What I saw behind bars

PAT NOLAN is a vice president of Prison Fellowship (, the world's largest outreach to prisoners and their families.

I BELIEVE THAT I can bring a unique perspective to the discussion of the California prison system that will get underway Monday during the special session of the Legislature.

I was a Republican member of the Assembly from 1978 to 1994. During those years, I voted for every new prison that was proposed. As GOP leader from 1984 to 1988, I led the fight for new prisons on the floor of the Assembly, leading to the most dramatic expansion of a prison system in history.

Then, in 1994, I was convicted in the “Shrimpscam” sting and spent more than two years in federal prison. I saw firsthand the effect of the “lock ‘em up” policies I had so ardently advocated in the Assembly. But what I didn’t see shocked me even more. I realized that very little is being done to prepare inmates for their release.

For much of my sentence, I lived in a dorm with 50 other inmates, in a camp with about 400 prisoners. Although technically it was a “labor camp,” in reality there was only enough work to keep each of us busy for about half an hour. The rest of our 7 1/2 -hour shift was spent “looking busy.” We weren’t allowed to bring anything to write with, or to read. We milled around, pretending to work. Those are hardly the skills that we should be teaching inmates.


Why should we care? Because what happens in prison doesn’t stay in prison. More than 90% of those in prison eventually will be released. What kind of neighbors will they be? It is at our peril that we leave inmates unprepared for their return.

Inmates spend years in overcrowded prisons where they are exposed to the horrors of violence and are isolated from family and friends. Most are idle, warehoused with little preparation to make better choices when they return to the free world. In some California prisons, 75% of the inmates have no activities during the day. Although about three of every four inmates have a substance-abuse problem, less than 20% will have any substance-abuse treatment before they are released.

The results of these policies are sadly predictable. California’s recidivism rate is 70% -- the highest in the nation. If seven out of 10 patients left a hospital but had to go back because they were still sick, we would find another hospital. Yet California has not reformed the way we prepare inmates. Instead, we just build more prisons. Here are my suggested principles to guide prison reform:

* Every reform must be judged by whether it makes the public safer. This may seem obvious, but many prison policies are based on the convenience of the bureaucracy rather than public safety. One glaring example: Some inmates have been “frog-walked” from solitary in Pelican Bay directly to the gate and released. No period of preparation to make decisions in the free world.


* Reserve costly prison beds for people we are afraid of, not for people we’re mad at. Too many prisoners pose no physical threat to us. We’re not afraid of them; we’re mad at them. There are ways to punish them in the community, holding them accountable to do honest work and pay restitution.

* Remove the nonviolent mentally ill from our prisons. Prisons are not set up to give mentally ill inmates the treatment they need, and their presence in our prisons makes management of the inmate population much more difficult.

* Encourage participation in faith-based activities. Inmates need to learn self-restraint, based on a worldview that reminds them that they are not the center of the universe.

* Give inmates meaningful work and educational opportunities. Meaningful jobs teach inmates productive skills that will help them make the transition to leading productive lives in the free world. The wages they receive allow them to pay restitution to the victims they have harmed, support their families, pay some of the costs of their incarceration and save a small amount toward their “gate money.”


Rather than putting resources into bricks, mortar and barbed wire, the legislature should give prison staff the resources to prepare inmates to find honest work, support their families and be good members of the community.