Prison rehab programs on the rise

Nov 12, 2012

In California, last week’s vote was in many ways a referendum on our criminal justice system. Voters rejected Proposition 34, and so the state’s death penalty will remain in place. But Californians also amended the so-called three strikes law, so that nonviolent offenders are less likely to spend their whole lives in prison. That second vote suggests that voters may be starting to think more about rehabilitation than punishment.  

After decades of neglect, prison rehabilitation programs are seeing a resurgence, despite some hiccups. For California, this emphasis on rehabilitation is fairly new. For almost 30 years, the state maintained a strict “tough-on-crime” stance, since Jerry Brown’s first term as governor starting in 1977. During this period, the California Department of Corrections, as it was then called, eliminated most of its educational and work programs.

“We call them the 'hook 'em and book 'em years,'” says Jean Bracy, principal of Folsom State Prison’s adult education programs.

After the state passed the controversial “three-strikes” law in the mid-90s, California’s incarceration system became infamous for its high recidivism rates and overcrowding. Conditions inside the state’s 33 institutions got so bad that a federal receiver took over the health system, and the Supreme Court ordered a drastic reduction in the inmate population.

“Years ago we locked up people we were afraid of. Today we lock up people we’re mad at. You have a lot of men that are not violent and substance abuse plays a major role. But we need to address the substance abuse issues in another way. Locking them up isn’t the way to address it,” Bracy explains.

In 2005, former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger started re-emphasizing rehabilitation. But as the state began planning for new programs, it faced major budget shortfalls. The rehabilitation efforts were some of the first things to go.

Thanks in part to realignment, things seem to be shifting once again. Prison officials now have $460 million for rehabilitation efforts – nearly twice as much as they had before. 

Education as rehabilitation

Forty-two-year-old Johnny Ames is determined to make this stint in prison his last. He started taking classes a couple of years after he arrived at Folsom State prison, about five years ago. Right now he’s going after his associate’s degree in humanities, and is an apprentice in the vocational welding program. 

“People do change. Prison saved me. I know since I started learning, I expanded my mind in the way I look at things, people, issues, everything,” Ames says while working on a project outside.

Although he got a GED before prison, Ames says he never liked going to school. On the inside, he struggled to get into a groove.

“But I’ve been steady at it. Now I’m finally able to wrap my head around being able to sit, learn, and absorb. It takes work, but no one in my family has ever gotten a college degree so it’d be nice. So my mom and my family can say, even though my brother was in prison, he went to college and he got a degree,” says Ames.

Jean Bracy has seen many of her students turn their lives around. She’s the principal of the adult school and has been a prison educator for 25 years. She says that education is just one part of rehabilitation: 

“But they also need to be able to manage their lives, whether it’s substance abuse, anger. And they need to be able to have a trade where they can be marketable. They need to be able to walk out of prison and go into society that’s not necessarily going to shake their hand and welcome them back because they’ve kind of screwed up.”

Rob Purvis has taught the welding program for 16 years. He uses a nationally developed curriculum, which means students leave his class with industry-accepted certificates.

“We’ll bend over backwards to get these guys hired because we believe in the product. I say these guys as a rule are much more highly motivated,” says Purvis.

That’s certainly the case for inmate Johnny Ames. This is his second time in prison, and he says drugs played a major role in both cases. So in addition to the welding and college classes, he’s gotten involved with recovery programs. As far as work goes, he’s been applying himself. He now manages the tool room and helps teach other inmates. By the time he gets out, he’ll be able to weld lying on his back, reaching around columns and even using a mirror.

“I look forward to coming to work. When you come up here, it’s like you’re not even in prison for a minute. You get to weld and help other people and it makes you feel like a normal person,” says Ames.

Both Bracy and Purvis say the more education and vocational training an inmate has, the less likely he is to come back to prison. But their experience is difficult to confirm, because the state doesn't track the recidivism rate for inmates in these programs. They don’t even have a system to do that. However, at least one independent study shows prison programs can reduce recidivism rates between five and nine percent.

Johnny Ames says when he gets out, he’ll be ready: “Prison isn’t going to be the defining moment of my life. It doesn’t define who I am. It’s just going to be, when I get all these programs done, they’re gonna say hey, he took advantage of prison. Prison didn’t take advantage of him.”

Most state prisons don’t have a lot of new programs available yet. However, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation hopes to have them up and running by this time next year.