Why can't prisons, guards be role models?
The first time I heard this I was appalled, but if you hear something
often enough, in different versions, it starts to lose its sting. Besides,
it was true.
Even during the depths of this recession, California had difficulty
filling correctional officer positions. The jobs have great pay, benefits
and retirement, but few want them. Potential applicants may be scared off
by television and film versions of prison life, with the stereotypical
rapes and shankings, but my guess is that there also is a fear of getting
no respect, not at work and not at home. Correctional officers have been
demonized. If teachers had to hold back a certain number of children every
year to keep their jobs, they might be demonized, too.
The recidivism rate for parolees in California is proof of how backward
California's correctional system has become. The legal mandate is to punish,
not rehabilitate. And that is what is wrong with California's correctional
system. The best analogy would be a hotel where the worse the service,
the fewer the amenities, the crummier the food, the more repeat business
In the California Department of Corrections, it's been going on so long
that it's generational, with children who go in as visitors showing up
a few years later as "customers." The budget crisis has created an opening
for change, but that opening won't last long. The latest statistics show
sizable reductions in California's projected prisoner population for the
first time in years. It's projected that there will be more beds than prisoners,
even that a couple of institutions will shut down.
The question is: Which ones? What if correctional institutions had to
compete against each other to stay open?
A large portion of the infrastructure needed to judge institutional
competence is already in place. As each prisoner enters the system on fresh
charges, he or she (typically he) is given a new CDC identification number
and is classified.
During the initial classification, his age, crime, sentence, criminal
history, educational level, military service (and whether honorably or
dishonorably discharged) and so forth are assessed, and he is assigned
a number of points to determine to which type of institution, and which
security level, he should be assigned, with higher points requiring higher
The process is repeated every year in an Institutional Classification
Committee, where the prisoner's points are adjusted downward for keeping
a clean record, reaching education milestones or obtaining vocational certificates,
and upward for disciplinary troubles.
This system was designed to determine each prisoner's initial security
risk and, over time, which prisoners are ready to move into lower security
levels (or must be moved to higher ones). Each prisoner holds onto his
CDC identification number until he has successfully completed parole.
But what if these two keys - the CDC numbers and the classification
points - were used to track each institution's rate of success? What if
similar institutions had to compete with each other for prisoners, based
primarily on parolee outcomes, so that those institutions with the fewest
recidivists would stay open, while those with the fewest programs and interventions
What if, to be bold, the prisoner's, the prisoner's family's, society's
and the correctional officers' interests were in alignment? The officers
are on the tier every day; what if it were in their interests to be a positive
influence on their charges, seen as role models instead of as the enemy?
What if correctional officers got promoted for encouraging prisoners to
get an education or a vocation, maintain family ties, stay clean and sober,
get treatment for addictions. What if doing the right thing were the same
as doing the "smart" - self-interested - thing?
Any institutional grading system should use this as a primary but not
sole assessment tool. Other criteria might include operating costs (as
compared to institutions housing similar populations); percentage of the
prisoner population actively engaged in education, vocation and self-help
programs; the number of Form 602s filed to initiate complaints against
staff, lawsuits filed by or against staff; quality of health care; number
of suicides, riots and violent incidents; community involvement with the
institution as reflected by the number of volunteers and nonprofit organization
staff members entering the institution to provide services; and number
of prisoner visitors.
Certain correctional institutions could not be easily replicated, in
particular those providing hospital and hospice care. The grading system
probably would need tweaking over time, and there would be great debates
over which factors to use and how much weight to give those that are chosen.
But there is no question that the system must be changed, and that all of us would be the beneficiaries of a system that provided positive reinforcement, not just to prisoners and parolees, but to correctional officers. It might even make it easier for California to fill those correctional officer positions. It might even mean we won't need them filled.
About the Writer
Jean Arnold, a Bay Area writer, taught literacy and writing classes
at San Quentin State Prison for more than six years.
Three Strikes Legal - Index