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A Siege Against Success

This is the first in a series of editorials on California prisons.

November 23, 2003

Forty-year-old Fernando Herrera has cycled in and out of state lockups for theft, drug dealing, robbery and attempted murder since he was 13. A few months ago, he was released from Pelican Bay, a maximum-security prison in Northern California, after completing a sentence for a series of armed robberies. This month, a parole officer visited the storage shed in Riverside where Herrera lives next to his parents' house. The officer listened as Herrera worried aloud: "How can I find a job when I have no car, no skills and a rap sheet that seems to scare everybody away?"

According to Herrera, the parole officer just shrugged and said, "Don't ask for nothing because we got nothing."

California incarcerates about 160,000 criminals, nearly seven times more than in 1980. About 125,000 a year are released. Like Herrera, most of them emerge poorly equipped to join society and with little or no law enforcement supervision.

The predictable result is that 70% of the state's parolees re-offend within 18 months of being released, more than twice the national average. It's not for lack of spending: The state's prison and parole costs, $409 million in 1980, bloated to $5.2 billion this year.

California's failure is rooted in its decision decades ago to pour money into bricks and mortar and not into the community- and prison-based educational, job and counseling programs that in other states keep inmates from returning to prison.

Warden With Ideas

A few courageous prison leaders are fighting a culture that resists prisoner rehabilitation. One is Jeannie Woodford, warden of California's oldest prison, San Quentin.

The tall, spiked gates of Woodford's 432-acre domain just north of San Francisco open onto an unexpectedly handsome sight: Chapel Yard, a flower garden surrounded by cream-colored buildings housing the prison's education, job training and religious programs. With more volunteers than all other public state prisons combined and a warden intent on correcting, not coddling, criminals, this quiet island in "the Q" is as close to a model unit as the state prison system has. But Woodford can afford to give only a tiny fraction of her 5,645 inmates a chance to better themselves.

More representative of San Quentin is the Main Yard, a grim, gray, hangar-sized space just past a 3-foot-thick stone and concrete wall. Men lean idly on rusty, mildew-coated handrails that lead to places like East Block, home to 445 prisoners awaiting execution.

Woodford became warden in 1999, after working as a guard since graduating from Sonoma State University in 1978 with a criminology degree. Her goal, she says, is to "help inmates change their lives so that we don't create more victims out there. When you ask people whether prisons should have more programs, the knee-jerk reaction is no. But when you explain that the purpose is to hold inmates accountable for their behavior, there's a great deal of support."

Woodford ought to be applauded and emulated. Instead, her efforts and those of other reformers are threatened on at least three fronts:

* The state has abandoned basic literacy and vocational training programs. Though state law requires prisons to provide literacy programs to the roughly 90,000 of its inmates who lack a high school diploma or a ninth-grade reading level, only a few thousand have access to reading or job training classes. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that inmates who attend school are substantially less likely to return after release.

* Prison work programs are under attack. California established the Prison Industries Authority 15 years ago to help pay for prison operations and rehabilitate inmates. Inmates at 23 California prisons produce goods from flags to firefighters' clothing. The skills being taught are sometimes outdated, but inmates learn work habits and pay taxes, victim restitution, room and board and child support. Unfortunately, some Democrats on the authority's appointed board say the shops should close because they exploit prisoners or threaten union jobs outside. Some conservatives want to shut them because the state, they say, shouldn't help criminals in this way.

* There is widespread tolerance of drug abuse. About 85% of California's inmates are incarcerated for crimes related to substance abuse. Only 6% of inmates are in drug treatment programs. As one state prison official told The Times, "You get more dope in prison than on the street," often carried in by visitors. Herrera, for instance, says he contracted hepatitis C from drug use in prison. He will need lifelong taxpayer-supported health care. Only a fraction of prisoners are tested for drug use.

Judging Reforms

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