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Crooks With Self-Esteem

August 01, 2004

Inmates in California prisons may not be learning any job skills to help them stay straight once their terms end, but at least they're being taught to feel good about themselves.

In a policy shift so irrational it could only have been designed by the state prison guards union, 300 vocational education classrooms in state prisons were shuttered at the beginning of the year. This might be understandable if it were a cost-cutting move, but the state is saving little or nothing by closing the courses. The instructors who formerly provided inmates a chance to succeed in the outside world are now conducting self-esteem "modules" instead. These use workbooks hammering the sort of feel-good lessons that some prison experts believe increase, not decrease, recidivism (one can imagine the resulting thought process of an inmate -- "I'm gonna be the best darned crook I can be!").

The self-esteem lessons came out of talks between prison officials and the guards union last year. Cynics say its doomed-to-failure approach was intentional -- that it was crafted in consultation with guards who either didn't believe prisoners could be rehabilitated or who didn't want something that might diminish their job prospects by lowering recidivism.

California's prison leaders may cease such follies only if U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson makes good on his recent threat to assume control over the state's entire correctional system.

However, on Wednesday, the Assembly will vote on a bill by Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando) that would at least bring some improvement. The bill would give clout to a 15-member prison education board that would include such outsiders as the chancellor of the California State University system. The board could require the state to develop a system for measuring prison schools' performance.

Research shows that California inmates who spend more time in vocational programs are less likely to return to prison. Unless we're prepared to support such programs, we'd better be prepared to build a lot more prisons.

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