Rick Higginbotham is the face of the new generation of San Quentin prisoner. After serving more than 20 years in California prisons, he moved to San Quentin on Aug. 1, 2012. He has yet to receive a work assignment or start a rehabilitative program. He spends his days exercising on the yard. He says he’s not used to this kind of life.
“It has never taken me longer than two months to receive a job once I arrived at a new prison,” he said. “I always heard that San Quentin was the place to go if you wanted to take programs, and once the parole board gave me a five-year denial and told me to take anger management, San Quentin is where I wanted to be. But I can’t even get into a program because there are such long waiting lists.”
Program shortages at San Quentin, known as a “programming prison” for its long list of rehabilitation programs, are one of the unintended consequences of realignment.
In October 2011, California began keeping low-level offenders to county jail instead of sending them to state prison in Gov. Jerry Brown’s effort to reduce prison overcrowding. The state’s bloated prison population has dropped by about 27,000 prisoners, from more than 200 percent capacity to around 145 percent.
One goal of realignment is to improve rehabilitation programs for “hard-core prisoners” who remain in state prisons, according to Your Call, a KALW radio show. But at some prisons, including San Quentin, the policy has had the opposite effect, say some prisoners.
San Quentin’s population fell from 4,652 before realignment to 3,939 in January 2013. The drop is due to the significant reduction of the number of prisoners in the Reception Center, who do not compete for general population programming. The general population, however, has doubled, significantly increasing the number applying for rehabilitative, educational, and vocational programs.
San Quentin now houses many more prisoners serving life sentences than it did before realignment. Lifers are expected to participate in vocational, academic, and self-help programs to qualify for a release date. Many of the newly arrived lifers are frustrated by the unavailability of rehabilitation program openings, saying the prisons they came from they had work assignments that kept them busy and provided them with training, crucial for parole suitability and for finding a job once released from prison.
Waiting lists for self-help programs that Higginbotham had hoped to join have ballooned since realignment took effect. The Prison University Project had no waiting list before realignment except for its college preparatory math class, which was about a one-semester wait. Now there is a waiting list of 18 months to two years to start any PUP class.
Another program affected by realignment is Non-Violent Communications. NVC has a waiting list of more than 200 inmates, and can only accommodate 30 participants per class. With only three new classes taking place per year, this means a new arrival who signs up for NVC today can expect to wait more than two years.
The Victim Offender Education Group, a self-help group that helps inmates become accountable for their actions through the restorative justice model, seeks to bring healing to the victim and the offender. Before realignment, the wait for VOEG was between one and a half years to two years. Now the waiting list is five years long, according to VOEG Steward Richard Lindsey.
VOEG program director Rochelle Edwards said she is taking steps to cope with long waiting lists. In 2012, VOEG expanded from two groups to eight inside San Quentin. Currently Edwards said the program is seeking solutions such as holding intensive one-day workshops for all inmates on the waiting lists. She said the real limitation to expanding the program is available programming space.
Marty Spears arrived at San Quentin in October from California Men’s Colony, where he was employed as a lead-man in the Prison Industry Authority print plant. San Quentin’s print plant closed three years ago due to budget cuts. San Quentin’s PIA has seen a reduction in work force since realignment.
“I went from being in charge of millions of dollars of equipment to not being able to pick up paper on the yard,” said Spears, “and facing two-year waiting lists for almost every self-help program at San Quentin.”
Gary Gilbert was recently transferred to San Quentin from California Men’s Colony. “I have not even gone to my initial classification committee that is supposed to take place within two weeks of arrival,” Gilbert said. He cannot receive a work or education assignment without being classified.
Even if Gilbert was classified, the chances that he would receive a work or education assignment right away are slim.
San Quentin has only one vocational program for 2,357 mainline inmates, after losing the Sheet Metal program at the end of December with the retirement of instructor Keith Baughn, and the previous closure of the landscaping and printing programs. The Machine Shop has only 27 jobs, and demand is high for those assignments.
In the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s plan, “The Future of California Corrections,” San Quentin is projected to have four additional vocational programs up and running by June 2013, with six more to be added the following year.
The San Quentin plan relies heavily on education programs to keep prisoners busy. San Quentin has increased the number of Voluntary Education Programs in recent months, from zero classes before realignment to six classes in January. The number of GED teachers has also increased from one to two.
VEP is scheduled to replace programs that were cut in the 2010 budget, such as Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language. However, unlike ABE and ESL, VEP does not have a curriculum and is not a work assignment.
Many hoped realignment would improve the lives of California prisoners. But for the lifers now arriving at San Quentin, the policy has resulted in frustration — with troublesome implications for their chances of getting out.
“My expectations were high,” said Spears. “When I got here, I was completely let down.”