California’s Prison System Co-opts Reform Language While Increasing Its Budget

To the outsider, the national conversation around prisons looks like it’s shifting toward reduced incarceration. But in California, that same conversation is allowing the prison industrial complex to grow stronger, broader and more powerful.

By marketing programs with names like “community-based,” or “re-entry” the department has made expansions palatable to a public.

This year, California’s proposed corrections budget is $13.5 billion — up $3.5 billion from 2007, despite the prison population dropping by 45,000 during the same period of time. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s resilience is due to its success in co-opting the conversation dominating moderate bipartisan circles of decision-makers — the idea of providing treatment and support instead of punishment. In reality, the services the state prison system claims to provide end up perpetuating harms that lead to imprisonment to begin with, and monopolizing resources that should be invested in truly supporting the communities that have been most impacted by incarceration.

When advocates began pushing for community-based alternatives to incarceration, the drive was to invest in mental health, education, addiction treatment, trauma treatment and job opportunities in communities where people live, thereby addressing the root causes of criminalization and incarceration.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation responded by rebranding itself not just as a punisher, but also as a service-provider, expanding its reach by developing programs with names like “community re-entry programs,” “parolee service centers” and “re-entry hubs.” However, upon closer examination, it appears that the department is investing in its staffing and infrastructure — not into the people it imprisons.

One example of the department’s co-optation of anti-incarceration advocates’ ideas is their implementation of the Alternative Custody Program, which was packaged as a program that allows prisoners with dependent family members to finish their sentences in the community where they can care for their families (for example, through “home detention”). When people apply for the program, it is their understandable assumption that they would be able to return to the communities where those family members they need to care for actually live. But the reality is that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation places Alternative Custody Program participants in any contracted bed that is available. One person from Bakersfield was released on the Alternative Custody Program, but was sent to Treasure Island in San Francisco, almost 300 miles from their home community. Holding a person far from their home is still imprisonment, and is not helpful for that person’s re-entry or for the family they were supposedly released to care for.

By marketing facilities and programs with names like “community-based,” “transitional” or “re-entry” the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has made these expansions palatable to a public skeptical of mass incarceration, allowing them to not notice that these facilities are still prisons. These programs may initially sound palatable to people in prison, because they have no other options available.

Stephanie Golden, a 33-year-old woman with a 10-year-old daughter, applied for the Alternative Custody Program in 2013, got approved and sent to a program in San Francisco County, 90-miles away from her community in Sacramento, California. Golden was promised she could have her child with her, but when she saw how the program ran, she “decided not to have her child with her,” and as a result, was punished with restricted visits with her child. Golden said that while she was able to work and see her child, it didn’t feel like she was rebuilding her life, but instead subject to more rules and biases. She said that “after 22 months in a program, it was like paroling all over again” and she “has to start from scratch” in her home community. After a year of release from the program, Golden is still struggling with unemployment and finding resources in Sacramento. She also says “a lot of triggers go with instability that cause people to commit new crimes.”

True reform will not happen as long as law enforcement continues to be at the head of the table in these conversations.

Most would rather go back to their communities for support and re-entry rather than switch to “incarceration lite,” but that option simply doesn’t exist. Golden said, “A lot of people who got to the program full of hopes and aspirations were sent back to prison due to biases and racism,” and “they lost their chance at success.” These prison programs appear to still be based in punitive ideology — that if a person just “pulls themselves up by their bootstraps” and makes better decisions, then they won’t end up back in prison. This idea ignores the fact that decisions are limited by lack of access to education, health care and employment. It ignores the fact that entire communities need trauma healing, as well as opportunities to be lifted out of oppressive conditions.

In order to advance community-based solutions, we cannot continue to increase the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s budget and entrust them with undoing the mental, emotional and physical trauma that has been sustained by people before — and made worse by — incarceration. We cannot continue to believe that behind walls, out of the sight of the public, that abuse does not continue. The department is continuing to cycle people in and out of prison in the name of “job security” while monopolizing resources that should be used to build strong communities and place people’s care in the very communities they came from.

True reform will not happen as long as law enforcement continues to be at the head of the table in these conversations, flanked by legislators out of touch with the real problems of people and communities impacted by incarceration. True reform will not happen as long as those who are directly impacted by incarceration get two minutes to be tokenized and patted on the head for their stories at this table. Or as long as this same table excludes community members from conversations about solutions.

The opportunity to end mass incarceration will continue to be missed until those who are most impacted and destroyed by criminalization and incarceration are at the helm of forging solutions that take care of the very communities and families they come from.