De-institutionalization (and your Tax Dollars)

Mizuo Shinonome_Where Excuses Go to DieSome see de-institutionalization as prison reform’s black hole. We neither think about nor understand it much, until we see how much it can swallow.

Yet redirecting, rather than just recycling, offenders begins and ends with the most common form of second chance behavioral therapy of all: showing individuals the potential in themselves they can’t yet see. I’m certainly a product of it, and there are countless other second chance cases even more deserving of the right mentor than I was.

In such an inexcusably crowded prison system as California’s, wringing Yard life from offenders can devour solar systems of resources, and profoundly institutionalized individuals are difficult people to be around on a good day. So for both plucky and grizzled corrections professionals working with offenders and parolees, resolve and past re-entry successes are crucial. So, too, are faith and funding – or at least the delivery of funds previously promised.

CA-BarsTo that end, Where’s the beef? asks the Los Angeles Times on behalf of California’s taxpayers and regarding the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” a.k.a. Prop 47. Where are those re-entry programs that were supposed to have been paid for by monies saved from the proposition’s reclassification of crimes and subsequent prison population drops?

Inmate rolls have decreased, but the projected fruits of that, per the ballot initiative’s fiscal impact statement as prepared by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, have yet to grow in line with the dividends that Prop 47’s passage has yielded thus far. (These include funding for K-12 truancy and dropout prevention, inmate substance abuse treatment, vocational training, and inmate mental health services.) In fact, according to the Times, less than $30 million of the $100-$200 million in purported annual savings has actually been budgeted by Gov. Jerry Brown. Given that the paper itself pushed for Prop 47’s success  –to say nothing of the supportive actions taken by civil rights organizations, labor unions, teacher federations, churches, coalitions, religious conferences, nonprofits, justice partnerships, the 504,760 Californians who qualified the initiative with their signatures, and this former inmate turned author– it has a solid stake in holding the Governor accountable to the voter mandate.

Prop_47_PieBecause Proposition 47 is indeed working.

California’s jail and prison populations are dropping. Sentence reclassifications have addressed over-incarceration head on without the “Purge“-like scenarios of early-release offenders rampaging violently through affluent neighborhoods and outlet malls. According to KCRA, in just 5 months following the initiative’s passage in November, 2014, 3,068 California prison inmates were given early release, and only 14 wound up back in the system (a sample return rate of .005 percent).

That itself is success, but I tend to look at the potential of Prop 47 and other reform measures from the frontline perspective of both those behind bars and the custody personnel and civilian faculty subjected to the small confines of prison life.

Having once been assigned as an inmate assistant to civilian educator Chuck Hildebrandt, who’d essentially been hired to show about-to-parole inmates how to fill out job applications, I saw first hand how a Illustration_by_Todd_Wisemanteacher had to invent his own pre-release program with no budget and extremely little support from prison administrators. And Chuck was no genius crusader, leaving a lucrative teaching position elsewhere to grace us offenders with his natural gift for challenging resistant, avoidant, and excuse-driven personalities. He simply showed up, smiling stupidly on day one, obviously (and maybe obliviously) happy to have been employed by his local corrections facility. The place was brand-new and in chaos. The suits and brass told him to just “do what teachers do – teach,” while they dealt with the gangs establishing their territories.

And against all odds, God bless him, that’s exactly what Chuck did. He found his equilibrium and made it his mission to help fortify the decisive first days, weeks, and months after community reintroduction. He also caught grief from inmates and badges alike, but he kept smiling and saying, “I get paid to come back here. Old and New_Where Excuses Go to DieDo you?” Hildebrandt took on some of the most perversely institutionalized assholes I’ve ever encountered, and he won more ’em over far more frequently than anyone ever would have expected (or bet on).

Imagine what he could have done with a little help.

Now, finally, we have the means to give him some. The savings, large or small, accrued by the state as a result of Prop 47’s implementation can and should be used to create and develop effective re-entry schools and anti-recidivism programs, not be held back or siphoned off to address other state budget deficits.

(Like, say, employee benefits and salaries, which Reuters reports account for the biggest slice of the cost-per-prisoner pie. But no surprise there: the CCPOA always wins.)

Redirecting, reorienting, and de-institutionalizing parolees is difficult in the best of circumstances: truly harrowing in the worst. And they’re damn near impossible tasks without a budget to secure even minimal academic materials or a meaningful curriculum. So now, more than a year’s worth of savings after the passage of Prop 47, there’s no excuse for letting other Chuck Hildebrandts flail about on their own.