Rehab Illustration by Ken Garduno

Dead time

Rehabilitation is the last thing the California penal system is interested in providing inmates

By Andres Romero 10/06/2005

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Before I go on, let me emphasize that I do not seek sympathy. I was convicted of a crime that I committed, pleaded guilty to, and I received an 11-year sentence.

My reason for writing is to shed some light on life behind bars in which the system has completely broken down in the rehabilitation of prisoners.

Today there are but a few programs and vocational training classes to help a very small percentage of the prison population. There is just not enough to assist the men to modify their behavior and bring about some change in their lives so they don’t come back through these revolving doors.

It’s been more than two years since I was arrested and I have yet to have an opportunity at bettering myself through some sort of support system (although I was recently assigned to a kitchen job). In the meantime, I stand at my cell door from time to time and look out at the warehouse of human beings sitting idly in their cages.

One of the biggest problems facing prisoners is the lack of education and vocational classes that operate with any consistency. Those who are not assigned a job or to school are placed on some kind of waiting list, which no one ever sees, with an average waiting period of up to two years.

Here, in the largest correctional and rehabilitation agency in the country, the only self-help intervention programs they have are recreational sports, religious services and Alcoholics Anonymous.

I strongly believe that this system is in desperate need of reform, because, as it stands now, there is nothing remotely helping to rehabilitate me and these other men. Actually, there is no such thing as “rehabilitation.”

Essentially, there is discipline which involves locking us up whenever possible for the slightest incidents, or shutting down existing programs or activities. It is much easier to keep us in “storage containers” than to deal with rehabilitating us and making us productive members of society.

That’s a tough job, especially when a person has never really been “habilitated.” In my case, I was never habilitated, that is, nurtured, loved or taught morals and values while growing up in a dysfunctional family.

I was abused and beaten. Hatred, anger and pain welled up inside of me. I carried that pain throughout my life, learning to survive and make it on my own the best and only way I knew how: attitude and drugs, all the while self-destructing every step of the way.

Now think of some of my fellow inmates. There are thousands upon thousands of prisoners throughout the California prison system who have similar backgrounds to mine: men who have made mistakes and wound up here.

And now that they are here, what is to be done?

When will the state Department of Corrections acknowledge it has failed? How can these conditions continue to be justified and tolerated in a system that has the ability and resources to implement intervention programs that have been proven to work?

But the truth is rehabilitation of prisoners has never been part of the state’s plans to “correct” criminal behavior. There are no counselors or support groups or anger management classes that can possibly begin to help these men, many of whom will be out of here in a few years, understand why they behave and feel the way they do.

Oh, sure, they issue a life skills management manual with some good material in it called “The Bridging Program,” but that is not being properly administered to be effective. Only some prisoners are required to work out of these manuals in their cells, even though the material calls for classroom group settings with an instructor or facilitator.

What’s sad is there are so many young men in here today. It seems like kids are graduating from high school into the prison system and are being handed their bedrolls, prison blues and nothing else but idle time. Dead time. We don’t exist here. Not really. We are all like so much cattle, being warehoused until we die or are released.

One has to keep in mind that those who have been down for years will one day be released and expected to adjust, comply and take responsibility for themselves, even though all the years in here were wasted, sitting idle and doing nothing. All we are required to do is follow rules and keep away from boundary lines.

Men and women alike who have learned nothing and are not equipped to be productive and successful in society will not only be required but commanded to function in a society where they are not welcome.

I believe that there has to be incentives offered to prisoners who are willing and ready to change their lives. Literacy, tutoring, job readiness (with potential employment opportunities) and self-awareness classes should be instituted at every prison.

This “norm” of just locking prisoners away should not be the only solution. The average court-imposed anger management course is about one year of a couple of days a week. I’ve been down over two years with seven more to go. Imagine the results, the benefits, and the modification from a negative mental attitude to one that’s positive? This concept is so simple to implement because the facility and cliental are already here.

Another solution is an option to parole elsewhere so parolees don’t have to be back on the same streets and environment. I personally don’t want to parole back to Pasadena, but I’ve got no say in the matter. You do as they say, yet there is no support from parole officers. Even if you wanted to help yourself, the system makes it difficult if not impossible.

Here’s an illustration: From the time of my arrest I wanted to plead guilty because I needed to be off the streets. I was out of control in my drug addiction. I couldn’t help myself. I was too far gone. Being arrested was my only hope.

When I went to court I wanted to plead out but I couldn’t because the prosecutor was offering 22 years, or 40 years to life if I lost in the trial. Eventually, after 18 months of going back and forth to court, we came to an 11-year plea agreement which carries two years in prison, but because of the mandatory minimum sentencing, I was given a stiffer sentence for prior crimes I committed 20 and 15 years ago, respectively. When it came time for sentencing I filed a request to be sent to the California Rehabilitation Center, a drug treatment prison facility, and was denied.

The prosecutor said I was not eligible, yet there was ample information on record that my offense was a result of drug addiction that had escalated. I looked at the prosecutor and said, “I have a severe drug problem and if I don’t go to prison, then please sent me where I can receive the treatment and counseling I need.”

Sorry, they said. You are not eligible.

So, from the beginning, if a person desires and asks for help, to hold him or herself accountable and take responsibility, they can’t. Especially in a system that has long ago passed from being a joke to an entirely broken down shame that not only is a failure but indirectly responsible for how a prisoner does once he or she is released.

Please don’t get me wrong. I believe each person is responsible to hold themselves accountable for their conduct. But what if one isn’t able or allowed to do even that? Everyone has a choice in life, but not everyone is able to make the right and necessary decisions on their own. Some people need help, a push in the right direction, to become motivated.
 If I am injured or become sick, I would either go to the hospital and remain there until I am well, under a doctor’s care, because that is their job and obligation to find the cause of the problem and help me heal and recover, so that I may function like ordinary citizens.

In the same way the Department of Corrections should be held to a higher standard and be accountable, because this revolving door attitude has failed to address issues that have been going on for decades.

The bottom line is this: Each of us has no one to blame, but we should at least have the resources and opportunities to get our lives in order before we are released. 

Andres Romero is a former youth counselor and a former contributor to the Pasadena Weekly. Write to him in prison at: Andres Romero, V54733, C.S.P. A-4-128L, PO Box 901, Imperial, Calif., 92251.


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