Secretary Diaz calls for a sense of urgency for prison reforms
As they covered 5,000 miles and an ocean on an international flight on Sept. 14, CDCR Secretary, Ralph Diaz and Connie Gipson had plenty of time to consider their doubts.
“It won’t work here.”
“California is too big, too violent and plagued by prison gangs.”
Those thoughts soon gave way to excited optimism, as the pair, CDCR’s Secretary and Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) Director, bonded with senior staff from the governor’s office, formerly incarcerated people, peace officer union representatives and criminal justice advocates in a life-changing environment across the globe.
Over six days, Diaz and Gipson toured Norwegian prisons, training facilities and reentry programs, witnessing famed humanistic practices that deliver wellness, safety and empowerment to everyone involved.
The trip, funded by philanthropic programs and organized by an ambitious visionary at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), made significant impact on CDCR leadership. “The world shrunk,” Diaz explained. “I saw staff and inmates engaging in a very positive way, as if the environment belonged to all of them, not just inmates or staff.
“At that moment I saw aspects of this that can be done.”
Diaz and Gipson were joined by California Men’s Colony. Warden Josie Gastelo and Salinas Valley State Prison Warden Matthew Atchley and Captain Edward Brown. Governor Newsom [sent] representatives Daniel Seeman, Deputy Cabinet Secretary, and Kelli Evans, Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary for Criminal Justice in the Office of the Governor.
Other attendees included formerly incarcerated advocates Adnan Khan (Co-Founder of Re:Store Justice) and Sam Lewis (Executive Director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition), or representatives from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
“I think it was the right people in the room, and what was so fascinating was that we all came to our discoveries throughout the week,” Gipson said. “It was really beneficial to have so many different perspectives going through the same experience.”
“We chose Norway because they have a very public health approach to corrections. They say that people go to court to get punished and go to prison to become better neighbors,” said Williams. “Every single policy/procedure and contact with a program is seen as an opportunity to bring health and well-being to people who are incarcerated, and simultaneously this gives staff and correctional officers the opportunity to change people’s lives for the better.”
To make the trip happen, Amend partnered with the community-based nonprofit organization Smart Justice to raise philanthropic funds. The biggest contributors included The Jacob and Valeria Langeloth Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
Advocates for all
In Norway, the only human right an incarcerated person loses is liberty. The system, including architecture and habitat, is designed to mimic the community those citizens will return to. Interactions with staff are specifically structured to champion wellness and safety.
“I believe we have segments of what is happening in Norway going on in our institutions,” Diaz said. “We have to line it up, put it on paper and give employees the permission to care about the inmate population and remind them that rehabilitation has been a part of their job since the day they signed up.”
There are clear benefits to the normalcy of the environment for staff as well as inmates. Williams said initial reports from Norway show health and life expectancy metrics for correctional staff mirror the outcomes of other citizens. She pointed to research in California that has highlighted a public health crisis among correctional employees, who are more prone to depression, suicide and poor life expectancy.
Khan, whose work at Re:Store Justice brings victims and offenders together for dialogue and forgiveness, said, “My advocacy has always been about crime survivors, bringing them in to prison, and currently/formerly incarcerated people, but when Brie talked about suicides and life expectancy of staff — that bothered me. I had to reevaluate my advocacy. Am I choosing to be the leader of a specific demographic of justice reform or an advocate for public health and humanity? Human rights and public health advocacy has to include correctional officers that are suffering and in pain.”
How Norway changed
Norway’s prison model, thriving at a reported recidivism rate of 20%, wasn’t built overnight. Advocates point to demands by the Norwegian Parliament that authorized a shift to rehabilitation and humanistic practices in the late 1990s.
Over time, accompanied by changes in sentencing laws, massive changes to all aspects of the correctional system began to take hold.
Those changes go far beyond the supportive housing units with private restrooms, couches, stocked kitchen units or even small forests in recreational yards that keep offenders connected to the world around them.
Officers interact warmly and respectfully on a first-name basis with incarcerated people and are trained much longer—two years versus CDCR’s 13-week Basic Correctional Officer Academy. They are schooled on psychology, criminology, human rights and ethics. The process includes a lot of perspective shifts, like placing an officer in the role of an offender and experiencing different custodial tactics.
“I always look at experiences, trainings with an open mind, but I admit, I was pretty apprehensive about this,” Gipson said. “Early on I felt like this was too good to be true, but the more I started to listen to their concepts and principles of normality, humanity, the more I bought in. Everything clicked, and I was just blown away. I came back excited because I feel there are a lot of possibilities for us.”
The California way
A theme understood by trip-goers and emphasized by Norwegian officials is the practicality of change.
Norway didn’t evolve into a better form of correctional care immediately, and uprooting the same system and dropping it into a vastly different population is not the solution for California.
“We are not trying to make it the Norway way or the European way but the California way,” Diaz said. “We are a unique, diverse populace with cultures within cultures, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make necessary changes.”
“We just have to make it the California way. That doesn’t mean saying no to security but yes to a different way of doing business that improves the workplace and makes a better life for people returning to our communities,” he added.
Diaz said he looks forward to collaborating with other states that strive for similar innovation and emphasized the importance of supporting an environment that both acknowledges the suffering of crime victims and delivers on a promise to create fewer victims in the future.
He joined Gipson in a presentation to CDCR wardens across the state on Nov. 6, highlighting the most impactful concepts and practices that simultaneously promote wellness, safety and rehabilitation.
“We have to look at our historic policies and ask ourselves about each one: Why? Is it humane?” Diaz said. “As policy makers it is our job to change policies and explain why, because in the end we have to create a more humane prison system.”
The insight inspires action.
“My first step is getting a workgroup together to look at what policies and procedures we have in play that escalate vs. de-escalate,” Gipson said. “I also want to look at our training and talk about giving staff the comfort to manage situations within their authority without fear of making a mistake.”
“My big takeaway is a sense of urgency to make these necessary reforms because we have witnessed positive impact for all those involved in a correctional setting and for those returned to communities,” Diaz said. “I know what can be done. I know the department’s abilities and the ability of staff to get things done.”
That’s the California way.