A new study by California’s state auditor reported that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has failed to meet the rehabilitative needs for more than half of inmates released.
The study indicated that the CDCR has been unsuccessful in its efforts to place inmates in proper rehabilitation programs. This situation leads to many inmates paroling from prison without needs being met that contribute to high recidivism—reintegration being the most problematic.
“Corrections has neither consistently placed inmates on waiting lists for needed rehabilitation programs nor prioritized those with the highest need correctly,” State Auditor Elaine Howle reported. “Although the number of inmates housed in state prisons has decreased in recent years, recidivism rates for inmates in California have remained stubbornly high, averaging around 50 percent over the past decade.”
The report found that in fiscal year 2017–18, Corrections failed to meet the rehabilitative needs of 62 percent of the inmates who’d been assessed at risk to recidivate.
California defines recidivism as conviction of a new crime within the three year period after individuals are released from custody.
“Because the Legislature provided Corrections with a significant budget increase so that it could expand rehabilitation programs to all prisons in the state, it is vital that Corrections demonstrate that the additional investment was worthwhile,” Howle said in a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom and lawmakers.
The state’s rehabilitation budget went from $64 million in 2013 to about $300 million in 2018, according to Courthouse News Service (CNS).
“We take the state auditor’s findings seriously and have already implemented, or are in the process of implement- ing, most of the recommendations,” stated CDCR press secretary Vicky Waters in an email to CNS. Waters’ email also noted the data used in the audit predates the department’s expansion of rehabilitation programming and new methods used to assess the success of those programs.
The 71-page audit, published in January 2019, stated that the CDCR’s “poor administrative practices have hindered reductions in recidivism and denied inmates access to in-prison rehabilitation programs.”
According to the report, inmates may not be receiving needed rehabilitation pro- grams because the CDCR is having difficulty fully staffing the programs at all of its prisons.
The audit asserted that the department needs to collect additional data and take steps to ensure it delivers cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) programs to inmates in all of its prisons. But the report also concluded that inmates who completed these in-prison programs “recidivated at about the same rate as inmates who did not complete the programs.”
“The audit only analyzed one type of rehabilitation program known as cognitive behavioral therapy and did not analyze any restorative justice programs or victim awareness programs,” wrote Adnan Khan in CALmatters. He paroled from San Quentin earlier this year after spending more than 15 years locked up.
Khan wrote that his rehabilitation benefits came from San Quentin’s college program and the self-help groups he attended. He said these programs were not funded, nor run by, the CDCR. “Rather, they were provided by nonprofit grassroots organizations and volunteers who would come in (to the prison) weekly to support us.”
Unlike many CDCR prisons, Khan wrote, “San Quentin had a rehabilitative culture.” But he also pointed out that a culture of power and control hovered “like dark clouds.” Contributing to this culture are random searches, pat downs, abusive control- ling language and verbal disrespect which “reminded us constantly that we were incarcerated, a separate class that, in the view of some, is not fully human.”
In response, Michele Hanisee, the president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, said, “If we are releasing more people from prisons and jails and the recidivism rate is the same, as the audit shows, the effort is a disaster.”
Upon arrival at a state prison reception center, incarcerated individuals have their rehabilitative needs assessed and the information is used to place them in necessary classes.
San Quentin resident Emerald “Nunu” Kemp-Aikens is involved in the substance abuse disorder treatment program, but he does not believe that he needs to be enrolled. “On the street, I don’t do drugs except weed,” he said. “They assigned me ’cause I told them I smoke weed in that packet in reception. In the class there’s a bunch of guys talkin’ ’bout crystal, heroin—stuff I don’t do.”
The first tool, the California Static Risk Assessment (CSRA) score, is derived from a person’s prior criminal history. The second, Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS), mea- sures an incarcerated per- son’s need for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and vocational education. Finally, Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE), measures an inmate’s need for academic education programs.
Although the TABE test was validated by an outside agency in 2017, COMPAS has not undergone review since 2010 and CSRA had not been reviewed since 2013.
“One potential reason why our overall analysis did not find that CBT rehabilitation programs are related to reductions in recidivism is that Corrections has not revalidated the accuracy of the tools it uses to assess inmates’ rehabilitative needs since recent statutory changes caused a major shift in the State’s prison population,” the report stated.
Underutilization of enrollment capacity is another factor identified in the report, with a three-prison review re- vealing that, on average, only 76 percent of the seats in CBT classes are occupied.
Despite the criticism and low enrollment rates, the CDCR has expanded CBT, academic, and vocational programs to all 36 state prisons. The CBT programs introduced consist of four classes: Substance abuse dis- order treatment, anger management, criminal thinking and family relationships.
In 2011, federal courts ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of prison design capacity. Since then, changes in the law such as AB 109 “Re-alignment,” Propositions 36, 47 and 57 have afforded many inmates the opportunity for early release.
“The prospect of early release of dangerous prisoners who haven’t undergone any meaningful rehabilitation is positively unnerving,” said Hanisee.
The audit made recommendations “to ensure that inmates with the highest risks and needs are wait-listed, prioritized, and assigned appropriately.” It said the CDCR should do the following:
• Require correctional counselors to place inmates onto waiting lists once they have five years or less on their sentences.
• Update its waiting list system to prioritize inmates with rehabilitative needs and risks in its target population.
• Assign inmates to reha- bilitation programs in accor- dance with its policies.
In a statement, CDCR press secretary Vicky Waters said rehabilitation will continue to be a top priority to make sure inmates get the skills and education they need to transition back to their communities, CNS reported.
Ronald Joseph Lum Jr., a participant in San Quentin’s substance abuse disorder treatment and anger man- agement classes, offered his observation that since his teacher Ms. Rivera left the program, the instructors have been inconsistent.
Lum said, There has been a revolving door of fill-in teachers who are not familiar with the curriculum, so the flow of the curriculum has been disrupted. Because of that, some students in the class are helping to guide the class forward.
“The group never knows where we’re going to start or continue in the curriculum day to day,” Lum explained, “[So] the people who are taking the group seriously take control of the group and continue with the curriculum.”
Although the state of rehabilitative programs in California state prisons could use improvement, some incarcerated people say they undeniably benefit from CBT programs.
“I feel that these classes will keep me from coming back to prison,” Lum says. What he’s learned in these programs has taught him why he came to prison in the first place. “I’m greatly and highly honored and privileged to have these classes.”
Aron Roy Contributed to this story