TOPICS > Politics

Getting A Life: Drug Abuse Programs for California Prisoners

September 1, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: At a prison near San Diego, nearly 450 inmates live in three crowded gymnasiums, because there is no other housing available. Some sleep in triple bunk beds. Longer sentences and tougher sentencing laws, especially for drug crimes, have made overcrowding the rule in California prisons.

With 162,000 prisoners and 33 prisons, this is the largest prison system in the free world, with a budget larger than that of the University of California. Harsher treatment has also been the rule for at least two decades. Weights and other bodybuilding equipment popular with prisoners were banned.

New prison designs are more sterile and controlling. Lockdowns are more frequent. And there have been alleged abuses of the system that have contributed to tensions and violence. Guards were accused of staging fights among inmates and then shooting at them. This prison surveillance video from Corcoran prison shows one of those incidents. Between 1989 and ’95, seven inmates died, 43 were injured.

The U.S. Attorney brought criminal civil rights charges still pending against eight guards.

PAUL SEAVE, U.S. Attorney: These defendants used their authority to sponsor blood sports. In the process, they violated the civil rights of the individuals and abused their power and the public trust.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Corcoran incidents, plus the statewide conditions due to overcrowding and the prevalence of prison gangs, have many people saying the system is ripe for change. Much of the motivation for that change comes from a fear of what will happen when large numbers of people are released. About half of all California prisoners are let out on parole every two years. Many are unprepared for life on the outside, according to Sociology Professor Elliott Currie.

ELLIOTT CURRIE: The vast, vast majority of people that we put behind bars are coming out. They’re going to be on your street next year. And the question is, what kind of a guy do you want to be on your street next year? I think the real issue is, what are we going to do to make it less likely that he’s going to be dangerous, to make it less likely that he’s going to hurt somebody, that he’s going to rob somebody?

SPENCER MICHELS: There’s no question that most prisoners have a hard time going straight once they’re outside. 75 percent of them have no job, 50 percent are essentially illiterate, and 85 percent are substance abusers. Most of the inmates at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison just two miles from the Mexican border, have come back into custody several times. These prisoners say nothing inside has prepared them for the transition. Todd Perdue is serving his fourth term.

TODD PERDUE, Inmate: All I learned there was how to make knives out of coffee… you know, out of coffee cans and out of plastic and how to make bombs. I didn’t really learn anything that would help me for society. And they dumped me out there with $200 gate money and said, “make a life.”

SPENCER MICHELS: Donovan’s warden, John Ratelle, says the pressures on the outside may be too great for many inmates to handle.

JOHN RATELLE, Prison Warden: We give them $200 parole money, and 200 bucks, if he doesn’t have a place to go or a place… you know, somewhere to go, and if he doesn’t have a job, then what does he do? He’s going to revert back to crime because he’s got to survive. Sometimes people panic, and they go back to their same neighborhoods, the same place where they came from, their buddies, peer pressure. A lot of those things play on a person’s success or failure.

SPENCER MICHELS: While incarcerated, the vast majority of state prisoners have little to do all day. Only 4 percent, or 7,000, work in prison industries, like this bakery, which provides bread for other prisons. Often the minimal skills inmates learn here don’t translate to jobs on the outside. Since prisoner-made products can be sold only to state institutions, the number of jobs is limited. Prisons also provide classes in printing and graphics and landscaping and other potential occupations. But at Donovan, only about 10 percent of the inmates are enrolled in these vocational training programs, about the same percentage statewide. Other inmates are ineligible because of disciplinary problems, or a history of violence, or they’re just not interested.

INSTRUCTOR: That’s because you typed a lower case “K.”

SPENCER MICHELS: Academic and reading classes take place in all California prisons by law, and 10 percent of the inmates are enrolled in these programs as well. Sometimes the classes make a big difference, but often they don’t reach the inmates who need them. Frederick Woods is an inmate clerk in the program.

FREDERICK WOODS, Inmate: There’s a lot of inmates who are really interested and really willing to get into the program and get their education, but then there’s a lot of them who are in the program who don’t reap all the benefits because they really don’t want the education.

SPENCER MICHELS: Most experts believe nothing will work to make prisoners ready to function as citizens until the issue of their drug abuse is confronted. That is happening on a small scale at R.J. Donovan, where the system’s first drug program has existed since 1990. But substance abuse is hardly addressed at all in most California prisons.

SPOKESMAN: I don’t know if you guys think that you don’t have an addictive personality, and I would suggest that… take a look at yourself again.

SPENCER MICHELS: Donovan’s effort was a pilot project involving 200 prisoners.

SAM CHOPPIN, Inmate: For me, personally, I don’t have any family, so it’s been real easy for me to get back into that cycle of drugs and violence, and, because of that, coming back to jail and prison. Coming through this, this has given me a support network, which is like a surrogate family, so that gives me people to fall onto when I need that help.

SPOKESMAN: Let us celebrate this gift not only for ourselves…

INMATES: Let us celebrate this gift not only for ourselves…

SPENCER MICHELS: The cost of the drug program is $3,000 per inmate, on top of the $21,000 a year for keeping an inmate behind bars. Program advocates like the wardens say the drug program actually saves money by keeping inmates from returning to prison.

SPENCER MICHELS: You’re saying it’s cheaper to pay the extra money to do the drug program than it is to keep the guy in prison?

JOHN RATELLE: Absolutely. Well, to keep the guy from coming back to prison is a better term, I think.

SPENCER MICHELS: Anybody listening to that argument?

JOHN RATELLE: Yeah, I think so. I think… We’re getting some recognition in the legislature. They’ve given us more money on substance abuse programs.

SPENCER MICHELS: California will soon be providing drug programs for about 9,000 inmates, a huge increase. Corrections officials were swayed by a study which showed that the recidivism rate among inmates who completed substance abuse programs in prison and also after their release was only a third that of those who did not take part. Corrections director Cal Terhune:

CAL TERHUNE, Director, California Corrections Department: Yes, it’s worth it. If you can cut down the recycling, it’s going to be worth it. And investment at the front end in terms of prevention, before they commit the crime, is going to pay off in the long run.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the study, the key to success was the drug treatment programs for parolees, like this one in San Francisco called Milestones.

DAVID: My name’s David. I’m an addict.

GROUP: Hi, David.

SPENCER MICHELS: 60 former inmates now on parole from state prison live for six months to a year in a residential facility, where they have meetings, get help with substance abuse, job searches, health, and adjustment to society. Most of them had no access to drug programs inside prison.

FREDERICK STRONG, Parolee: I had a substance abuse problem when I went in, and through my course of staying in the system– it’s been like 12 years now, almost 13– being inside, I felt that they don’t deal with the issue. They’ll tell you not to use drugs, but they don’t tell you how to stay off of them.

DAVID LENNON, Parolee: The rehabilitation, they’re not interested. We are a number, we are a statistic for the state of California, the California Department of Corrections.

SPENCER MICHELS: These people have yet to make it. Even the few who got some treatment in prison emphasize the need for follow-up programs, which they didn’t get until now.

ANNA LORENA URBINA, Parolee: And I finished the drug program, but then when I came out, I came out with a lot of issues, and I didn’t follow up on my recovery, and I went back to prison two times more after that.

SPENCER MICHELS: These parolees complained that both in-prison and aftercare programs like Milestones are scarce, and there’s often a waiting list. Corrections officials agree.

CAL TERHUNE: Those are the kinds of programs that we’re just question quietly spinning out. But there’s a lot been done and a lot more to do. But we’re in the right direction.

SPENCER MICHELS: In fact, the number of community beds for drug treatment has been increasing under state pressure. But politically, beefing up prison drug and education programs does not please some tough-on-crime politicians. Republican Assemblyman Jim Battin is skeptical of those plans.

JIM BATTIN, California Assemblyman: If you go to prison for 18 months on a drug offense, you’re not getting drugs for 18 months unless you’re getting them within the prison. To have a drug treatment program inside a prison is almost nonsensical, because they’re denied the drugs. We have to make prisons a place of punishment, a place of deterrence, and that’s a place of justice.

SPENCER MICHELS: Battin does not want to change the purpose of the Department of Corrections, which right now is purely punishment.

JIM BATTIN: And there is an effort right now in the legislature to make prisons a place of rehabilitation first and punishment second, and that doesn’t work. They tried to do that before. It’s a failed policy of the left. It has not worked in the past. When we had that, we had people get early release, we had more victimization, we had higher crime rates.

SPENCER MICHELS: Battin is opposing the bill by California Democratic Senator John Vasconcellos that would make one purpose of prison rehabilitation.

SPENCER MICHELS: You include rehabilitation, is that the right word?

JOHN VASCONCELLOS, California State Senator: Yes, yes, it is the right word. It’s the right word, and it’s the essential effort, so that when people come out of prison, they don’t, you know, continue their actions and rob the rest of us, and go back to prison again and we pay some more money.

SPENCER MICHELS: Vasconcellos says he doesn’t want to ease up on punishment for criminals.

JOHN VASCONCELLOS: I’m not talking about not punishing them. I’m just simply talking about doing it in a smart way, so that when a person comes out, he isn’t more rageful and more likely to make more trouble for me.

SPENCER MICHELS: After 20 years of expensive prison construction and almost no concern for rehabilitation, Vasconcellos says that despite some opposition, he senses a political opening.

JOHN VASCONCELLOS: Times change, people change, and people wake up and issues get framed differently and recognized differently, and we as leaders are about to try to help that process happen– or ought to be.

SPENCER MICHELS: California’s prison-building binge may be slowing down. Nonetheless, Democratic Governor Gray Davis recently signed a bill authorizing construction of yet another new prison.

GOV. GRAY DAVIS: By April of 2002, we’ll be out of space entirely, double cells everywhere, and we run the risk, if we did not do something, that a federal judge would order that prisoners be released before they serve their full sentence.

SPENCER MICHELS: Elected as a tough-on-crime candidate, Davis has yet to be heard from on whether he will support major policy changes for this vast prison system.