Dispatches from the Inside: Parole Planning and the Vague Transition from Prison to Communities

Nov 12, 2012

Richard Gilliam is incarcerated at the California Men's Colony (CMC)

November 5, 2012

Finally, the end is in sight. To any regular readers of my commentaries I'm happy to report that after 13 plus years I will be released next April. I anticipate this event with mixed emotions: on the one hand I'm eager to get out and begin life anew, on the other there is a sense of trepidation over the unknown. Will I be able to find a place to life? What about a job? These are questions nearly every soon-to-be-paroled prisoner asks him or herself. And most of the time the answer is: nobody knows. 

I have begun preparing. At about six months before each prisoner's release date the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) schedules him or her for a "Parole Plans" interview. During this interview a parole planning facilitator asks a series of questions about the inmate's ability to access employment and housing. They inquire about any substance abuse history and ask what you're in prison for, and whether the inmate is a vet of disabled. The technician enters this information into a computer and it supplies the inmate with a printout detailing suggested goals such as, "Get a Social Security Card" or "Get a Driver's License". The printout lists the address of a Social Security and DMV office in the area you plan to parole to, also the address of the nearest state employment agency, and so on. In my case I made sure to emphasize the need for transitional housing; after 13 years in the state's care, I have no idea where I'm going to live after release. I even offered suggestions as to possible housing options that I researched on my own. The only problem is that I won't know it there is a bed available until I actually get out. And, what if they're all full?

Housing and employment are the two biggest problems facing parolees. Ensuring newly released prisoners have available housing and job opportunities is one of the major failings of the CDCR. Without these resources, how long is $200.00 gate money going to last anybody? In other prison systems, such as in the social democracies of Northern Europe, housing and employment for parolees is guaranteed. Prisoners there are provided individualized treatment, training and support from the moment they enter the prison gates; this support doesn't end when they exit the prison gates, it continues after they're returned to their communities. To some this may sound like liberal, soft-on-crime-coddling, but the recidivism rate in these systems is less than 5%. Compared to more than 70% here in California. And the costs of maintaining these systems are a fraction of the billions of dollars we spend every year. Think of what that money could be spent on if it were available: education, health care for the needy, job creation! Who woulda thought hugging a thug could benefit everybody else? Actually, academics have been telling us this for years.

The mortgage-housing meltdown and the Great Recession that followed have shown us that we can no longer entrust public policy decisions to the special interests. It is time to take greed out of the equation. The cry of "Public Safety Concerns" can no longer be the excuse not to adopt pragmatic correctional practices which work. After living within this system for more than a decade, my eyes are wide open. I can see the inadequacies and understand what's needed to fix them. And I'm willing to share my ideas with anyone willing to implement change. Consider this: it is not in the correctional professional's best interest to reduce the size of the prison system. By reducing the recidivism rate and even the incidence of crime itself, they are endangering their own jobs by reducing the need for correctional employees. I, on the other hand, have no political agenda. I simply want those like myself to know they will have a job and a place to live when they're released. It's not only in my best interest, it's in everybody's best interest. Isn't that the way things should be?