And it begins – the rehabilitation of the LA Sheriff’s Department…
Interim LA County Sheriff John Scott’s news conference last week announced the opening of the Sheriff’s Department’s Community Reentry and Resource Center (CRRC). It’s a new component of the department’s Education Based Incarceration/Merit Program.
As he has several times before, Scott stood in contrast to the Department’s typically defensive posture, indifference toward matters of prisoner reentry, and former Sheriff Lee Baca’s endless insistence that only more money can resolve overcrowding and the problems faced in running the nation’s largest jail.
In terms of my love-hate relationship with the LASD, some of these men are cops this former criminal happens to be rooting for. I’ll set aside my cynicism and suspicions to appreciate Scott’s effort to repair the damages wrought by corrupt, Nazi-gang-affiliated, vengeful Department brass (and –as described by insiders– its cult-like following).
It’s no small thing that this first high profile attempt to reverse the Men’s Central Jail’s inhumane and festering image addresses the causes of recidivism rather than demonstrating a tougher resolve or blaming budget woes. Scott is clearly borrowing a page from the national dialog on prison reform, and yes, it’s a little Simpsons-esque to watch this particular department pitch their newfound forbearance to the public. But folks, this is how it’s gonna be for a while. Luckily, I’ve spoken with several respected officers in the department who have an impressive sense of humor about their profession and their beleaguered employer.
And what is the LA County Sheriff’s Community Reentry and Resource Center?
Through the CRRC, return-to-the-community services such as drug and alcohol treatment, job placement assistance, temporary shelter, tattoo removal, family reintegration, and mental health counseling will be made available to anyone emerging from the building that’s been making headlines as “one of the worst jails in America.” Its offices have been set up right across the street from the ‘ol dungeon itself (the one the county might either expand, tear down or, if there is a God, turn into a mall).
So what’s it like to walk out of Men’s Central Jail, anyway?
This might be difficult to imagine if you’ve never experienced it, so I’ll start by describing release from MCJ this way: it’s like being kicked out of your own failure, especially if you don’t have someone ready and waiting to get you out of the area.
Before now, Sheriff’s Department jailers showed you the sidewalk and shooed you away. That’s it, get lost. It’s a disorienting passage for which there’s no step-down, only modifications to existing architecture that steer you to the street. To some extent, this will probably continue ’til all the veteran Deputies can wrap their heads around leadership and policy changes. Increased efficiency is imminent. In the meantime, among anyone breathing fresh air again, standard release from Men’s Central can quickly diminish your expectations and hopes for a second chance.
Release times are so arbitrary and so often after midnight that it’s almost impossible to guess when a friend or loved one will emerge. For that same loved one, the faint promise of renewal is already competing with pools of sidewalk urine at his feet.
Lucky is the offender who is released when the sun is out, though he’s most likely to wind up waiting for a ride with the same fellas keeping him company for hours on end through a series of MCJ Intake Release Center (IRC) holding cells. He’ll think he’s seen the last of ’em until he realizes everyone’s still in the same boat.
Suddenly everyone’s a civilian needing distance from this place. But maybe one or two of those dudes didn’t like him very much. For some, circumstances don’t necessarily improve once the doors shut behind them.
But no one just wants to walk off into the night, ’cause they’ll be walking into one of the most intimidating industrial areas downtown LA has offer. This is acre after acre of desolate, industrial real estate that says either, “What are you smiling at?” or “What’re you lookin’ to score?”
From the railroad tracks to the bail bonds offices and the pitch black hole under the Vignes Street bridge mere steps away, the inexperienced might be tempted to turn around and go back inside — that is, until they remember who’s in there: LA County Sheriff’s deputies. I did watch a guy do that once, though. In the two hours it took for my friend’s car to roll up, that fraidy-cat never even reemerged. My guess is he was shoved back into a crowded cell for five more hours to marinate — and to teach him not to chicken-out.
The bank of pay phones set famously into the cement in front of MCJ might as well be a platform on which to shout to passers by that you’re a big fat loser who just hit the streets. I can certainly understand why the deputies want the phones well lit and right out in the open, but if a telephone is a lifeline for a newly released offender, that lifeline at MCJ is shaped like a middle finger.
The receivers on those handsets have heard more begging, crying, and lying than the hot gates of Hell, and they look like it, too. Seeing someone pick one up is to presume they’re less than you. In the end, it feels better just to take your chances and start walking. But that’s an awfully lonely feeling to start out with when the world expects you to turn it all around. And while you may think otherwise, it’s no less lonely to jump into a car full of gangbangers, which is also something I’ve seen. You can bet the conversation in those cars isn’t centered on what was spoken of inside: turning things around.
What are some of the challenges the CRRC will face?
I’ll again set aside my obvious suspicion that the CRRC/EBI is a public relations ploy to offset the damage done by poor leadership, the FBI probe, and the resulting indictments – because the CRRC has enough going against it as it is. For one, I can’t see its office being open 24 hours a day, can you? The competition, however (for example, the drug dealers waiting around the corner from Vignes and Bauchet Streets), are always open.
So on one side of the street you got excessive-force-prone deputies barking orders and demonstrating an inhuman lack of tolerance as they rubber stamp waves of scumbags out of the building. And we’re talking about a 50-year-old jail described by its own command staff as a dumping ground for bad apples and poorly performing personnel. On the other side of the street, we’re told that a brighter future begins just through that door, over which hangs the exact same Sheriff’s badge. It’s pretty hard to imagine newly released offenders going from one group of deputies to another, believing that grudges picked up by all concerned will somehow disappear with a simple cross of the street.
Add to that the fact that out-processing through the IRC can take 8-to-14 hours. It’s anything but recuperative, so anyone with the energy and willingness to go through another orientation, another mental health screening, another gang affiliation interview, and another Q&A about the bad influences they might be returning to will pretty much have to have had a jail visit from the Meth Fairy, Jesus Christ, or Oprah Winfrey.
What would I say to the Sheriff’s Department when they ask me what’s missing? (‘Cause we may be about to find out.)
You have to get to these guys before they even step outside. Why not start an inexpensive little program inside the jail whereby inmates can access a list of approved books? They could read one and write a book report right there in the jail, which they’d submit to the CRRC. Maybe they’d include a little description of themselves and a mention of any opportunities they may or may not have available upon their release.
You have to meet them halfway. CRRC staffers should conduct this non-intrusive assessment of participating individuals’ literacy before they make that trek across the street on little or no sleep. And guys coming out will be more likely to head toward something familiar when they don’t know where else to turn.
“We are at a time when innovative and forward thinking practices are necessary for the successful transition and reintegration of inmates from the footsteps of our jails to the doorsteps of our communities.”
– Los Angeles County Interim Sheriff John L. Scott.
Okay-then, don’t just “inform” them that this is the new LA Sheriff’s Department: show them. I believe civilian greeters –paid or volunteer– should be waiting outside MCJ with picture-laden literature and hope in their goodhearted eyes. For many, an obvious difference between high and low roads will need to be closer than across the street.
Offer personalized service. Why not? Don’t you want to fix the problem? I’d even go so far as to give greeters signs to hold like limousine drivers at the airport. Go ahead, laugh it up, but if personalization goes a long way with us suckers in the regular world, it will go even further with newly freed offenders. Sure it’s lame, but we’ve got nothing to lose by helping people make better decisions. In my case, it was lame-o civilians with a willingness to present silly ideas just like these who helped save my life.
So I hope to present these and other ideas to the department’s Education Based Incarceration/Merit Program and CRRC leaders in the coming weeks, and I hope they’ll listen.
Wish me luck.
Tags: bail bonds, Community Reentry and Resource Center, corruption, CRRC, Education Based Incarceration, FBI, John Scott, LASD, Lee Baca, Los Angeles County Sheriff, Men's Central Jail, Merit Program, reentry, rehabilitation, The Simpsons