Kenneth E. Hartman

"Making the world I live in a better place remains my goal and focus"

Words Also Matter In Prison


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Words Also Matter In Prison
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Prison As a Metaphor For Modern Society
Prisoners And The Media




Kenneth E. Hartman


            California's prison system has found a way to dig itself deeper into the pit of failure, again.  After years of mismanagement and outright hostility, dirty tricks and retaliatory strikes, the best functioning yard in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will cease to exist by the deviously simple acting of changing the name.  The Honor Program, subject of glowing documentaries, award-winning writing and far-sighted legislation will be renamed something, anything that does not contain the word honor.  The prison bosses never could get their limited view around such an expansive concept.  Prisoners acting honorably, adopting an honorable lifestyle, incorporating and manifesting honor in their lives simply ruins the whole dismal script.  It is this script, the operational ethos that has governed the direction of the prison system, the Honor Program challenges.  The shotcallers in Sacramento just aren't ready to abandon a system that has been so good to them, no matter the wreckage that system has inflicted on the rest of California.

            As one classic dictum holds, follow the money.  A lot of money, even by California standards.  Money that supports an ever-growing empire of concrete and razor wire spread all across the state.  Money that supports thousands of suppliers, and pumps a steady stream of cash into counties and cities from the northern coast to the southern deserts.  Money that pours into the coffers of virtually every major political figure and funds a slew of shill groups who sole purpose is to support the status quo.  Money that is used, all too often, to cynically purchase laws that guarantee the continued, unwarranted growth of the prison system.  A great stain of money that pollutes our politics, our governance, our very social fabric.

            Another dictum holds that stupid is as stupid does.  To list all the nonpartisan, bi-partisan, blue ribbon, special committees and panels that have examined the actual actions of the prison system would take too long.  Their conclusions, printed on truckloads of paper, can be fairly summed up by this one quote from Senator Gloria Romero, "If you were going to design a prison system to be a complete failure, you need only look at the California Department of Corrections."  One poor decision after another, for 20 years, has resulted in the current morass.  A system that used to be, in Governor Schwarzenegger's own words "the envy of the nation," is now nothing less than a disaster.  Medical care so incompetently provided the federal courts now hire doctors and nurses.  Educational and vocational training programs eviscerated in a remarkably boneheaded, cost-cutting measure.  Visitation programs dramatically limited, again to save a few dollars.  Drug treatment programs so ineffective Inspector General Matthew Cate called them "a hundred-million dollar waste of money."  Never mind that any first-year criminology student could tell you only three things are known to measurably and reliably reduce recidivism: academic and vocational education, maintenance of family ties, and competent substance abuse treatment.

            My dictum, after 28 continuous years of incarceration, holds that corruption and incompetence hide behind chaos.  That is what the taxpayers' money is buying, at an exorbitant rate, chaos, a smokescreen of blood and gore.  When I came to prison, the recidivism rate was less than 30%.  After the past generation of tough guy politics and tough guys running the prisons, it's about 70%.  In 2005, nearly every prison in California averaged some kind of mass, violent disturbance, more than once a month.  Back when prisoners were being educated and treated, when they were aided in reconnecting with their families and free society, a riot in one of our prisons was an aberration, almost unheard of.  As Ted Koppel recently reported, following an in-depth investigation of our prisons, the people running things are using disruptive groups to create violence and disorder - chaos, in other words.

            Sadly, this isn't a new tactic in prison in this state.  As far back as 1983, administrators at Folsom State Prison set up a deadly confrontation between an African-American and a Mexican gang to thwart a federal judge's demand that prisoners not be placed in the hole absent an actual cause.  In the '90s, administrators enacted a policy of forced integration of rival ethnic gangs, which resulted in the notorious "gladiator" fights at Corcoran State Prison.  More recently, the widespread policy of using so-called "peacekeepers" (a euphemism for the most violent negative leaders) was deemed one of the proximate causes of the death of a prison guard at the institution in Chino.

            In 1998, in the midst of a series of massive riots at this prison, I wrote the proposal that started the process that gave birth to the Honor Program.  Bottom-line, the program calls for prisoners to voluntarily commit themselves to a few key concepts: abstention from drugs and alcohol, willingness to participate in serious rehabilitation programs, abandonment of gang and racial activities, and adoption of an honorable attitude.  Thanks to the heroic efforts of a few extraordinary staff members and a uniquely progressive warden, the program was established in 2000.  What all this meant in practice was a yard filled with men striving to change themselves into better men.  It meant a flowering of positive programs, from counseling at-risk youth, to creating artwork donated to local charities, to refurbishing eyeglasses for poor people.  Most fundamentally, it meant the creation of a yard where the terrible tragedies of this system stopped.  No more riots.  No more staff assaults.  No more endless lockdowns.  A small space opened up in the maelstrom where rehabilitation became a real possibility.  Because, and I know this like I know the guns pointed at me have real bullets in them, dropping even a great program into a storm of violence accomplishes nothing.  As the statistics show with depressing clarity, the California prison system, as operated, cannot do rehabilitation.  The winds of the storm are just too powerful.

            Why should the people of this state care whether a bunch of prisoners, convicted felons all, have the opportunity to be rehabilitated?  Why should prisoners even be considered for the word honor, when we have acted so dishonorably in our pasts?  The first question is the easier one to answer.  At some point, more than 95% of us will be returning to free society.  No less a figure than Police Chief William Bratton has recently observed that parolees returning to Los Angeles are tougher, meaner and very angry.  Brutalizing people for years on end is irrational, to say the least.  Affording opportunities to reform, while demanding higher personal standards, results in lower recidivism, less crime and tremendous cost savings.  This last cannot be emphasized enough: rehabilitated parolees save millions of dollars, billions of dollars if the prison system gets serious.  Billions of dollars that can be invested in the things our state desperately needs.  Maybe some of the savings could be put into the kinds of programs that deter incarceration in the first place.

            Answering the second question is more challenging.  Not because I don't believe I can answer in the affirmative, but because doing so in a way that cuts through all the disinformation and propaganda is a tough proposition.  When a man is sent to prison in this state he is subjected to a monstrous, brutal, dehumanizing process, which strips him of hope.  Hopeless men are dangerous men, are men who are destined for desperate actions and ignoble endings.  The process is something like boot camp where the new recruit is beaten down, stripped of his identity, and broken.  This is where the similarity ends.  Instead of a rebuilding process that aims to create a new, stronger, more disciplined man, the prison system keeps grinding the man down until there isn't much left but rage and despair.  This is why California prisoners have a much higher suicide rate, murder rate and staff assault rate than the national averages.  It is the reason more than two-thirds of parolees fail to succeed.  Whatever you want to call it - hope, aspiration, desire - the essential spark that animates the best in all humans is snuffed out in the chaos.

            The Honor Program directly confronts this eradication of the desire for redemption.  Prisoners are challenged to stretch themselves to achieve real, positive goals.  The idea is to do the time we have earned in such a way as to reclaim our humanity through work, study and commitment to higher principles.  We who put this together, prisoners and supportive staff alike, knew this would work because we know that prisoners, like all humans, are capable of transcending their worst actions.  We also know that for rehabilitation to be more than 14 letters on a new logo there must be fundamental change on the ground, on the yard.  This means breaking out of the chaos-driven model of inaction and mendacity.  This means instituting reform as opposed to talking about it.  In this isolated case, on one isolated, maximum-security yard, doing something, taking action, worked.

            Still, the prison bosses cannot abide the word honor associated with prisoners.  In defense of their fear-filled realm of turmoil and defeat, they will kill off the honor program and replace it with another sham, hollow "programming" yard, which equates to nothing of depth, of meaning.  I suspect the motivation behind this wrong and shortsighted move is twofold.  On the surface, it is simple mean-spiritedness, the action of people who loathe their charges and can't swallow the idea that we, their hated foes, might be capable of good.  Deeper, the leaders of this system have recognized from the start how dangerous our program is to their ascendancy.  The tough guys rode to the top on the backs of fear and surrender.  They promised to smash prisoners into line, to treat us like animals, and subdue us because nothing else would work.  Of course, they failed, but in the process created a false mythos that success is impossible.  All the good press, all the political and community support we have garnered, scares them to the core of their beings.  The fact is, while there are indeed many good men and women working in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the old bulls at the top are the wrong crowd for this time.  No more proof is necessary than their continued failure to support the Honor Program.

            Like every other prisoner in this state, I have family out there.  While my own actions took away my chance to live as a free man, I want for them a safe and happy life.  Every year some 80,000 men and women are paroled back to the world of my family, of you and your family.  Would you rather, as your co-worker, your neighbor, a parolee who has spent the last several years of his life enduring a soul-stripping existence of violence and misery, or one who was challenged to aspire to an honorable life?  In this case, words really do matter. 


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