Bad behavior of inmates with fixed term sentences opens door to recidivism.
Did you know that before 1977 ALL California prisoners were sentenced to a term of ‘imprisonment-to-life’ (like 1-to-life or any-number-of-years-to-life)? Most people don’t, but that’s how it used to be. The Parole Board required inmates to ‘earn’ their release date, and only after achieving a set of standards would they qualify for release.
After 1977, the Determinate Sentencing Law was enacted and that split the inmate population in two groups (not including death row): 1) inmates serving LIFE term sentences (reserved for more serious crimes like kidnapping, murder, mayhem) and 2) inmates serving DETERMINATE sentences for all other crimes (including sex offenders) – a prisoner would serve a fixed term (a certain number of years) and then released without having to appear before the Parole Board. The new law was implemented to reduce the number of parole hearings being held after the prison population exploded as a result of the crack/cocaine epidemic, which in turn fueled the crime surge of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. This split created two distinct and separate classes of inmates: ones who are REQUIRED to earn a parole date by meeting specific criteria, and another class which IS NOT REQUIRED to do anything to earn their release date.
And then came the ‘exodus’. Recently, a federal court order in PLATA v BROWN forced California’s governor Jerry Brown to ease overcrowding in all 33 prisons by reducing the number to 109,000 inmates come February 2016 (from the 170,000 level of 2008). As a result, thousands of inmates who are not ready for release are being let go early.
Having served over two decades on a ‘life’ sentence in numerous California prisons, I came to understand why the prison population rose to these unprecedented levels, and I’ll explain it here.
There are four categories of prisoners in California’s prisons. One, sentenced to death. Two, sentenced to life without parole. A third, sentenced to a life term but with the possibility of parole (INDETERMINATE SENTENCE). And lastly, serving a fixed amount of time and being released after serving 50% or 85% of the original sentence. (DETERMINATE SENTENCE) This story will focus on the differences between Determinate and Indeterminate sentences, and why prison reform is desperately needed if California has any hope of reducing recidivism, the prison population in the long term, and actually ‘rehabilitating’ a human being.
In California, the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) lays out specific criteria which a life term inmate must follow to earn a ‘finding’ of parole suitability; 1) the inmate is REQUIRED to participate in self-help courses (such NA, AA, Al-Anon, or groups run by staff psychologists). 2) Get certified in a vocational trade (such as auto mechanics, janitorial, dry-cleaning, welding, etc.). 3) Remain disciplinary free (no write-ups). 4) Upgrade his education level to at least a GED (or college degree). So an inmate serving a life term has to prove to the Parole Board that he’s prepared to be released into society. A life term prisoner has to do a minimum of 10-15 years before being eligible to see the Board, which gives the inmate enough time to develop maturity, insight into his crime, eliminate the addictions that may have triggered his crime, and get an education. By the time the life term prisoner serves his minimum eligible time and has met the set criteria for a hearing, he is very likely to be a rehabilitated person.
Attending a parole hearing is much like putting on a song and dance for a 2-3 judge panel as a contestant on Fox TV’s “American Idol” reality show. Just as in the TV show, the parole board members act as a ‘sifter’ to separate those who performed well and are ready to get to the next round, from those who clearly need some work or are not even close.
In stark contrast, a determinate sentence prisoner is NEVER REQUIRED ANYTHING in order to secure his parole suitability. This type of prisoner can literally spend his time working out, watching TV, socializing in the day room, playing dominos or chess all day and night, without EVER having to attend a self-help group, or further his education, or get a vocational trade certification even though these opportunities exist for all prisoners. More shocking is the fact that even if he engages in a repeated pattern of breaking prison rules and accumulating write-ups, he is still guaranteed his fixed term release date.
When you look at the recidivism rates of either class of prisoners, you understand the problem. Life term inmates released on parole have .2% (less than 1 percent) return to prison rate. Determinate sentence inmates have 70% return rate within six months of release, and it is obvious why; when you don’t set standards to eligibility for release, a prisoner won’t have any incentive to improve himself. Unmotivated inmates will stick to their criminal thinking/behavior that brought them to prison in the first place. They’ll continue to commit crimes pursuing pleasure, or adrenaline rush fueled by drugs or alcohol (yes, in prison), or even more violent acts like rape or murder as a result of unresolved anger issues or addiction to power and control. Prisons are actually fertile breeding grounds for criminal behavior, and criminal thinking does not change without a rehabilitation commitment.
For example; in California, prisoners are assigned to a prison job that normally pays about 13 cents an hour. Earning such a low wage, inmates constantly feel the need to STEAL from their prison jobs (food from the kitchen, supplies from janitorial, clothing from laundry, etc.) in order to supplement their income; it’s called a ‘hustle’. Prison personnel recognize this behavior, but mostly accept it because they are human beings and realize that 13 cents an hour doesn’t cover an inmate’s basic needs. (Want to write home? Work 4 hours for a fist class stamp!) So, it is more acceptable for prison staff to look the other way than discipline inmates for stealing, as workers’ low morale and a hostile environment would be the most likely outcome of trying to enforce the rules. Thus, criminal behavior becomes accepted as the norm. Inmates also steal because they are jealous/envious of others whose family and friends send them money, and they aspire to attain the same status/prestige; much like a youngster in the hood/barrio looks up to the neighborhood drug kingpin who has celebrity status, power, fame, money and women.
Being conditioned to steal to survive behind bars, once released, such an ex-con is likely to continue to steal even from family, friends and employers, displaying parasitic tendencies that will make it more he/she is caught and returned to prison.
Inmates of higher intelligence, exceptional street hustle skills, means and resources may already have their basic needs met, but they continue to seek power and control over others by pursuing more sophisticated avenues, such as bribing prison staff to bring in contraband (phones, dope, weapons, money, etc.) It’s a highly profitable gig because regardless of the sentence the root of criminal behavior has not been addressed as a REQUIREMENT to obtain a release date. The prisoner knows there is no real downside if caught; possession of a contraband phone = 90 days added to sentence; stealing from work = 30 days; bribing prison staff – a minor write-up for ‘over-familiarizing’ and transfer to another prison. The majority of inmates caught in possession of, trafficking, or selling drugs are rarely prosecuted by the county District Attorney. Again, no real consequence.
However, the life term prisoner with an indeterminate sentence suffers more serious consequences for ANY disciplinary write-up, so he is less likely to engage in any illegal activity; the Parole Board can deny a life term prisoner a hearing date for 3 to 15 years under the 2008 voter passed initiative, the “MARSY’s LAW”. In stark contrast, a determinate sentence prisoner can accumulate 10 or more disciplinary write-ups, gaining time on his sentence, but with disciplinary free periods he can OBTAIN that time back by simply ‘displaying’ good behavior. Thus, the fixed term of release date is not affected at all, and at most maybe a few more months to a year could be added to the fixed sentence.
LIFE term inmates make the best workers in prison and are mostly hired by the Prison Industry Authority (prison industries that manufacture goods that are purchased by the State of California – textiles, woodworks, etc.) where they make anywhere from 30 cents to a dollar an hour. By working 8-12 hour shifts at wages that would cover their basic necessities, these inmates develop a good work ethic that will serve them well upon release, while also deterring them from engaging in illegal activities in prison.
Some prisoners just can’t “fix” themselves and CDCR does nothing to correct the behavior that got the inmate to prison. There is a serious shortage of mental health staff, and the counselors are too busy to do comprehensive evaluation of prisoners. No professional help is offered; the prisoner must ASK for it if he is motivated enough, and that covers only a small percentage. In my opinion, if there is going to be any real prison reform and a real ongoing reduction of the prison population, ALL INMATES should go before the Parole Board, such as prior to 1977, and evaluated based on achieving the requirements set forth the moment they first stepped on prison grounds.
I have personally seen inmates parole and return to the same prison on multiple different crimes and terms, serving what I call ‘life on installments.’ Each time, those inmates say they are not coming back, but they most always do. They have no motivation to change, so unless someone dangles a release date in front of their eyes accompanied by the terms and conditions of their release they will continue to go in and out through the prison’s revolving door at your expense.
In the alternative, CDCR can require that determinate sentence prisoners be upheld to the same standards a life prisoner is, and if the inmate does not perform he/she must serve out the ENTIRE determinate sentence, and not half time or 85%. CDCR should also be required to provide and publicly publish a definition to the word ‘rehabilitation’; without one, can any correctional employee, staff psychologist or counselor aspire to help rehabilitate a prisoner?
Written by anonymous while doing time in California.