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Rehabilitate the state's inmates

By Tom Emigh, California Department Of Corrections

I have concluded that the problems we face are a direct result of our decision to treat prisons as human landfills in order to avoid the cost, controversy and complexity of attempting to recycle broken lives.

The California Department of Corrections (CDC) is passing through what has been described by some as a "perfect storm" of controversy and criticism. But I suspect that unless we look beyond our immediate political agendas and engage in an honest and deeper discussion of our current approach to crime and rehabilitation, this time will be remembered more as a tempest in a teapot than a perfect storm. It will also be remembered as a lost opportunity for meaningful change.

Seventeen years of working for CDC has convinced me that a few bad apples in the correctional culture did not create what Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) decries as the "entrenched status quo." Instead, I have concluded that the problems we face are a direct result of our decision to treat prisons as human landfills in order to avoid the cost, controversy and complexity of attempting to recycle broken lives. And while this has reduced problems and costs at the front end, we now face ever-escalating problems and costs at the back end.

The failure to talk about this dilemma in a meaningful way is the real 'code' of silence. How do you manage and reform criminals? Do we rehabilitate, punish or warehouse? And who will be held responsible if what we do doesn't work?

The much-talked-about 'code of silence' is an inmate code first and foremost, and lack of accountability lies at the heart of all criminal behavior. Not dealing with those problems at the inmate level allows them to spread like a contagion from inmates to staff. Make no mistake - inmate values do shape the correctional culture. Consider why it is that no correctional officer wants to be known as a snitch or why the union recently said it wouldn't allow its members to be treated like punks. These are code words saturated with the values of the inmate subculture.

The idea of warehousing inmates is attractive since it creates the impression that staff has distanced itself from the inmate culture. But the fact is that dehumanization is one of the main reasons for that culture, and one of its chief characteristics. It is profoundly disturbing that two soldiers identified as instigating what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were correctional officers - but not, thank goodness, from California. Dehumanizing others can be habit forming.

Because CDC lacks a mandate to rehabilitate within the prisons, it can do nothing to reduce the risk to staff that must work with inmates, or to the public that must, in the end, live with them. In the endless conflict between rehabilitation and imprisonment, we are ignoring the obvious, namely the fact that the safest place to rehabilitate violent criminals may be in prison. But this will be true only if prisons are transformed into well-controlled, therapeutic environments staffed by employees with strong values who possess the skills to shape inmates, not be shaped by them.*

Inmates can't really be warehoused, no matter how politically convenient that notion may be. They are living, breathing, active and generally dysfunctional human beings who must be constantly managed to avoid disaster. Ask anyone who lived next door to them before they went to prison.**

When things go wrong, as they tend to do in prisons, people will conclude it must be because mean staff created a hostile atmosphere, or weak staff created a lenient atmosphere. Either way, it is the fault of staff. In this business it's hard to be a hero.

Unless there is an open discussion about how best to control and reform criminals, there is almost no chance that this perfect storm will generate enough energy or dialogue to even clear the air, much less change the landscape. So we just warehouse and leave it to the criminal subculture to set the tone of the prisons. As a result, staff must scramble to improvise survival strategies that invariably get them in trouble.

This all would change if our political leadership would empower the Department to make positive changes in the lives of inmates, thus creating hope for inmates and inspiring staff to new levels of commitment and accomplishment. It is not easy to instill hope and humanity in those who may have been denied it all their lives and who often deny even the validity of those values.

And punitive measures that are instructive, not destructive, and that place the welfare of the inmate above the desire to retaliate are not incompatible with a goal of rehabilitation. Our failure to set rehabilitation as the goal and purpose of corrections has contributed greatly to the current crisis. More importantly, it has tragically undermined the safety of our communities.

It was not that long ago when hospitals were dirty, dreary places where people went to die. Then we discovered information about the causes of illness and methods of treatment. As a result, the medical profession has evolved to the point where hospitals have become places of hope. By applying the best knowledge we have now and daring to experiment and explore in search of new knowledge, there is hope that prisons, like hospitals, can become places where we look for good things to happen, not just bad.

About the writer: Captain Tom Emigh is a 17-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections. He has worked in a lock-up unit, a psychiatric unit and all levels of security. He has investigated staff misconduct, evaluated prison programs and provided training to staff on professional ethics. Emigh currently handles inmate appeals for the director.

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Published June 13, 2004 as a special feature in the Sacramento Bee

*Editor: Emigh might have added here the need for independent oversight and participation from non-governmental community groups, family members and loved ones of prisoners. In the 'perfect model' of rehabilitation, a prisoner's first step into prison is also his first step toward earned, early release from prison, a decision to be made by and amongst three parties - prisoner, staff and ngo community agent. That same best model also includes economic re-structuring or special aid to communities where prisoners re-enter.

**Editor: Omitted by Emigh in disregarding 'generally dysfunctional human beings' is the harm done to many 'state-raised' prisoners while 'being corrected' by 'experts in corrections,' from childhood foster homes through adult lives in close custody. Hence the need for greater public attention and funding to strengthen growth plans and independent auditing responsibilities in communities where the results of government reentry plans are tested.

California guards' union under federal pressure

A federal judge in November 2004 opened an investigation into whether the California Prison Guards Union's contract with the State gives guards too much control over prison operations. The judge ordered the removal of union representatives from a use-of-force review committee at Pelican Bay State Prison.

The incident that sparked the judge's actions occurred last year when the Corrections Department's former director dropped an internal investigation of guard misconduct to appease the union. State officials, including those responsible for managing the ever-expanding prison system, have argued for years that the guards' union has grown in strength to the point that it is a "shadow government overseeing functions of the Department of Corrections," according to The Santa Maria Times.

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