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Imprisoned for Life: The case for rehabilitation

Under CC license from Johannes H. Jensen. http://www.flickr.com/photos/johanneshjensen/855252154/

Yesterday, we heard how politics have shaped California’s prison system, and about the push and pull between rehabilitation and punishment. “At the end of the day, corrections was about the bumping of heads of those people that think prison should be for punishment and those people that think that prison should be for rehabilitation,” says JB Wells, who spent almost three decades stuck between the two ideologies.

We know that in that tug of war, rehabilitation has been losing. In the last fiscal year, California spent $9.6 billion on its prison system. Just 4.6% of that went towards rehabilitation programs. In this final part of our series on sentencing in California, KALW’s Joaquin Palomino looks at changes that could reform California’s prison culture.

Tony Cyprien spent 26 years at California State Prison Solano for first-degree murder. Cyprien had been sentenced to life with the chance of parole. Which means to get out, he had to prove to the parole board that he had rehabilitated. For Cyprien, this meant a complete transformation. “I looked at the word ‘rehabilitate,’ to do over again. That means I had to be well to begin with. Well the way I saw my life, I was never habilitated, I never was fixed to be good,” he says.

He began going to a number of self-help and religious groups, anger management classes and drug rehab. He says he realized his life before prison was misguided. “I felt that something was wrong with me. In order for you to do what I did to go to prison, based on what I believed in, my thinking was way flawed. So I wanted to change,” Cyprien remembers.

And he did just that. Cyprien displayed such a powerful change that he was released pretty much on schedule, after his 26-year sentence expired. That’s not common. For the past 30 years the parole rate for lifers has been as low as a half a percent, and it’s never risen above 20%. That’s left tens of thousands of inmates in constant limbo. Cyprien assumed he’d be one of them. To explain what this felt like, he asks us to imagine “going around in a tunnel that zigzags. You can’t see any light in a zigzagging tunnel. You’re just meandering around in there.”

That dark tunnel was spending a life in limbo. But the tunnel suddenly opened up when a friend of Cyprien’s – another lifer who was locked up for second-degree murder – was actually granted parole.

“This is not a rumor, this is not a mystical creature or something. He’s my partner, I know him; we kick it every day. He went into the board room and then came back and said, ‘Man, they found me suitable,’” Cyprien explains.

Cyprien suddenly saw getting out as a real possibility: “That tunnel all of a sudden became a straight line. It was straight and at the end was a little pin-hole of light.”

Cyprien is a good example of how an inmate can reform. And many lifers are just like him.

“To get a parole in California you practically have to be a saint,” says Barry Krisberg, the director of UC Berkeley’s Earl Warren Institute, “because you have to demonstrate so much participation in programs. You have to have so much going for you, by the time people get paroled their recidivism rate’s are close to zero.”

Before 1977, all California prisoners answered to a parole board. They were given a range of time they’d be in prison and to get out early, inmates could demonstrate that they deserved it. That philosophy that prison was a place to rehabilitate dominated the system. Many programs were mandatory, and even when they weren’t, inmates participated at high rates to impress the parole board.

Robert Weisberg runs the criminal justice center at Stanford. He explains that there was a shift in politics and philosophy. “We went to more prison building and a determinate sentencing system and now [we have] this extremely large prison population,” he explains.

Wesiberg says when Governor Jerry Brown signed the Determinate Sentencing Act in 1977, he re-made criminal justice. All of a sudden offenders served a set time – and they had no need to prove to anyone they’d changed. That altered the system, away from rehabilitation and towards a focus on punishment.

“The main problem with the punitive approach is the vast majority of prisoners get released,” says Krisberg. And once they’re released, 65% end up back in prison within three years. Tony Cyprien saw many of his fellow inmates succumb to this system.

“People tend to just fall back in their old ways of thinking,” says Cyprien. “And they keep hitting a wall. They like, ‘I ain’t going to get busted this time. I’ve figured it out, man I should have zigged when I zagged.’ No, no, man you shouldn’t have did the damn thing to begin with man, you should learn about yourself.”

But with cuts to rehabilitative programs, learning in prison can be hard. Over the last two years,$250 million were taken out of prison programs. At the same time, California has a nationally high recidivism rate. This has led some to consider returning to an indeterminate sentencing system, which would bring rehabilitation back to the forefront.  But Krisberg doesn’t think that’s too likely. Instead, he proposes fixing our current system, starting with sentencing laws. “If we really want to fix things, we have to take a look at the California penal code,” says Krisberg, “which has grown like a house of cards in the last 30 years, with just laws piling upon laws. I mean there is nobody who can honestly say they even understand how the sentencing system works in California anymore, it’s so complicated. Overlapping, duplicative, confusing.”

To solve this problem, many propose forming a sentencing commission, which would theoretically distance the penal code and criminal justice from politics. “The whole idea is to take some of the bombastic posturing out of criminal justice policy,” says Weisberg, “and treat criminal justice as what it really is: a government program that should be subject to some kind of rational cost-benefit analysis.”

The proposed commission would be composed of a wide swath of criminal justice experts: judges, prosecutors, academics, and victims’ rights groups to name a few. Krisberg says these commissions have been successful in many states, which have used them to reduce prison and jail overcrowding. “Sentencing commissions have made sure that the violent people serve more time and get the non-violent people into probation or lesser sentences. That’s the rational way to do it, but I don’t see that happening any time soon in California,” says Krisberg.

Forming a sentencing commission in California has drawn strong resistance. Many are concerned it will reduce time served and expand an already big government. But that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible reality.

“If you take a somewhat longer historical perspective, things change rather dramatically and can change rather dramatically,” says Weisberg. “Nothing is destined in this area. Everything is in play if the political forces align properly.”

We’ve seen how rapidly change can come. Thirty years ago, Jerry Brown completely transformed criminal justice in California by authorizing a shift to determinate sentencing. Today, with Brown back in office, realignment is sending tens of thousands of inmates back to the county level, which some believe can put rehabilitation back in the prison fold. Currently, California spends over $9 billion a year locking up offenders. What needs to change, reformers say, is what offenders do while they’re in prison. And they’re looking to lifers to see how rehabilitation can work.