Roads to Rehabilitation

California's prison and parole systems are colossal failures, shackling the state with debt and crime, including repeat-offender rates that are among the highest in the nation. Against the evidence before their eyes, prison guards and others with a stake in the status quo insist that rehabilitation is just coddling.

In the next few weeks, the power of the guards union to protect that throwback position will be tested repeatedly -- by a new governor, by legislative hearings and by a plan to remove 15,000 inmates from the state prisons in the next year and send the bulk of them to private and county drug treatment centers. The transfer would save money. If carefully implemented, it could also reduce crime. These not-quite-prisons, often run out of former prison facilities, would be able to tap federal Medicaid funds to treat addicts and the mentally ill, something state prisons are not allowed to do. They could be very successful with low-risk drug offenders, as long as the county facilities and for-profit private operators are closely regulated.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. will argue otherwise, pleading public safety as the union seeks to preserve jobs and its immense political power by getting rid of private prisons. The guards will certainly point to a riot last month at the private Eagle Mountain prison east of Palm Springs in which two prisoners died in fighting between black and Latino inmates.

Other private prisons don't make the news. Prison experts, including some guards, praise a 200-bed minimum-security prison for women in the town of Live Oak, an hour's drive north of Sacramento, as a model of reform. It provides drug treatment, counseling and moral and vocational education for less than the state spends, per inmate, for just a minimum-security bed.

Moral Lessons

One former Live Oak inmate, multiple embezzler Angie Lizarrago, went there after doing time at rougher state prisons at Frontera and Chowchilla. "I hated people," she said. "I was on a road to self-destruction." At Live Oak she earned a bachelor's degree, and she said she was "rebuilt as a person who was smart, who could change." Five months ago she earned her master's degree; now, she is on track to earn a doctorate. Lizarrago credits not just learning opportunities but also Live Oak's morals-based therapy program, which forces prisoners to confront their lives without excuses. She's not a typical case, but her inspiration resonates.

Other states' prison systems use a similar daily regime, developed 15 years ago in a Tennessee prison, to help drug users consider the long-term implications of their behavior. It's been proved to help inmates control themselves, set goals and solve problems. In California, however, few inmates in public prisons have access to it because the Corrections Department declines to fund it.

The treatment centers envisioned in the proposed release of 15,000 low-risk inmates could be another kind of useful and lower-cost alternative to the public prisons. The plan was crafted by Mike Brady, deputy secretary of the state's prison management agency, who just over three years ago was in prison himself for crimes related to drug abuse. He knows better than most that success depends not on whether the inmates go to public or private facilities but on whether they end up able to function in society.

Effective Treatment

First, however, state leaders should use some of the $277 million in projected savings from the transfer to adequately fund treatment. If they don't, the for-profit correctional firms will get out of the rehab business. The county facilities will end up as glorified drunk tanks in which arrestees crash for a few days before returning to financing their addictions by stealing the public's cars and wallets.

If not done properly, the release could end up like the mental hospital debacle of the 1960s and '70s, when California discharged thousands of mentally ill patients from state hospitals into the community. The state promised counties money to treat them, but little materialized. The confused, victimized homeless wandering city streets today, sometimes threatening public safety and turning county jails into last-ditch mental hospitals, are the result.

Not every prisoner is a candidate for rehabilitation. Many belong in maximum security for a lifetime. Public safety comes from knowing the difference and using treatment, education and tough therapy to help return nonviolent prisoners to the community.

Other states do it much better. Texas places more than 75% of ex-offenders in jobs. Missouri pioneered a no-jargon program called the Buns Out of Bed initiative, requiring inmates to participate full time in school, work or treatment. Work is mandatory. Between 1994 and 1999, the proportion of Missouri parolees returning to prison on new felony charges decreased from 33% to 20%, the sixth-lowest recidivism rate in the nation. California's is more than 65%.

State Sens. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) plan to hold extensive hearings in January aimed at shaking up California's failed prison and parole systems. They can start by rejecting the false lock-'em-up-or-else choices offered by the guards union.

On the Web: Read the series at /prisons.

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