Michael Baldwin Senior is a Modesto Community Advocate and paralegal. This article is the first in a series on the challenges faced by current and former convicts in their quest to successfully reenter society. It’s written in collaboration with Tom Portwood.
I’m a former convict. I don’t consider the term a label but a source of strength. I am also blessed to be living in the Valley, working as a paralegal for a highly respected law firm, and advocating for other former convicts and many others who are still incarcerated.
It’s been a long road to this point in my life where I can proudly say I’m contributing in meaningful ways to my community. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we are all in this together.
I walked out of Corcoran State Prison thirty months ago and into society for the first time in nearly twenty-seven years. It was an amazing feeling, almost scary.
It was also a hard-won moment after many years of soul-searching and rehabilitation. And I didn’t do it alone — no, I received a lot of help from many of my fellow inmates along the way. Rehabilitation — that’s the word — the concept itself is greatly misunderstood by society.
To be able to walk out of a prison with your freedom and sanity, that’s the elusive goal. The truth is that rehabilitation, as it’s structured in our prison system today, just doesn’t work the way society may think it does.
Some years ago, when I was still working through my own problems, I sat at the release gate on the prison yard one day and watched seven men parole. I personally knew each of them and, of the seven, only two of them had truly pursued rehabilitation, personal progress, and transformation. These two men happened to be life term inmates who had actively attended programs addressing domestic violence, anger management, and parole planning, as well as Narcotics Anonymous meetings and Victim Impact programs.
The other five men had spent most of their days in the yard working out and just doing their time. They may have stayed out of trouble or worked a job such as sweeping the floors or passing out food on the chow line, but they had skirted around the whole process of rehabilitation. And that was a shame, for I feared that they had seriously undermined their chances of leading successful lives once they were out in the world.
But don’t just take my word when I say that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to fall short in its charge of providing inmates with the comprehensive schedule of rehabilitation programs they so desperately need.
In a report issued i n January 2019, CDCR concluded that, “Corrections is failing to place inmates into appropriate rehabilitation programs, leading to inmates being released from prison without having any of their rehabilitation needs met.”
The State Auditor also stated that in 2017-2018, “Corrections assigned 15 inmates at the three prisons we reviewed (Folsom, R.J. Donovan, San Quentin) to rehabilitation programs though more than 700 other inmates had higher risks and needs.” CDCR also cited an inadequate level of staffing for rehabilitation programs as another shortcoming in the report. Additionally, the enrollment rates in rehabilitation programs were found to be lower than their budgeted capacity.
The truth is that inmates are turning to each other for support and strength in dealing with all the issues – the addiction, the violence, the anger – that led them to commit crimes in the first place.
Inside of prison, you have some programs that are really helpful toward identifying these issues. But CDCR doesn’t make those programs mandatory. When you go into prison, there’s no one coming to your cell door saying “Hey, this is the crime you committed, here are some of the reasons why you committed that crime, and these are the programs you need to take to make sure you resolve the issues that led you to commit the crime.” There’s no judge sentencing you like that. There are no counselors coming to your door. Most of the time you have another inmate who ends up interacting with you, and actually helps you discover these things. Or, you go into a room and you hear someone else talking about their life and their issues and sometimes you can identify with what you’re hearing. I went to a group one day and heard a guy talking about his life and it occurred to me, “Wow, I’ve experienced that, too!”
The peer-to-peer support — the peer-to-peer rehabilitation — is the lifeblood of rehabilitation at CDCR. Inmates are stuck with each other, and eventually, they build relationships with each other. There were some men in prison whom I trusted more than any other person on the planet. I would confide in them before I would confide in anyone else.
It’s impossible to talk about prison without talking about addiction. The vast majority of men that I interacted with while incarcerated — maybe 80 to 85% — had some level of addiction, some level of a drug or alcohol problem. Often, though, criminal behavior is also an addiction to the drama and the violence or the lifestyle of crime.
The availability of 12-step programs, then, is really critical. Most institutions have a couple of 12-step programs, and they can be helpful. But, in my case, it wasn’t until I found CGA — Criminal and Gang Members Anonymous — that I really began to address the core root of my behaviors and reactions to my own thoughts and emotions.
CGA is a 12-step program where the steps are slightly revised to accommodate the rehabilitative needs of criminals. In AA and NA, you admit that you are powerless over your addiction and that your lifestyle is not manageable. But the first step in CGA is different. It says that we admit to a lack of strength and control over all forms of criminal activity and that the lifestyle we had pursued was not decent or manageable.
A wise and insightful inmate by the name of Richard Mejico was responsible for that key change. Moreover, he took it upon himself to have the change formally approved by Alcoholics Anonymous, and I can personally vouch for the fact that CGA has helped many inmates to turn their lives around.
Today, with Covid-19, rehabilitation inside of prisons has been devastated. At the moment, there are no volunteers who are coming to prisons. And without volunteers, there are no self-help programs. Most self-help programs are being conducted as correspondence courses only, through the mail. The number of correspondence courses is increasing, due to the pandemic and the need to shut down access to the inside. But as necessary as that might be, this shutdown has intensified the inmates’ desire and ability to help each other, but in very small groups. Each yard has individuals who are excellent at understanding the process of change and transformation. So, once again, the inmate population has stepped into the void to provide the most viable rehabilitation opportunities.
I would recommend to CDCR that if it really wants to facilitate rehabilitation within its system, the staff should be responsible for maintaining the dignity of the population of inmates they serve. That’s the best course toward rehabilitation. Yes, CDCR needs to do what’s needed for those who have violated the law, but I believe that we need to adopt more of a restorative justice model into our judicial and prison systems.
It’s critical to give a new inmate the opportunity to see the end at the beginning of their prison sentence, to help them set achievable goals so that they can go home again one day. Each inmate should be asked: “If going home matters to you, what type of person do you want to be when you leave here?”
I also strongly believe that CDCR should find a way to reinfuse family back into inmates’ lives. Again, the pandemic has made this almost impossible over the past year. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prioritize this as a critical need, even if it means free phone calls. Without connections, it becomes almost impossible to reclaim a life. Crime happens as a result of severed connections. If justice doesn’t include reconnection, it’s not justice at all.
The high rates of recidivism for felony offenders — 66% — makes it all the more imperative that CDCR overhaul its approach to rehabilitation. If CDCR is willing to do that, lives will be saved — and society will be the better for it.