INCARCERATED VOICES UNTAPPED IN DEVELOPMENT OF CALIFORNIA MODEL
Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom named the advisory council that will help transform San Quentin into a rehabilitation center. While it includes an impressive group of criminal justice and public safety advocates, one group of stakeholders was noticeably absent.
That absent stakeholder is the incarcerated people living in California’s prisons who have the most to gain or lose from this transformation. They do not currently have a seat on Newsom’s council.
It is this excluded stakeholder, so far not consulted, that has the keenest insight into the dynamics of rehabilitation, and the best understanding of how to foster a rehabilitative environment. They are the people actually doing the rehabilitative work.
In May, the Legislative Analyst Office (LAO), a nonpartisan committee, recommended rejection of the governor’s request for $360 million dollars in capital outlay to further the vision at San Quentin.
The recommendation to reject the funding was made partly because key stakeholders were absent from the process.
“The legislature could direct the administration to include certain objectives in the model and/or consult with certain key stakeholders, such as currently incarcerated people, frontline staff and loved ones of incarcerated people,” the LAO wrote.
The California Legislature agreed with this assessment and requested a clearer plan before allocating any funds.
The lived experience of incarcerated people gives us a unique understanding of California’s prison culture. We experience its toxicity. We experience its racism, violence, overcrowding, lockdowns, modified programs, paucity of rehabilitative programs, and threats of disease and death from disease.
In fact, if parties beyond a few concerned advocates had heeded the distressed cries of the state’s incarcerated people, there would probably be no need for the California Model.
The suffering of the incarcerated clearly inspired the long-standing class action lawsuits, federal court receiverships, and population caps presently in place.
The sacrifices made by the incarcerated to end race-based lockdowns, indeterminate SHU programs, and the sickness and death that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, establishes us clearly as the stakeholders with the strongest interest in the process of reforming California’s prison system.
California is not Norway. The state has a prison population exceeding 93,000, compared to Norway’s little more than 3,000. California has a diverse population from different cultures, religions and gangs.
Prison population numbers from the Vera Institute of Justice show that in 2017, the CDCR held a demographic 28.5% African American, 21% White, 44% Latino and 2% Others.
In contrast, Norway is more than 70% Nordic White and 20% European and Others, according to CT Reentry Collaborative.
Norway does not have a deeply embedded, violent gang culture. Estimates are that California’s street gang membership is more than 300,000, spread among more than 6,000 gangs. Our prison system is a microcosm of this reality.
The diversity of California society, and that of its prisons, demands that this new model of rehabilitation receive buy-in from all parties. Only the participation of the disparate groups the changes will affect can achieve that buy-in.
The California Code of Regulations, Title 15, presents a model for such a process. It requires designation of inmate advisory council members at each institution in a manner that reflects the ethnic makeup of the prison population.
The purpose is to ensure representation of various groups in decisions that affect the welfare of all. The same approach should apply to the planning for implementation of the California Model.
I am sure I speak for many in the prison system when I say it is time for change. In particular, it is time for a new approach to public safety.
I believe the planned transformation of San Quentin and the California Model can succeed. I do not want it to fail.
It is a model geared to reduce recidivism. None who parole want to return to prison.
It is a model that seeks to eliminate toxic stress and trauma. None of us wants to carry the burden of psychological trauma inherent in prison life.
It is a model aimed at promoting healing. None of us wants to be the victim of an assault or killing by another incarcerated person or an officer while doing time within this system.
The California Model could promote safety and wellness by giving us access to healthier food and a better healthcare system.
Finally, the new model will be a homecoming project designed to end the mass warehousing of human bodies in cages.
With that said, no party should be more concerned or has more of a stake in seeing its success than those incarcerated in California’s prison system.
We hope prison administrators understand how vital it is to hear our voices.