Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen did something few prosecutors would have the guts to do. He went inside San Quentin and walked across its prison yard, in order to sit down with several inmates to talk about ways to keep the streets free of crime.
Rosen’s Feb. 16 visit was not his first. In 2014, he and several members of his staff attended a San Quentin News forum — the topic was incarceration, rehabilitation, and reentry. Last year, Rosen did something else that is a rarity for a prosecutor. He went to Germany to see how its prison system works and compared what he saw to what is done in California. The result is that he has veered from the conventional wisdom about incarceration.
With 192 prosecutors in his office, Rosen wants them all to visit San Quentin.
On this visit, David Angel, head of the prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit and Sean Webby, communications director, accompanied Rosen.
“I can explain what it’s like to come in here to meet prisoners who have gone through rehabilitation programs, but it’s not the same as experiencing it themselves,” Rosen said. “I think it’s very valuable for me to come to San Quentin, and then go to other prisons to see what they are like — to see the bleakness. Most of the prisons I’ve been to are disgusting. There is little rehabilitation.”
Rosen’s opinion about prisons, rehabilitation, and reentry is based on his years of experience prosecuting criminals, sending them to prison and seeing them return to the community.
Rosen acknowledged that most people he sends to prison would get out, one day. Therefore, he wants to know more about self-help programs that work.
“I want them to come out better people than when they came in,” Rosen said.
The late Arnulfo T. Garcia, who died in an automobile accident last September, and Aly Tamboura, who went from San Quentin to working with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are examples of people Rosen met who came out of prison better then they went in.
“There’s a group of inmates who will come back to Santa Clara County and want to help in doing something positive in the community,” Rosen said. “I want to meet with them and listen to what they’re doing. I want to amplify their success. I want to highlight people who were once in prison, now paying back to society.”
Terry Alexander, who talked to Rosen on the yard, was sentenced to serve seven-years-to-life. That was 40 years ago.
“Why does the district attorney always oppose parole during board hearings?” Alexander asked.
“I want to highlight people who were once in prison, now paying back to society”
Rosen noted Alexander’s lengthy prison stay is a result of policies of Gov. Jerry Brown’s first term. Now, the governor is supporting new laws, legislation and clemency recommendations to address some of the overcrowding problems that he helped create.
The results have been several thousand prisoners released back to the community and the new release policies have faced criticism.
But Rosen said that most of the people released from prison were successful citizens. Mainstream media, however, are failing to report the success stories. He added, “The newspaper story will be someone who’s done some terrible crime. It’s hard for me to talk to the public about the success stories. The concern is someone reoffending.”
Rosen also acknowledged that most of the time, district attorneys oppose releases in cases like Alexander’s — “but the board makes the ultimate decision,” Rosen said.” The DA looks at all factors of the individual and they talk to the victim’s family to determine their position.”
Rosen talked about a trip he took to see German prisons.
“I’m Jewish, and a lot of my family has survived the Holocaust,” Rosen said. “When my parents learned that I was going to a German prison, they didn’t take it very well.”
Rosen was part of a group that consisted of prison directors from four states, teachers, and a crew from CBS’ 60 Minutes. His expectation was that the German prisons were going to be much like the American ones.
“When I got there, I found out German prisons were a lot like the ones in Norway and Sweden,” Rosen said. “Their prisons are a lot different than the ones in the U.S. Inmates cook their own food using butcher knives, forks, pots, and pans. There’s a regular kitchen. Each person has his or her own room, which is very important regarding space. Their system doesn’t have maximum- or minimum-security prisons. The amount of time you’re serving determines what prison you’re at — like a prison for five years or less. The staffing is much different — for every inmate there’s a staffer. They have lenient visiting rules. Prisoners can earn passes to go see their families. Very few violate the rules and don’t come back after getting a pass.”
Rosen said he’ll keep his door open to people doing something positive after leaving prison. He believes that offenders should perform service to the community.
“Then it’s on society to meet the offender halfway,” Rosen said. His frustrations come from seeing repeat offenders. “There are risks on both sides — if the person screws up, then I have to send them back to prison — but if you do well, then we can share in the success.”