Brought to You by the Letter R


    Today’s blog is brought to you by the letter R.


    The state department I work for, the CDC, or California Department of Corrections, in 2005 had the letter R added to its acronym, making it the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It’s a fancy name for the state prison system. I work in Records, filing papers into the central files, or c-files, of inmates, and processing various forms and notices prior to an inmate’s parole date. That is what I do for a paycheck. For spiritual sustenance, I also volunteer with the Catholic chaplain of the prison. I am privileged to conduct Catholic services and to facilitate a faith-sharing, self-help group.

    In my workplace, the R of CDCR more often stands for Ridicule. Sometimes the R is even scratched off official signs by cynical employees. The idea of a criminal being rehabilitated is a joke to many of my coworkers, who consider inmates a less-than-human breed, and who find it easy to demonize those they do not know. The R also signifies Recidivism, as my office processes the same offenders over and over, men who did their time and then come back to prison as parole violators. The system doesn’t work for them the way it should.

    But I believe that rehabilitation should be our most important task in the daily life of an inmate. A term in prison has the potential to be a life-altering, slap-in-the-face event, if those incarcerated are given the tools to succeed when they are back on the outside. I believe in the practical things like GEDs, job training, money management, anger management, and treatment for addictions, of course, but I believe true rehabilitation comes from the epiphany that, as a child of God, you are loved and forgiven. So many inmates look deep into their own hearts and are quite sure that they can never be forgiven, not even by God. They do not believe they are capable of being the person God made them to be. They have no faith in themselves, and realize that the families they have abandoned or let down have little faith in them, either. They are in a bad place, both inside and out.

    I believe that people who think they are broken can be fixed. With care, a shift in priorities, and proper funding, I believe that the R can be the biggest letter in our acronym. I believe that human dignity can overcome human failing, if only given a fighting chance. I have seen the R come to life in our little chapel, in the faces of men who leave and do not come back. I tell them that I hope I never see them again, at least, not in prison. They show me that the letter R can save lives.

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9 years 11 months ago
I agree with Valerie Schultz's assessment of the prevailing attitude in CDCR and of the serious need for change and to understand the true value of rehabilitation, which is not a luxury, but a necessary part of reducing the overcrowding and the enormous expense of prison operations in the state of California. In addition, the boost in public safety is the most ignored benefit of rehabilitation efforts. Since the average prison stay is approximately 2.5 years, if we don't make sure these ex-felons are prepared and ready to rejoin society, their return to crime and addiction is more our fault than theirs. Crime will never be totally eliminated, but other states only have 30-40 rates of recidivism. California's hovers around 70%. Clearly our current approach is wrong. In my work with inmates, I often ask them "What made the difference for you in turning your life around?" Invariably, they all say "Someone took the time to show me what I could become." Believing in their ability to change, and providing the tools necessary for change are the most powerful crime reduction techniques we can adopt. And this does not mean we don't hold people responsible for their actions. We do. But being tough on crime, should also mean being smart about crime. And when you think about it, what is actually harder? Continuing to do the same thing you have been doing, or taking a good hard look at yourself and taking conscious moves to do things differently. Sometimes accompanied by the total loss of their families and friends who would only reinforce and ex-felon's previous lifestyle. I think the latter requires much harder work and much more courage.
9 years 11 months ago
This is very telling of the system that we spend 10.6 billion dollars on. This is truly what the system is, very broken, very hidden and only few see what it is like! Thanks! In my workplace, the R of CDCR more often stands for Ridicule. Sometimes the R is even scratched off official signs by cynical employees. The idea of a criminal being rehabilitated is a joke to many of my coworkers, who consider inmates a less-than-human breed, and who find it easy to demonize those they do not know. The R also signifies Recidivism, as my office processes the same offenders over and over, men who did their time and then come back to prison as parole violators. The system doesn't work for them the way it should.
9 years 11 months ago
Thank you for your humanity and grace. I would hope now that President Obama has closed the doors on Guantanamo, that we begin to look at the serious human rights violations taking place in America's own prisons. We are the only country in the world that sentences children as young as 13 years old to life in prison without the possibility of parole. We share the dubious distinction with Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, and the DRC of being the only societies on earth who sentence children to death, and we actually execute more children than all of these other countries combined. In California, one inmate dies every six days because of it; an equal number commit suicide, and many more are injured in assaults and riots to overcrowding. The notorious physical and sexual humiliations revealed in 2004 at Abu Ghraib are not out of place in American prisons. In fact, they were imported by Charles Graner, who had been a prison guard, at SCI Greene, a notoriously brutal, racist and corrupt stateside prison. For me, CDCR will always be the California Department of Corruption and Retribution.
9 years 11 months ago
Valerie, thank you for sharing this. It is likely worse in the federal system, where much of the prison population has been transferred to the for-profit prison system. The testimony you relate is why I have long believed that the state, and for profit government contractors, are incapable of fulfilling the role assigned to them. Most offenders are incarcerated for crimes committed due to drug abuse, alcoholism or mental illness. It is time to medicalize the vast majority of this sector and transfer control of it to a faith based rehabilitative hospital system (the state will always underfund it left to its own devices). A good first step in doing this is for Catholic Health Association member health systems to bid for private prison contracts as the prime contractor, using the usual private prison contractors as the subcontractor, giving them a very limited role in policy and a short leash in operations. Additionally, offenders who confess or are caught dead to rights should be allowed to plead guilty by reason of insanity and be hospitalized until at least the minimum sentence, with the minimum sentence for taking a life being that for either involuntary or voluntary manslaughter, based on whether they were being deliberately non-compliant with meds or meetings.
9 years 11 months ago
Valerie, I worked for the CDC(R) from 2002-2005 as a lay Catholic chaplain. In addition to providing spiritual and pastoral care services for inmates of varying faiths and no faith, I developed and taught several Life Skills classes. Unfortunately, I met with a great deal of resistance and unprofessionalism from correctional staff. Most will never be associated with the phrase ''going the extra mile.'' The fact is the captains and lieutenants on various yards cannot even control their officers, and if the officers choose to ''mess with'' an inmate or not cooperate with someone hired by the state to do restorative/rehabilitative work, they can get away with it. Even my appeals for help from the two wardens for whom I worked did not result in any improvement, although they both listened to me sympathetically. One said something to the effect that, ''Inmates aren't the problem; it's the staff'' (i.e., officers). I left after three years because of how absolutely broken the system is. There is very little accountability and no motivation to change the system, so should we be surprised that the R, to most inmates as well as many staff, is nothing but a joke?


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