11/21/2011 by Gina Baleria

California prisons: Finding hope in change

“The vast majority of those sentenced to state prison are coming back – to our communities, to our neighborhoods, to our cities and counties… for better or worse,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson to open the Capitol Weekly conference on California’s prison system: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

His message was not one of fear, but opportunity. He challenged communities all over California to opt for “better,” rather than “worse,” as they begin working with prisoners diverted from state prisons to counties.

The conference delved into the problems plaguing our prison system, potential reforms, and the influence of politics. It drew the usual crowd of policy makers, nonprofit advocates, and those interested in the political side of prison reform. But, the audience also included former prisoners who had turned their lives around.

Kelly Turner, author, ex-con, and CEO and President of Simple Equations, said she came to the conference, “so I can meet the people behind making some of the changes and hear their strategies for bringing about [positive] change.”

She said her success after prison depended on family, her ability to accept responsibility, and most importantly, education. She applied for school in prison and got her AA degree before being released.

“Since my release, all of the education has been cut,” she said. “So, you are dealing with a large population whose average reading level is between fourth and fifth grade. How can we expect them to go home and feel like they can make a different life for themselves?”

Othella Halley, convicted of nearly two dozen felonies, came to keep her friend company but quickly became interested. “As the panelists on the first panel continued to talk, I realized how much it was about my life – or the life that I had.”

She said her problems started at a young age. “The train fell off the tracks somewhere,” But, instead of getting at the issue, the system pigeonholed her as “incorrigible.”

She credits her success later in life to a parole officer “who said something’s wrong here. Something does not fit. You do not fit the profile.”

The panelists echoed these themes. One panelist said, “You can’t take this stuff in a vacuum. It’s connected to healthcare policy, education policy, and people just don’t know that.”

“A lot of these offenders were children in Child Protective Services –moved around so much, that they didn’t get an education,” said prison education advocate Dr. Eva Marie Casperite. “Then, when we take away vocational and re-entry programs in the prisons, these guys have nothing.”

Michael Carrington with the governor’s rehabilitation strike team stressed the importance of targeting risk factors and helping offenders modify their behavior.  “If you don’t address why behavior is happening in the first place, you’re not going to be successful.”

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate left the audience with hope that the system can improve.

“This is forcing conversations [among county officials] that have never happened before,” he said. “Change is very difficult and tough on everybody across the board. But, in this case, in my view there is hope in this change.”

Gina Baleria is communications manager at CA Fwd.

Categories: Selected Blog Posts, Civic Engagement, Accountability

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