are specific courses on landscaping, janitorial maintenance, printing and graphic arts, roofing, drywall and cabinetry classes.

Folsom’s former cabinetry teacher is now becoming a prison guard.

As rehab opportunities dry up, more inmates are expected to go free earlier. Lawmakers, in another cost-saving move, approved allowing certain nonviolent prisoners “day for a day” credits off sentences just for being “discipline-free.”

Before that change, inmates had to earn those credits by at least showing a strong interest in self-improvement, such as being on a waiting list if not in a class.

Overall, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation this fiscal year must carve $1.2 billion from its gargantuan budget, which was approaching $10 billion before cuts.

Education spending turned out to be a big chunk of what was discarded.

Despite expert opinion that rehabilitation turns prisoners around, spending on it in California has never been more than 5 percent of corrections’ overall costs.

That motivated Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and some legislators to support a big push in 2005 to improve and invest in such programs to reduce California’s 70 percent recidivism rate and chronic overcrowding.

The return-to-prison rate among California inmates is the worst of any state.

Inmates at Folsom say rehab gives them hope, skills and confidence they lacked.

Timothy Ivey, 34, who took the now-defunct cabinetry class, said, “I couldn’t even draw a straight line when I got in here. Now I can build desks and chairs and anything an office needs.

“The more trades I learn while I’m here, the less chance I’ll have of coming back,” Ivey said.

He is enrolled in a welding course that survived cuts and will give him a tradesman’s certificate.

Ivey is serving five years for robbery and a “drug deal gone bad,” he said.

About 85 percent of prison inmates in California are estimated by corrections experts to have drug or alcohol problems that contributed to their trouble.

Yet budget cuts also have reduced the number of prisons with any staff or contract-run substance-abuse programs from 20 to 12.

Less substance-abuse help

Prisoners now will have a maximum of three months in substance-abuse treatment instead of 18 months. To save money, the number of inmates allowed into treatment at any given time has been dropped from 12,000 to 2,400 for the entire prison system.

Folsom just canceled all 34 of its substance-abuse groups of 30 inmates each, and shut down a special transitional facility that was treating 200 inmates and 200 parolees.

“It’s been an incredibly difficult situation,” acknowledged Elizabeth Siggins, who, until taking a leave this month, was an acting deputy secretary for the prisons’ Adult Programs.

Fewer services exist now, she conceded, but Corrections tried to make the best of it by keeping vocational training in jobs judged to be more marketable.

Because of a demand to keep some substance-abuse treatment going for parolees, Siggins said, the system had to sacrifice programs inside prison walls.

Ninety-five percent of inmates go free eventually, and the need for help to develop their literacy and job skills is undisputed.

An estimated 110,000 inmates of 170,000 in California couldn’t read above a ninth-grade level, according to a Legislative Analyst’s Office report on rehabilitation in 2008.

Yet only about 27,000 inmates in the entire system were enrolled in core academic and vocational and work programs that could aid them upon release.

California compared poorly with Texas, New York and the U.S. average at improving “high-need” inmates’ education and skills, the same report found.

If California could do better, the report said, it could save $14,000 on criminal justice costs for every inmate who left prison and didn’t come back.

Another round of cuts

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, said Corrections’ spending is going to have to be cut again this year.

He defended last year’s changes as an attempt at efficiency, giving priority to inmates due for release in one to two years rather than letting lifers into classes because they might have seniority as inmates.

But criminologist Barry Krisberg, former president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said legislators could – and should – have found cuts in other parts of the prison budget.

State plan is ‘just spin’

“We’re trying to pretend this will work. It’s just spin,” said Krisberg, who served on an expert panel that Corrections appointed in 2006 to advise the system on how to improve rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

“There are two logical outcomes to this,” said Krisberg, now a senior fellow at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.

“One is prisons are going to become more violent,” he said, as fewer inmates engage in productive activities.

“And the other,” he said, “is that there are going to be more costs associated with that and with people going back in.”

By Susan Ferriss
sferriss@sacbee.com

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