By Bisma Rashid, Contributing Writer
COVID-19 conditions continue to aggravate the prison environment and add hurdles to rehabilitation and credit-earning opportunities, including for California’s incarcerated women.
Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF) is a state prison northeast of Sacramento, Calif., with a capacity of 403 women. Currently, only 277 women are incarcerated there, ranging in age from 18 to 55 and up.
Not everyone at FWF has access to credit-earning programs because there are not enough opportunities for programming due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Being formerly incarcerated and recently released from FWF in mid-June during a COVID-19 outbreak, I’ve heard a lot of discussions between prisoners about California’s Proposition 57.
Prop 57 put an increased focus on rehabilitation by allowing incarcerated people to earn credits for time-off their sentences or an earlier initial parole board hearing by completing rehabilitative, educational, and career technical programs. It also increased Good Conduct Credits earned for good behavior.
A lot of women I spoke to were expecting to receive some kind of release date adjustment, such as with the increase in Good Conduct Credit earning rates. Some women who remain incarcerated are still waiting for such a recalculation from their prison. Unfortunately, FWF has not consistently provided the incarcerated with adjusted dates unless they are within three to six months of their earliest possible release date.
The difficulties in accessing programs to gain rehabilitative skills and earn Prop 57 credits are magnified for those like myself with shorter sentences.
I was able to attend an assigned “Reentry Transitions” class, which I attended every weekday morning from 7:15 to 9:15. The class taught me basic skills needed to help me reenter society, like how to obtain a birth certificate, Social Security card, and California ID, as well as how to write a resumé.
For FWF’s Greystone Adult School, I had to complete 75 hours of in-cell assignments and earn 70% or higher on tests to get a Certificate of Completion, which would allow me to get 14 days taken off my release date.
Due to recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the prison, however, the administration stopped such in-person programs and classes. I needed opportunities to earn more programming credits — Milestones, Rehabilitation Achievements, and Educational Merits — to change my release date.
Contrary to popular belief, time off due to Prop 57 is not granted automatically; it must be earned by staying disciplinary free and completing extensive rehabilitative programming. This can include things like earning a high school diploma/GED or college degree, taking self-help classes, attending Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous or other sobriety programs, participating with military veteran groups, earning a peer counselor certificate, or completing cognitive behavioral therapy.
The latest COMPSTAT shows that because the FWF is under restrictive COVID-19 protocols and lacks correspondence reentry programs, incarcerated people are unable to access sources to earn any programming credits. CDCR should use better contingency plans and a progressive approach to ensure those in their custody can access rehabilitative programs consistent with Prop 57. Such plans and opportunities can be communicated to the incarcerated through their correctional counselors.
Making more programs available, such as career technical, reentry, activity groups, health and wellness, addiction treatment, and college, for all eligible incarcerated people would also help to reduce recidivism rates.
Recidivism is defined as a person repeating negative behaviors that leads to a new criminal offense after serving their sentence and being released from prison or jail. In my view, there are three fundamental factors that help stop recidivism: 1) Obtaining a high school diploma/GED or college degree; 2) vocational training; and 3) vecuring employment after their release.
Over the last ten years, California’s recidivism rate has averaged 50% or higher. These fundamental factors can prevent a person from falling into relapse upon release and help reduce recidivism rates, but only if they have access to such programs during their incarceration, regardless of the length of their sentence and even with the challenges posed by COVID-19.