California has one of the highest prison populations in the country. Of the two million people serving time in prisons in the U.S, more than 130,000 of them are incarcerated in our state - a system designed to house 80,000. In response to that overcrowding, the federal government has ordered the state to cut the prison population by about a quarter.
All of these people getting released need some clear plan for re-entry. Right now, prison inmates get sent home with what’s called 'Gate Money.' That’s $200 in their pocket, and a set of instructions for how to make appointments with probation officers on the outside. Within three years, more than 60% of them end up back in custody.
Here in San Francisco one approach to reducing that rate is being tested in San Francisco’s County Jail Number # 2, where Alvin Wagner is an inmate. On the day I meet him, Wagner is wearing orange pants, a baggy orange shirt and orange slip on shoes.
“I've been on the streets since I was 12, in and out of prison since 1989,” he says.
Wagner’s getting out of jail soon. He’s one of the nearly 20 inmates here who are part of a program, called the 'Re-entry Pod.' It’s a pilot project designed to help inmates serving the last 30 to 90 days of their sentences. Through workshops and discussions, the idea is to help prepare them for life on the outside.
“It seems likes this time it's the first time that someone gives a damn about what I do when I get out of here,” says Wagner.
The pod is a large, circular space with two floors. Bunk beds are in each room, and natural light filters in through small windows.
“You notice there are no cell doors. It is dormitory living,” says Chief Deputy Matthew Freeman. “Every inmate has a drawer where all of their personal belongings are kept. Of course everything in here is subject to periodic searches.”
Freeman walks me through the space, pointing out tables with checkerboards engraved in them. Men move around freely, except after lights out at 10pm when they have to ask for permission to use the bathroom. A deputy is stationed in an elevated control area in the middle of the space.
“Fights are pretty rare in this pod,” Freeman says. “One of the worst things you have is idle time when people have nothing to do and they get bored, and we don’t have that problem in here.”
Freeman says that's partly because so many of these men are due for release soon. They're also constantly kept busy here. Once a week inmates work out in the county jail gym for three hours, the state requirement.
They also attend classes everyday, ranging from non-violence counseling, to parenting courses, to how to find housing, Freeman points to a room where about 15 men sit at desks arranged in a circle. It’s a substance abuse class. In another room, a classed called ‘Man Alive’ is starting. It’s led by James Espinoza, a former inmate who’s now a teacher.
“Man Alive is a stop the violence program, it’s a re-education group. We learn how to sit with our emotions,” he explains.
Espinoza’s class is focused on how to live a non-violent life once the men are released from jail. It’s something Espinoza knows about firsthand.
“I’ve been a violent man, an ex-gang member,” he says. “I grew up thinking men don’t back down, men don’t get punked, and you know I found this program and I fell in love with it.”
Outside the classroom, a representative from a program called 'No Violence Alliance' talks to two inmates about their housing options once they're released. Upstairs in another office, a young inmate with a big smile on his face leans over an on-site probation officer’s shoulder. They're looking at a computer screen. A deputy tells me they’re making plans for some college courses the inmate's signed up for upon release. It's a first step toward never being in this place again.