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THE CALIFORNIA FIX

As rehab programs are cut, prisons do less to keep inmates from returning

State to eliminate 40% of funding designed to turn prisoners' lives around. Opponents say streets will be less safe as a result.

October 17, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — Gina Tatum spends her days in a compound surrounded by electrified fence in the sun-baked heart of the Central Valley, hoping to change her life.

She will soon turn 50, and after two decades in and out of prison, she says she is tired of victimizing others, tired of stealing, tired of doing drugs.

"I can't afford any more years up here -- I've lost too many," said Tatum, who is serving a four-year stint for forgery at the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla. "I'm trying to learn things to change my thinking, change everything about me, so I can go home. It's so easy to get caught up here and never leave. I don't want to die in prison."

But because of cuts in the state budget, Tatum and thousands of other inmates and parolees in California are about to lose access to many of the programs the prison system has offered to help them turn their lives around.

Officials plan to chop $250 million a year from rehabilitation services, more than 40% of what the state now devotes to them and a quarter of the $1 billion it is slicing from its prison system.

The cuts occur four years after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger persuaded lawmakers to change the name of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"We don't want to just put the name on it," he said in 2007, proposing to expand rehabilitation services for prisoners. "We have to heal them. We have to get them ready to go out so they can get a job, connect with society and never commit a crime again."

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Federal pressure

The rehabilitation services are being slashed at the moment when they may be most needed: The state is under pressure from federal courts to reduce overcrowding driven by the high rate at which inmates return to prison after they are released.

Substance-abuse treatment, vocational training and educational programs, all scheduled to be cut back, were designed to give offenders skills to help them hold jobs and make other changes. They are taught to handle anger, build self-esteem and search for the roots of their decisions to commit crimes, the better to avoid repeating them.

At eight prisons, substance-abuse programs will close; scaled-down versions will remain at only 12 of the state's 33 lockups and one of its privately run prisons. Up to 900 instructors and staff, many of whom provide academic and vocational education, could be laid off. Arts programs will no longer be available.

State officials say they will attempt to use their reduced resources more efficiently, by cycling inmates through programs for shorter periods.

"We're very much targeting the resources on those who most need it," said Elizabeth Siggins, who is in charge of rehabilitation for the state prison system.

But advocates for rehabilitation and program providers contend that the cuts mean a return to an old way of thinking, in which prisons were intended to punish but not improve those society sends there. And they say the changes could have an effect on safety in California streets and within its prisons.

Kathy Jett, formerly Schwarzenegger's top aide for prisoner rehabilitation, said gangs may attempt to fill the void created by the absence of programs.

"I think you'll start to see a shift back to lots of violence," she said. "These are pretty draconian, pretty severe cuts. . . . The wardens really are not going to have many tools to manage those inmates."

The changes could also subvert the state's recent moves to lower incarceration costs and ease crowding.

The governor and state lawmakers last month agreed to reduce supervision of parolees so fewer would be returned to prison for failing drug tests and other low-level violations. At the same time, the state is eliminating 45% of the seats in its substance-abuse programs for parolees, which experts say increases the likelihood that they will commit new crimes and go back to prison anyway.

And the state may undermine another recently enacted measure that gives inmates more time off their sentences for participating in such programs: Prisoners cannot earn the credit without access to the programs.

At Valley State, two nonprofit groups hired by the state provide rehabilitation to 756 women four hours a day, five days a week. The state has canceled a contract with one of the groups, Phoenix House, as of this month and will end a contract with Walden House as early as December. After that, officials plan to award a new contract for only 175 women to receive services.

At Walden House's program one recent day, about 125 women arrived at a building that resembles a small civic center. They sat quietly for "accountability time," arms folded, feet tapping, while attendance was checked. When the session began, women stepped to the center to perform a previously assigned task intended to teach responsibility.

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