California’s exploding prison population is being defused by order of the United States Supreme Court. The number of inmates in the system must be reduced by more than 30,000 inmates over the next two years, starting this month due to unlawful overcrowding in the state’s penal system.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, determined conditions in California state prisons cause “needless suffering and death.” His opinion described the consequences of such imprisonment as “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
A lower court ruled, “An inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.” That case made its way to the Supreme Court on appeal and became the basis for the High Court’s order earlier this year.
Writing the dissenting minority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling, “Perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” He was joined by justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.
While many of the prisoners will be transferred to other facilities, including county jails and out-of-state prisons, an undetermined number will be released into neighborhoods throughout the state.
“My understanding is that low-level offenders will be the first group to be released,” said Bill Flores, retired assistant sheriff of San Diego County. “Many believe that this class of offender should not have been put in a prison in the first place,” said Flores, who spent 29 years in law enforcement.
California was ordered two years ago to reduce its prison population. In 2009, there were an estimated 160,000 prisoners held in the system that is designed for about half that number. According to Justice Kennedy, some mental health prisoners were locked in cages while other inmates were held in facilities “the size of telephone booths.”
“After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective absent a reduction in the prison system population,” Justice Kennedy wrote.
The state has put in place programs that allow some inmates to earn additional good-behavior credits that would reduce the time they would spend in state prison.
Such a reduction means ex-convicts could return to their communities. If so, what does that mean for the people who live in those communities?
“I would hope the community will reach out to them, understand that they are coming out of a system that is not intended to rehabilitate, but only to incarcerate,” said Chris Harpole, who grew up in Willowbrook and heads the television division for American Forces Network. “To a free society, newly released prisoners will require a period of readjustment, patience and understanding,” Harpole said.
Sharon Rabb, Ph.D., agrees with Harpole. Rabb is a clinical psychologist who works closely with incarcerated youth and adults and their families through her Center for the Empowerment of Families. “Upon release, many parolees have more hope and positive attitudes about their being able to change in a free society than those (who already are) free in that society,” Rabb said.”However, few have support needed for this hope to become a reality.”
Although Rabb said the rate of success is very low, she believes laws that result in placing more people in prison need to be changed. “Laws that violate (ex-felon’s parole) need changing in favor of sustainable success. It is more expensive to imprison a person than to invest in treatment, especially drug treatment, which underlies many crimes.”
Flores cautioned about releasing nonviolent prisoners who violated drug laws. “In truth, drug users are commonly thieves,” he argued. “They steal and sell their loot to support their habit. So, law enforcement should monitor any changes in the types of reported crimes to see if there are any changes in crimes reported. Are thefts rising? Are armed robberies on the rise? Working with local law enforcement to set up some sort of expedient system to report to the community would be helpful to mitigate any crime fluctuations.”
Flores’ observations ring true for television executive Glenn Davis.
“I was looking out my window one day and watching a man walk away with my garbage can. I ran after him and retrieved it,” he recalled. “That made it clear to me anything is worth money to someone. When I spoke to a policeman about it, his response was ‘they just let out a bunch of inmates from the state prison.’”
Support systems are necessary to address issues such as drug abuse. Flores says communities have to be prepared for a population that is in need of social services.
“I mean counseling and supervision of this particular population,” he said. “For example, parole officers that have received specialized training in drug use and are knowledgeable about local drug treatment programs. Perhaps more important is establishing a job-finder service for offenders who will experience difficulty in obtaining legitimate employment.”
The court-ordered population reduction of prisoners conjures additional fears. Davis sees trouble brewing at least in the minds of residents who worry about ex-felons coming into their neighborhoods. He advises the importance of residents being part of a process that informs and involves them in knowing what they should expect.
“When neighbors feel they have no control over important decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their children, they resist,” Davis said. “With early community involvement, people will not only become less fearful, but will take ownership of the event and naturally try to assure the success of the program in their neighborhood.”
In an economy already strained by high unemployment, the challenge of finding jobs for ex-felons increases the potential burden on economically strapped communities. After all, the overcrowding conditions that created the bulging prison population are rooted in insufficient funds.
“I think the lack of resources is not helpful, but if there is an organized process to use other resources, such as human will, commitment, and responsibility we could create the possibility for change,” suggests Erik Fernandez, community organizer. He believes cooperation and respect between long-term residents and returning ex-felons give a greater chance to solve potential problems.
“In order to help transition released prisoners to the community and to help reduce tensions there should be an effort to create interaction between the residents and the released prisoners where they can confess, take responsibility, allow space for forgiveness and brainstorm how they can help each other,” Fernandez said.
As to specific tasks to improve neighborhoods, Fernandez suggested, “Some prisoners have skills to help the entire community by cleaning up the neighborhood, turning our communities into green neighborhoods and our local economies into green economies. We have to find some way to get residents to see the released prisoners as humans who’ve committed errors like all of us and allow them to contribute to the larger society and take pride in themselves. We have to provide them with a constructive path toward integration or their failure will be our failure too.”
Davis is aware that people coming out of prison often are from our families. “There will be an additional burden on minority communities to accommodate these new neighbors, but the community has to remember that these returnees are our own to begin with. These ex-offenders are, for the most part, our sons and daughters returning home after incarceration. They are members of the community who broke the law and are returning home to their own communities.”
Village of Promise is a San Diego-based program that serves children of incarcerated parents, run by Carmen Samuels, a retired nurse. She sees the prison reduction as an opportunity to educate the public about larger, societal problems inherent in how laws are enforced and people end up in the penal system. “When we decided to take on a mentoring project for children whose parents are incarcerated, I felt I had to learn more about the issues related to imprisonment in California,” she said.
“The California three-strikes-you-are-out mentality still exists in our state. We are the only state in which any felony offense can trigger the three-strikes sentence,” Samuels said. “As a result, the prisons got loaded with largely Black and Brown people for nonviolent offenses. This state incarcerates approximately four times as many people under the three-strikes law than all other states with a three-strikes law combined.”
Samuels believes that California has imprisoned an estimated 43,000 three-strikes violators, while other three-strikes states have imprisoned a combined total of roughly 10,624.
Critics of the criminal justice system have complained about the disproportionate number of Black and Brown drug users who have been arrested and sentenced to long-term detention. Such disparities are evident among Black and Brown possessors and users of crack cocaine as compared to the apparent lesser punishment, if any, for possessors and users of powdered cocaine who are typically White offenders.
“This situation actually gives us all a second chance,” said Fernandez, “because I believe most of these folks were in prison as a result of an unjust social structure which failed to provide them with their human rights, including a proper education, healthcare, or adequate jobs and wages. We must come to see this and all the injustices that led the United States to imprison more people than in all of human history and created a new Jim Crow system.”
America leads the world in the number of people locked behind bars, with 2.3 million prison inmates. Even as California is forced to reduce some of them, the issues that incarcerated them in the first place have not been adequately addressed at the local level.
Fernandez believes the Supreme Court’s decision is a chance to examine the deeper causes that remove people from society. He says the soul of America must be redeemed.
Rabb also views this as a moment in which the country can change its attitude and behavior, which contributes to the high numbers of prisoners. She says the work that needs to be done can be shared by every sector of the community.
Rabb outlines a course of action to reduce incarceration and recidivism. She prescribes these adjustments: “Encourage volunteer work until paid work is available. Provide work resources of agencies that hire ex-felons. Get involved in the judicial system and demand that such programs as drug treatment, mental health, and community-based treatment programs are funded. Many parolees are incarcerated for minor violations such as being late for a parole appointment. Women usually return for drug violation.”
Harpole urges people in communities to get involved with released prisoners. “I hope those who are business owners are willing and able to offer paid training and jobs. Recidivism is a major problem following incarceration and a major contributor to this problem is a lack of jobs. Employers are reluctant to hire recently released prisoners because they pre-judge them based on the circumstances they are leaving. Even if the success rate is very low, any amount of those who succeed is a positive for our communities.”
For former Assistant Sheriff Flores, this is a shared responsibility and opportunity. “Make no mistake,” he said. “This is a gift to this prison population. Hopefully, they will understand; and it should be told to them in no uncertain terms that this gift could well be the beginning of new life. Take advantage of it.”
Rabb recommends her center’s Fatherhood Initiative program for both released inmates and community residents. “The Fatherhood Initiative is designed to help all fathers increase their involvement with their children. Responsible fatherhood classes are open to all fathers, including those re-entering into society. It gives their lives meaning and purpose; someone appreciates them–their children–when most of society does not.”
If there is a solution to the problems of incarceration, and recidivism, it can only be found within the community. Samuels dedicates her life to being part of the solution.
“My own commitment to the children in the Village of Promise is one way to hope for change for these children who have parents in prison,” she said. “Breaking the cycle of incarceration for these children whose lives we touch is a reachable goal. I will work on reaching and encouraging others to do the same. Living the village concept, we can at least ease the burden of grief and loss, stigma, and often poverty.”
As California opens its prison gates, people on the outside will have to do more than merely watch to see what happens. Watching only guarantees fear and undesired results.
See Feature Story on page 4.