AB 2730 Proposes a Prison-Release Continuum

Good news! AB 2730 (Villapudua) is on its way to the California Senate. The gist of the proposal is:

This bill would would, subject to appropriation by the Legislature, create the California Antirecidivism and Public Safety Act pilot program for the purpose of providing opportunities for job training and work experience to individuals during incarceration to ensure their readiness for employment upon release from incarceration. The bill would require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to establish and implement a 5-year pilot program under which individuals sentenced to state prison, and scheduled to be released to parole or postrelease community supervision within 2 years, would be eligible to participate. The bill would require the pilot program to provide for the housing of the program participants in a community campus setting. The bill would require program participants to have access to evidence-based programs suitable for serving their rehabilitative, workforce training, and education needs, as specified. The bill would require the department, on or before March 1, 2027, to submit a comprehensive report to the Legislature that evaluates the effectiveness of the pilot program, as specified. The bill would repeal these provisions on January 1, 2028.

The idea is nothing new from a global perspective. As Cal Matters’ Nigel Duara explains, it is inspired by Scandinavian prisons, but I vividly recall working on precisely this sort of thing alongside Israel’s Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I’m not sure how the program works now or how well it is funded, but back in the day the idea was this: ninety days before any incarcerated person was to be released, representatives of the Authority would meet with them and come up with a release plan that involves housing and employment. The Authority partnered with an assortment of diverse entities on the outside–agricultural enterprises in Kibbutzim, Yeshivot looking for students, big construction contractor firms, and lots more–and tailored an employment plan for each person. They made sure the person started receiving orientation and training before being released, and the prospective employers were briefed on how to make people feel welcome. They also sponsored a wide variety of housing initiatives, including subsidized housing that partnered two university students with one formerly incarcerated roommate.

It is also nothing new from an historical perspective. One of the most well-known prison reformers, Alexander Maconochie, was Warden of Norfolk Island (see image above) in the mid-19th century and introduced a points system that rewarded good behavior with gradual freedoms and skill acquisition. He transformed a horrific penal colony into a success story and ended up being a victim of his own success, removed from office by law-and-order folks who didn’t like hearing that the prisoners had toasted the Queen’s birthday with alcohol.

Here are some thoughts on what is and is not in the bill, which is a very general one-pager:

Who is in the program? The bill states that, at least during the five-year pilot period, the participants will be chosen by the warden or his/her designate. The criteria are not specified in the bill. I worry that this means that wardens concerned about optics will exclude long-term prisoners who could most benefit from a good introduction to the outside world.

How long does the program last? It looks like the prison is budgeting for the last two years of one’s sentence,

What job skills are provided? The Cal Matters article mentions truck driving, which means leaving prison with a Class A commercial driving license (a great asset on the job market.) But I wonder if CDCR shouldn’t also look at programs it already offers to very few people and consider vastly expanding them. Two examples of programs that produce a 0% recidivism rate (!) are carpentry and marine technology, and our incarcerated firefighter program could also use a considerable expansion. I’m also not entirely clear whether this is only about the provision of jobs or also about actually connecting people with openminded employers, so that they can have a guaranteed job on day one. This is how it’s done in Israel and should also be done here, given the mixed blessing of Ban the Box.

What else does someone need before they go into the outside world? According to Alessandro de Giorgi’s work–money to survive and a place to live. The main problem people face in the first few months on the outside is abject poverty. And since this program doesn’t provide any extra funding, I wonder how we can accomplish that.

If there’s no money, how can prisons make this happen? While rehabilitative prison programming, which now relies mostly on volunteers, is quite uneven in quality, some programs, such as Alliance for CHANGE, already provide useful, pragmatic training for reentry, including training on how to use smartphones and the Internet, as well as budgeting, managing outside bureaucracy, and the like. CDCR should approach this in a collaborative way, seeking to scale up what is being done in these volunteer programs for the benefit of the whole prison. What this also means is that, if the quality of incarceration has to improve, the quantity has to be decreased, and the best way to do that is to incarcerate fewer people for shorter periods. Presumably, if this program works and its graduates are less likely to get back to committing crime, it should pay for itself.

What about staff/guards? CCPOA has, perhaps surprisingly, lent its support to this project, telling CalMatters that the guards have front-row seats to everything that doesn’t work: programs that have “no correlation to the needs of the communities to which inmates will be released” and housing scenarios that produce “pressures […] from fellow inmates [that] can be too great to keep to the straight and narrow.” They know that “[p]rison politics can often be inescapable when programs and housing are delivered in the same environment as those who have no intention of improving themselves” (and one only wishes they were so enlightened when it was time to get vaccinated.) But I also think that, in separate transitional housing, CDCR should seriously consider hiring, training, and placing differently.

How to assess the success of the project? This is a very tricky issue. If the folks who enter the program are selected by the warden, rather than randomly assigned to the program, then an experiment with randomized experiment and control groups is impossible, and much of the success of the program may rely on self-selection. So, even if the pilot cohort will be successful, this will raise serious questions about the ability to scale this up to the entire prison population. Whoever is doing this evaluation study will have their work cut out for them (I don’t think it’ll be me, but we’ll see.)

What about the politics of this? Will it pass through the Senate? I don’t know. Everything is policitized these days, even things that shouldn’t be. It should be everyone’s goal, from the staunchest law and order fanatic to the bleedingest of progressive hearts, that less recidivism is good for everyone: taxpayers, potential victims, you name it. There is no reason this should get anything less than enthusiastic support from all quarters; the question is only whether the reallocation of CDCR’s budget will be done in a way that sets this up for success.

June 2022 Election: Blog Endorsements

Back when hadaraviram.com was California Correctional Crisis, I used to offer election endorsements for your consideration, focusing on the criminal justice propositions. This election has offered a grim opportunity to contemplate the probable victory of two seasoned and experienced politicians, whose management of the COVID-19 crisis in prisons has reflected an astounding moral eclipse.

A while ago, I posted an endorsement against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall. We were all experiencing collective distress over his reluctance to do anything useful to save lives behind bars from COVID. My reasoning was this: the rest of the ballot was a list of egomaniacal clowns with no political experience, many of whom could not even spell their statements. And, as I said there:

I’m not an idiot, and I do understand the concept of the lesser evil. If you are so warped in single-issue agitation that you can’t see the qualitative differences between Newsom–an experienced and capable politician–and the rest of the lot, you need better glasses.

I wrote that post in August. in November, we found out that Newsom, the champion of science-forward, vaccine-forward policies in schools and everywhere else, thinks that unvaccinated guards are a-ok, and goes as far as to support them in their (devastatingly) successful appeal against a vaccine mandate. It was one of the ugliest examples of justice delayed becoming justice denied, can easily be attributed to the fact that the prison guards contributed $1.75 million to his anti-recall campaign, and has disillusioned me. I’ve come a long way from cheering for the then-Mayor of San Francisco who spoke at my 2005 PhD ceremony, and I’m feeling so full of bitterness and bile over the unnecessary loss of life that, this time around, I offer no endorsement for the gubernatorial position. Vote for whoever you want; Newsom will likely win.

The other person to resent is Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is the darling of all the progressive voting guides. Bonta and his employees are the architects of the prison system’s defense against the COVID lawsuits, both regarding San Quentin and more generally in federal court. Their bad-faith in court appearances and representations, ugly games, and shocking lack of regard for human life has soured me on Bonta to the point that I make no endorsement, even though on paper he is the better candidate of the lot and will likely win. I explain my position in detail here. The short version is this: Bonta thinks that he works for us only when he legislates or creates policy, and that when his office litigates, he is the Tom Hagen of the prison guards. That’s an unacceptable perspective for a public servant.

I try not to be a one-issue voter, but having experienced the COVID-19 prison catastrophe up close it is very difficult to justify voting for Newsom and Bonta. Follow your conscience/calculus.

By contrast to these two, one public official shines as a person of profound understanding and conscientious behavior, and that is Phil Ting. I endorsed Phil’s assembly campaign in 2018 and am happy and proud to endorse him again; his conduct during the COVID-19 crisis was nothing short of exemplary. As Chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, Ting presided over a hearing in which, finally, Kathleen Allison was being asked hard questions about her policies and the way CDCR was handling itself. He has also been very sensitive to issues of parole and one of the only politicians with enough guts and public responsibility to realize that long-term aging prisoners are the best release prospects from both a medical and a public safety standpoint. Vote for him again.

There are two criminal justice issues on the ballot. One of them is the ridiculous Prop D, likely thrown into the ballot to add a prong to the Chesa Boudin recall effort by creating the (false!) impression that the D.A.’s office is not responsive to victims’ needs. There is a long tradition in CA of deceiving the voters to believe that there is a need for a victims’ bill of rights and services, when one has existed since 1982 (I explain all this in Chapter 3 of Yesterday’s Monsters.) Just like Marsy’s Law and other deceptive initiative tricks, this is money allocated to no good cause, creating duplicative services that already exist. The Chron is far too gentle on this. Don’t be swindled – vote NO on D.

Finally, speaking of swindling, you already know my position on the Boudin recall effort. There’s a well-oiled, well-funded machine here trying to roll back important reforms, and exploiting people’s exasperation at the misery and turmoil in town, which are NOT Boudin’s fault by a longshot. Don’t be deceived! Vote NO on H.

Ninth Circuit Strikes Down Guard Vaccine Mandate

In an unfortunate, albeit not unexpected, decision, the Ninth Circuit reversed Judge Tigar’s vaccine mandate. You can read the decision in full here.

The reasons, in short, are as follows: the judges considered CDCR’s efforts in “making vaccines and booster doses available to prisoners and correctional staff, enacting policies to encourage and facilitate staff and prisoner vaccination, requiring staff to wear personal protective equipment, and ensuring unvaccinated staff members regularly test for COVID-19. . . symptom screening for all individuals entering the prisons; enhanced cleaning in the facilities; adopting an outbreak action plan; upgrading ventilation; establishing quarantine protocols for medically vulnerable patients; and testing, masking, and physical distancing among inmates” sufficiently ameliorative to reduce their misdeed below the threshold for an Eighth Amendment violation and “[a] decision to adopt an approach that is not the most medically efficacious does not itself establish deliberate indifference.”

Chapter 6 of our book, which discusses COVID prison litigation, is called “The House Always Wins.” This decision is a textbook example of the pathologies of prison litigation and why it fails to address problems in real time. It doesn’t even matter whether the litigation is happening on the federal or state level, because the basic problems are the same: the courts focus on the prison setting more than on the law, continuously contort the Eighth Amendment to defend prison administration, and ignore the basic regulatory requirements in the free world, assuming the prison is so different that they don’t apply. In addition, there is an interagency “game of chicken” that stalemates any efforts at providing timely help during an emergency: the natural actors that should quickly intervene in such situations are the governor and the prison authorities. Since neither has any incentive to do anything helpful, and since the people entrusted with the immediate care of the inmates are in a union that has been completely politically captured, the courts have to make noises of stepping in, but dragging their feet means that dynamic situations change and transform long before they have a chance to intervene.

I think that what happened with this Ninth Circuit decision mirrors what happened with the San Quentin litigation. Recall that, back in November, Judge Howard found that the botched transfer from Chino constituted an Eighth Amendment violation, but the vaccines changed the game and rendered relief moot. I suspect that the Ninth Circuit judges were affected by the fact that, due to the new variants and new endemic realities of COVID, the diminishing returns of vaccination mean that the urgency behind vaccinating the guards (which had already begun to fade by the time Judge Tigar decided to act) is far less salient than it was in winter 2021, when their opposition to vaccination was at its strongest and their compliance could have made a real difference. In other words, this is a classic demonstration of how justice delayed is justice denied.

The other issue is the inherent limitation of litigation, which is backwards-looking. In the Quentin case, Judge Howard explicitly said that he did not look to the next variant or to the next pandemic; his job was just to assess the violations of the past. As we see again in the Plata case, this fundamental trait of litigation is unfortunate for dynamic situations because, as Wes Venteicher reports in this morning’s SacBee:

Now another wave could be coming. The corrections depnartment reported its largest week-over-week increase in new cases, measured as a percentage, in the last week of April. New cases increased by 820%, reaching 322 infections from the prior week’s low figure of 35. About 97,000 people are incarcerated in the state’s 34 prisons. The biggest increases in the last two weeks have been at San Quentin State Prison, Pelican Bay State Prison, California Health Care Facility in Stockton, California Medical Facility in Vacaville and Ironwood State Prison in the southeast corner of the state, according to a corrections department infection tracker.

Ultimately, the only way to learn lessons for the next variant, the next pandemic, the next health crisis, is to conclude the obvious: it is impossible to save lives and provide decent healthcare to 100,000 people in California if the people entrusted with their care do not prioritize their wellbeing. Given that we do not seem to be able to attract people who have the prisoners’ best interests in mind to fulfill custodial positions, from the top, through the unions, to the rank-and-file, the only tenable conclusion is that we cannot and should not incarcerate nearly as many people as we do now. This will be the main conclusion of Fester, though we do make many other recommendations.

Worried about Vaccine Mandates Potentially Causing Prison Understaffing? Guess What Actually Causes Prison Understaffing: COVID-19.

At first glance, today’s COVID-19 numbers for California prisons appear to be a grim reprise of the two previous outbreak waves: thousands of cases, with major outbreaks in several facilities. Clearly, we have learned nothing from the last two years, which led to infections among more than half of the prison population and to 246 deaths; Governor Newsom’s recent reversal of 80-year-old Sirhan Sirhan’s parole bid indicates that politics and optics, rather than pragmatic public health and public safety considerations, are standing in the way of sensible choices. But upon closer inspection, this third wave features another cause for alarm: in addition to the 4,069 active cases among incarcerated people, there are currently 4,570 active cases among prison staff, and in 20 prisons, more than 100 staff members are currently infected.

The reason is not particularly mysterious. Throughout the last two years, California’s prison guards’ union (the CCPOA) led a dogged fight against mandatory vaccination for its members. For many months, the federal district court hearing the case adopted a conciliatory, welcoming approach, appeasing the guards and turning to gentle persuasion methods; these have proven useless in raising the vaccination rates among the staff. Finally, after the COVID catastrophe ravaged prisons (and several months too late to save lives) Judge Tigar ordered a vaccine mandate; the guards, the prison authorities, and Governor Newsom are opposing the mandate and their appeal is pending before the Ninth Circuit.

Whether prison guards refuse to get vaccinated due to indifference, COVID-19 denialism, or misguided politicization of healthcare, is pure speculation. But in their appeal, opponents of the mandate raise concerns that requiring vaccinations might lead to mass resignations of prison guards, which in turn would result in understaffed prisons. This scenario was feared, but failed to realize, in many other employment sectors with mandates, where vocal protestations and threats of resignation gave way to vaccination compliance. Indeed, the opponents’ stance is generating precisely the scenario they worry about: it turns out that, when thousands of people are sick at home, prisons become understaffed.

The irony of the situation might be completely lost on prison authorities, but it has an even darker side. Even if the threat of correctional officers’ resignations were real, and graver than the very real understaffing generated by the spike in staff cases, we must ask ourselves why courts and government officials so stubbornly cling to the idea of overcrowded prisons as a public good. If it is impossible to hire and retain correctional staff who can provide a standard of care that complies with minimal Eighth Amendment requirements, then it is impossible to incarcerate as many people as we do. We must reckon with the fact that we cannot, lawfully and constitutionally, house, clothe, and feed more than 100,000 people—a quarter of whom are over 50 years old—if the staff entrusted with their care cannot be bothered to take minimal precautions to protect their captive wards from disease.

A Visit to Tulane

For the first time since Fall 2019, I got on a plane on Monday and flew to New Orleans; Professor Adam Feibelman very graciously invited me to participate in the Workshop on Law and the Economy, and I had the opportunity to present Fester to people who read big chunks of it, including the introduction and Chapter 4.

Continue reading

The Staff Is the Problem, Contd.

I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s not me–it’s the news. Not only are the San Francisco Sheriff Department’s employees threatening resignation over the vaccine mandates, but CCPOA, possibly the most bad-faith actor in the whole COVID-19 prison crisis, is now fighting the state vaccine mandate in Sacramento. The UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project summarized this problem in a data-rich blog post, and the danger is plain and evident from this modeling piece in the Lancet. I’ve already spent considerable time discussing this here and here among many other places. My newest take on this is on KCBS. My position on this can be summarized in seven points:

  1. Adopting exactly the opposite position than the one they should on vaccination is part and parcel of the pandemic approach of custodial staff and their approach stinks from the top. It harmonizes with their failure to mask, mockery of the residents’ fears, and disgusting fomentation of fear and disinformation.
  2. The problem is dual: CCPOA’s political capture as well as the COVID denialism of the rank and file. We can only speculate about Trumpism among the ranks based on what we know from other law enforcement agencies.
  3. As the dismaying San Francisco story demonstrates, what happens at CDCR mirrors what happens in the counties, where things are even worse b/c the incarcerated incarcerated population’s vaccine rates are considerably lower than in state prisons (a more transient and considerably younger group).
  4. Neither the governor’s office nor the courts have done enough to bring about acceptable staff vaccination rates, and have instead focused their energy on giving bonuses, consulting with gentle persuasion experts, and lavishly complimenting CCPOA for even deigning to show their faces in federal courts. Our executive and judicial branches must share in this shame.
  5. Take it from my colleague, Dorit Reiss, who specializes in vaccine law: There is no valid legal or constitutional argument correctional officers can lob against the vaccine mandate. CCPOA and the Sheriff’s Department have not got a leg to stand on.
  6. Anyone unwilling to do their part to prevent a medical catastrophe among the people they are in charge of is not a good fit for a custodial job.
  7. Finally, I’ve heard countless variations on the theme of “it’s complicated”, “we have to remunerate/reward them instead”, and “how can we attract people to work for us/avoid dangerous vacancies if we impose a vaccine mandate”: If correctional institutions find it impossible to recruit enough people who can be conscientious about the vaccine, the conclusion to draw is that we should not incarcerate as many people as we do.

Christ, These Parole Officers!

Today brings a special offering from the Tenth Circuit: Janny v. Gamez exposes (and finds unconstitutional) some religious coercion in reentry programming. The facts:

Mark Janny was released from jail on parole in early 2015. His parole officer, John Gamez, directed Mr. Janny to establish his residence of record at the Rescue Mission in Fort Collins, Colorado, and to abide by its “house rules.” After arriving at the Mission, Mr. Janny learned he had been enrolled in “Steps to Success,” a Christian transitional program involving mandatory prayer, bible study, and church attendance. When Mr. Janny objected, citing his atheist beliefs, he alleges both Officer Gamez and Jim Carmack, the Mission’s director, repeatedly told him he could choose between participating in the Christian programming or returning to jail. Less than a week later, Mr. Carmack expelled Mr. Janny from the Mission for skipping worship services, leading to Mr. Janny’s arrest on a parole violation and the revocation of his parole.

That this offends the First Amendment should be obvious–but apparently wasn’t to the parole officer. And I think it would be a mistake to view this through a narrow prism of preferential treatment for evangelical Christianity. I say this because, in Yesterday’s Monsters, I devoted a considerable amount of the narrative to the way the parole commissioners treated Susan Atkins, Bruce Davis, and Tex Watson, all of whom are born-again Christians. I wrote:

A charismatic, proselytizing religion, characterized by the consistent responsibility to offer ministry to others and draw them closer to a personal relationship with their Savior. Offering testimony in this religious context is surprisingly similar to expressing and performing “insight” before the Board. The act of Christian testimony often includes references to previous life, and maximizing one’s bad acts prior to conversion plays an important rhetorical role in highlighting the magnitude of the transformative experience. It can be analogous to the “I once was blind, but now I see” narrative of insight, with the important distinction that the insight is specifically religious. But for the Board, accepting a religious conversion wholesale is a dangerous proposition. The hearing transcripts of Davis, Watson, and Atkins demonstrate various ways in which the Board is uncomfortable with the role of religion in the inmates’ lives: it is out of the Board’s scripted plan for the inmate; it is insincere; or, it is too sincere for the prison environment.

As I show in the narrative, the Board flunks Susan Atkins for ministering to her fellow inmates (literally a captive audience–but offering testimony is part of the mandates of evangelical Christianity); Bruce Davis for preferring the programs he runs in the prison to the official psychological counseling and for having “replaced Manson with Jesus”; and Tex Watson for bonding with a relative of his victims over their shared faith. So I don’t think what’s going on here is some sort of bias in favor of Christians.

Instead, it makes more sense to see this through the prism of the postrecession absence of proper rehabilitation and reentry programming. Into the void caused by states’ ineptitude and austerity stepped organizations that retained their funding base, and it’s not particularly surprising that, in this deeply religious country, many prison ministries are religious.

Back in the 1990s, I remember talking to a prison reentry pioneer in Israel who explained that he’d partner with anyone who offered a positive path of redemption: a secular kibbutz, an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, a general contractor offering construction jobs, whoever had something to bring to the table. And I think it’s a great approach–provided that people like Mark Janny, who want their reentry without a side helping of accepting Jesus as their personal savior, have a choice.

Delta in Prisons and Disturbing Staff Vaccination Rates

As many of us experience despair and frustration with the virus’ persistence and wonder what fresh restrictions, closures, and infighting 2021 will bring, here’s a glance at how this has played out in California prisons. As per CDCR data (now compiled for your convenience, in collaboration with the COVID in-custody project, on this blog) CDCR has 159 new confirmed cases in the past 14 days, for a rate of 160 per 100,000. For comparison, CA has a rate of 258 new cases per 100,000 in the past 14 days. There are three new outbreaks: SOL (3) PBSP (11) and PVSP (9). A major outbreak is occurring at SCC (111. cases.) Against this backdrop, CDCR as a whole has a net population increase of 42 since last week (presumably jail transfers.)

Before talking about what is going on, let’s take a glance at the vaccination status. The vast majority of the incarcerated population is incarcerated – just a bit over 50% of the staff is, and no sign that anyone – Judge Tigar, the Governor, the Attorney General – has plans to require vaccination (for comparison’s sake, my workplace, like all campuses of the University of California, requires proof of vaccination.)

Vaccination status for incarcerated people and staff at CDCR as of August 3, 2021. Source: COVID in-custody project on this blog.

It’s important to exercise caution when talking about this. We are hearing again and again that this new plot twist, robbing us of our way of life, is a plague driven by unvaccinated people and the solution is to vaccinate. Newspapers are fomenting an enormous amount of outrage against the unvaccinated and, with everyone’s nerves already frayed, it’s easy to view this group as a monolith. I worry a bit about this facile story; it turns out that, in Israel, half of the infections are among vaccinated people and the government has started offering a third booster to older people, which suggests that the vaccine’s protection wanes over time. Still, given our quaratinist approach to managing healthcare in prisons, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the virus does enter prison from somewhere, likely through staff, and that the rates of people refusing to take a free, accessible, and medically proven prophylactic among staff are significantly higher than in the general population. As the UCLA COVID Behind Bars Data Project has shown, this is a disturbing nationwide trend:

Source: UCLA COVID Behind Bars Data Project

What we’re seeing is no more than what has been the case since the beginning of this: I’ve documented again and again the ways in which the problem with COVID management has been the staff, particularly custodial staff. Just like the Governor has demurred about the scale of releases that would protect elderly, infirm people from COVID, he has demurred about requiring staff to vaccinate. A recurring theme at the Plata hearings has been the effort to treat staff with kid gloves, consult experts on methods of gentle persuasion, congratulate CCPOA for the simple act of even deigning to show up at the case management conferences–in short, do anything except impose a state mandate. The Attorney General has put so many of his employees to work on opposing releases and relief, in the Plata and San Quentin cases, that one might ask if anyone’s even been tasked with considering the legality of a CDCR vaccine mandate.

It’s hard not to be cynical about this when we hear that CCPOA is the largest organizational donor to Newsom’s anti-recall campaign, just recently cutting him a check for $1.75 million (for a total of $4.1 million) after receiving bonuses. CCPOA has been a major political player in California for ages, and has been actively striving to become a political force again even though its traditional issues have become muddled (crime rates are low and the discourse about criminal justice has shifted.) I want to be clear about two things. First, I oppose the recall and will personally vote against it. I think the alternative is much worse than Newsom–even as I find myself unmotivated to donate or volunteer to help the person who presided over the worst prison medical disaster in U.S. history. Second, we have no proof that CCPOA’s support of his campaign is directly related to the waffling about vaccine mandates (and is far more closely tied to bonuses for custodial staff.) But at the very least, given how much we know about how CCPOA treat their enemies, this suggests that CCPOA perceive Newsom as an asset. Also, remember – Newsom desperately needs the CCPOA’s support as he loses ground in the recall battle. So, even though I’m not saying that this is payoff for his staff vaccination policy (or non-policy,) it almost certainly means we won’t be seeing a vaccine mandate.

This might be what CCPOA rank-and-file members want, but it’s not what they need. Nationwide–and in California–staff infection rates are considerably higher than the rates in the general population (in California, almost twice as high.)

The story of CCPOA’s engagement with this crisis is, therefore, complex. The union is completely politically captured, for sure; it does not defend the rational interest of its members, for sure; but “rational interest” and actual interest are not the same thing. In evidence everywhere are COVID denialists who accept their diagnosis only when it’s much too late. Because nobody has collected reliable data on political opinions among prison guards, we can only guess how much of this reluctance among prison staff reflects the wider phenomenon of Trumpist prevalence within law enforcement. If it does, I expect the chances of them changing their minds even as their colleagues fall ill are probably similar to the chances of Newsom, now their political protégé, protecting them from themselves through a vaccine mandate.

The Pains of COVID-19 Imprisonment

This is a quick preview of the ideas presented in chapter 3 of our book in progress Fester: Carceral Permeability and the California COVID-19 Correctional Disaster (under contract with UC Press.)

***

Numerous factors coalesced to make the 1950s and 1960s fertile grounds for ethnographic prison research. The work of Erving Goffman and others, who viewed prisons as a unique psychological and sociological setting; the relatively fresh horrors of Nazism, fascism, and comunism; and the still-lax approach to research ethics on vulnerable populations (manifested in the controversies around Milgram’s Obedience to Authority study and Zimbardo et al.’s Stanford Prison Experiment) resulted in an explosion of works on prison society, staff-population interactions, and the prison economy. , In the late 1950s, Goffman coined the term “total institution” to capture the absolute subjection of the person to the environment, beginning with the branding rituals that turned the person into an “inmate” and continuing with the clandestine economy, adaptation strategies, alliances and conflicts, and more aspects of prison life. In 1965, a fundamental volume of works in this vein came out, edited by Johnston, Savitz and Wolfgang, titled The Sociology of Punishment and Correction. Many works in the volume were reprints of penology classics, such as Donald Clemmer’s concept of “prisonization” – socialization to life inside. Among these works was a short but fundamental text by criminologist Gresham Sykes titled The Pains of Imprisonment. This was an excerpt from Sykes’ book The Society of Captives, based on his ethnography at a New Jersey Prison.

As Victor Shammas explains in a retrospective, Sykes was far from the first observer of the misery and suffering inflicted on residents of prisons and jails; author Charles Dickens and journalist Henry Mayhew extensively illuminated the anguish of incarceration in the 19th century. Sykes’ effort was important in that it identified that prisons did far more to their residents than merely deprive them of their liberty, which was merely the first of five “pains of imprisonment.”

Sykes’ description of the first pain, Deprivation of Liberty, went beyond the obvious limitation to the confines of the prison (and control measures like cells, checkpoints, and passes.) He included the dissolution of bonds to family and friends due to restrictions or difficulties associated with receiving visitors, sending and receiving mail, or placing telephone calls.

The second pain Sykes identified, Deprivation of Goods and Services, consisted of a decline in the material standard of living compared to life on the outside: unpaid or very poorly compensated labor, few personal possessions, and a decline in the quality of shelter, clothing, diet, and healthcare.

Today, Sykes’ third pain, the Deprivation of Heterosexual Relationships, reads as somewhat antiquated; Sykes’ understanding and framing of homosexual relationships and intimacy behind bars was based on limited assumptions. Nevertheless, his sensitivity to the notion that involuntary celibacy could create emotional, psychological, and physical problems in the inmate population was prescient. He believed an involuntary loss of sexual relations produced tension, anxiety, and a worsened self-image for inmates.

The fourth pain, the Deprivation of Autonomy, consisted of denying prisoners the ability to make even the most basic decisions about their daily life, such as when and what food to eat, when and how bodily functions should be taken care of, and when and how to move within the restricted confines of the prison. Sykes believed the loss of autonomy was harmful because it reduced inmates to a child-like state through a series of public humiliations and forced acts of deference.

Finally, the Deprivation of Security, according to Sykes, consisted of subjecting prisoners to a violent, unsafe environment, in which they could be subjected to assaults, sexual victimization, substance abuse, and disease.

Sykes’ typology of pains yielded a long and fertile strain of criminological literature. Later commentators added considerable nuance to his analysis and, in some cases, modified his findings. One notable example is Benjamin Fleury Steiner and Jamie Longazel’s The Pains of Mass Imprisonment, which offers a mass-incarceration-era update rife with awareness of the increased salience of problems exacerbated by overcrowding and racial injustices. Much has changed, they argued in 2010, since Sykes conducted his ethnography in the mid-1950s, beginning with the scope of the system: At the time of Sykes’s research, there were approximately 250,000 prisoners in the U.S. (state and federal) prisons and jails. As of 2010, there were more than 2.2 million, that is, just about nine times as many prisoners. But there were other changes, which they lay out in page 8:

As opposed to focusing on more traditional penological goals such as rehabilitation, the prerogative of prisons today is aggressive incapacitation. In this way, the deprivation of liberty has been exacerbated in the contemporary era, amounting to what can more accurately be described as containment. • Beyond having to endure what amounts to forced poverty (i.e., the deprivation of goods and services), today’s prisoners must cope with a massive for-profit prison industry that routinely exploits them for financial profits by, for example, making them engage in low-wage labor under often dangerous conditions. • Sykes’s extensive observations of the New Jersey State Prison and interviews with those imprisoned there illustrate a lack of access to sexual relationships; yet today with the recent explosion of the number of women behind bars, we have witnessed a crisis of prisoner sexual abuse as female prisoners find themselves subjected to widespread sexualized coercion by their male captors. Whereas being deprived of autonomy once entailed being reduced to the “weak, helpless, dependent status of childhood” (ibid., p. 75), mass imprisonment has wrought a far more aggressive focus on the isolation of exorbitant numbers of prisoners in the brutal conditions of solitary confinement, utterly stripping away the humanity of many prisoners. • The potentially violent behavior of other prisoners once encompassed the deprivation of security, but today is compounded as prisoners are subjected to numerous forms of prison guard brutality.

This changed landscape of incarceration led Fleury-Steiner and Longazel to an updated inventory of imprisonment pains: Containment, exploitation, coercion, isolation, and brutality. But a critical look at Steiner and Longazel’s inventory of oppression and suffering, supported by their comparative table, reveals that the roots of these deprivations were already present in Sykes’ time. This struck me as an important point as we were cataloguing the hundreds of reports we received about how COVID-19 was experienced in California prisons. Listening to recordings, reading emails, and participating in phone and Zoom calls with incarcerated people and their families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—sometimes several a day—showed us that COVID-19 merely exposed the neglect, abuse, fear and deprivation already rampant in the system and its horrors are manifestations of these old pains and difficulties. Following Fleury-Steiner and Longazel, we provide an updated inventory, including the parallels to today’s situation:

The Pains of Imprisonment (1958)The Pains of Mass Imprisonment (2010)The Pains of COVID Imprisonment (2021)
deprivation of libertycontainmentquarantine
deprivation of goods and servicesexploitationorganizational and medical collapse
deprivation of heterosexual relationshipscoerciondeprivation and erosion of all relationships
deprivation of autonomyisolation isolation, quarantine, misinformation, fearmongering
deprivation of securitybrutalitymedical neglect and abuse; staff misinformation and noncompliance; retaliation
Sources: Sykes 1958; Fleury and Longazel 2010; Aviram and Goerzen 2021

The deprivation of liberty, which became containment in the era of mass incarceration, was ground zero of what John Witt refers to in American Contagions as the “quarantinist state.” Administrative unwillingness to release people, court prevarication on transfers and releases, playing Tetris with human lives, the bottleneck of the jails, and the pipelines to ICE, all played a role in this quarantine system. Also to be filed here were the forced moves within the prison – the various isolation strategies which conflated punishment with medical need.

The deprivation of goods and services, which morphed into large-scale economic exploitation, manifested itself in the total administrative collapse of the prison. We include in this category the ineptitude of healthcare at the highest levels, the Chino transfer fiasco, the absence of PPE, the absurd preventions on sanitizing chemicals, the collapse of the sanitation and kitchen system, and the spillover of COVID healthcare ineptitude into the realm of general provision of healthcare. We also include here the disrespectful approach to the dying and the dead and the humiliation and mortification of their families.

What Sykes saw as deprivation of heterosexual relationships (and Fleury-Steiner and Longazel argued became sexual coercion by staff and residents in overcrowded facilities) we see as morphing into a deprivation of all consensual relationships: the ban on phone calls, the problems contacting loved ones and informing them of what was happening, the difficulties faced by lawyers, advocates, volunteers, and activists to get a sense of what was occurring and to help.

The deprivation of autonomy, the ultimate mass incarceration example of which is isolation in solitary confinement, became a systemwide regime of isolation and quarantine. The inability to govern one’s fate manifested itself in the transfer system (housing COVID positive and negative people together), the structural and architectural barriers to even the most basic forms of self-protection and social distancing, and the disciplinary system backing up these contagion-producing practices. All of this was amplified through a systemwide atmosphere of misinformation and fearmongering fomented by staff and tacitly approved by high command.

Finally, the deprivation of security, which at its extreme end in mass incarceration becomes brutality, was in evidence everywhere as massive medical neglect, widely visible staff noncompliance and COVID denialism, and a system of retaliation (via transfer threats) against those who pursued political and legal action against the prison system.

In Fester, we present this framework and walk our readers through each of these five pains of imprisonment not through our own words, but through the words of the people who experienced this first hand–incarcerated people and their families, as well as prison workers.

The Hidden Side of the Prison Labor Economy on Marketplace

This morning I spoke with David Brancaccio of Marketplace Morning Report about the perversions and frustrations of the job market for formerly and currently incarcerated workers. The broadcast version is above – here’s the longer version from Marketplace:

This interview is part of our series Econ Extra Credit with David Brancaccio: Documentary Studiesa conversation about the economics lessons we can learn from documentary films. We’re watching and discussing a new documentary each month. To watch along with us, sign up for our newsletter.


There’s a striking scene in Brett Story’s documentary “The Prison in 12 Landscapes” that captures the complicated and exploitative aspect of rehabilitative prison labor programs: An incarcerated firefighter, explaining how they’re not allowed to talk to others on the job, adds that — because of their criminal record — they have a slim chance of becoming a firefighter upon leaving prison.

It’s an experience that’s common not just for prison firefighters, but for people who work making telemarketing calls, care for elderly or infirm people in prison, and more, according to UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram.

“There are many limitations on people working in these occupations, and because of that, the public is unaware of the fact that many of the people that they interact with every day are working as incarcerated people,” Aviram said in an interview with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio. 

While there are laws in place to protect formerly incarcerated people from hiring discrimination, Aviram noted that many barriers to employment remain, including the scarcity of rehabilitative work programs and their stringent terms and conditions.

“The programs themselves are very selective, it’s difficult to get into them, not all of them are evidence-based,” Aviram said, “so oftentimes they will train people to do jobs that they can’t actually get on the outside.”

Below is an edited transcript of Brancaccio’s conversation with Aviram on the other jobs prisoners commonly do, the challenges facing formerly incarcerated people who are trying to find work and what Aviram thinks can be done to increase their chances of finding meaningful jobs that take advantage of skills learned while in prison.

David Brancaccio: In this film, we see a California wildfire at first. It turns out that one of those working on the fireline, to keep it from spreading, is a person in prison, in a special prison work program. Would a program like that be common or fairly rare?

Hadar Aviram: Here in California, it’s extremely common. And among the people who saved probably thousands of lives in the last summer, when we had the wildfires, were many, many incarcerated people working as firefighters.

“The range of occupations that people have in prison”

David Brancaccio: It’s interesting, right? Because often people don’t know that, in fact, there’s a ban on people who are incarcerated speaking with members of the public while out there fighting the fire.

Aviram: Yes, there are many limitations on people working in these occupations and, because of that, the public is unaware of the fact that many of the people that they interact with every day are working as incarcerated people. A lot of the customer service on the phone, a lot of the furniture, things that are being manufactured — sweatshirts for dozens of Ivy League universities are made in a prison in Kansas, where people are getting paid 50 cents a day. It’s really astounding, the range of occupations that people have in prison. And I think that firefighting is an especially interesting example, because they are saving lives and they are working shoulder to shoulder with professional, non-incarcerated firefighters. The big irony, of course, is that then they get out and, at least until recently, they couldn’t get a job as firefighters, despite being trained, because they have a criminal record.

When formerly incarcerated people are unable to get jobs

Brancaccio: I mean, that’s the thing. There’s, of course, a move that we’ve spent some time covering on this program to ban employers from, for the first initial part of a job application, asking if you have a criminal record, but employers have a way finding out anyway, or it comes up during the background check.

Hadar Aviram

Aviram: Absolutely. I was one of the big pushers for this kind of, we call it “ban the box” initiatives, to screen people without knowing their criminal record. But, it turns out, colleagues of mine at the Urban Institute did a study and they found out that rather than employers discriminating on the basis of criminal records, they have started discriminating on the basis of race as a proxy for criminal records. So, for example, they’ll get job applications, and they don’t know which of the people have a criminal record, but they will interview the person called “Brad” rather than the person called “Jamal,” under the assumption that they are using this as a proxy for the criminal record that they don’t have an access to. It’s very frustrating, because you’re trying to create equal opportunities for everybody, but these things have such a protean quality that they pop up no matter what kind of protections you introduce in the workplace.

“Oftentimes prisons turn to these work programs because they think they’re going to be rehabilitative or whatever. But for the most part it’s economic considerations of the prison itself.”

Hadar Aviram, UC Hastings law professor

Brancaccio: What do you do about that? I mean, you know, there’s an ongoing national discussion, at some level, about what we’re addressing here. But, in part, when people have worked alongside people that they find out have criminal records, and they see firsthand that they’re like the rest of us, sometimes that can help break down these stereotypes?

Aviram: Absolutely. And this is a truth that has been found in studies all over. I mean, people have done studies, for example, of members of fundamentalist churches that, you know, will be railing against single mothers and gay people, but then they have a gay uncle or a niece who’s a single mom and they love them to bits, and that softens, a little bit, this approach.

And the same thing holds for people with criminal records. I just saw a study done at a college where there was a strong correlation between students who personally knew fellow students who were formerly incarcerated and their opinions about: Would they befriend somebody with a criminal record? Would they be willing to date somebody who had been in prison? So, truly, personal acquaintances and education and exposure is the most important thing that we can do to break down these barriers.

Brancaccio: Back to this notion of labor done by people in prison: When the phone rings at our house, it could be someone who is incarcerated at the other end of the line?

Aviram: Yes, absolutely. This is just one of many, many, many occupations that people engage in in prisons. Phone solicitation, customer service, a lot of manufacturing of everyday items that you wouldn’t even have an idea come from prison. And, of course, a lot of the work inside prisons. I don’t know that a lot of people know this: We have a high population of people who are aging and infirm in prison. And oftentimes the people taking care of them are trained caregivers who are incarcerated themselves. So a lot of the things that we think the state is providing, it’s actually people from inside the prison who are incarcerated themselves who are doing it.

Is prison labor, by definition, exploitative?

Brancaccio: What’s your sense, having studied this — I mean, is it, by definition, prison labor, exploitative? I mean, no one’s paid market rates for that labor.

Aviram: This is a complicated question, because there’s the world that we would want to live in, in which everybody gets minimum wage and in which you are actually trained for the reality of the marketplace. And there’s the realities of the world we’re in, in which prison labor, to different extents, is exploitative, and we therefore try to sort of improve people’s lot within the conditions that they’re in.

We have to keep in mind the fact that, to some extent, prison labor is training people for conditions in the market on the outside. But the problem is that oftentimes prisons turn to these work programs because they think they’re going to be rehabilitative or whatever. But for the most part it’s economic considerations of the prison itself. The programs themselves are very selective, it’s difficult to get into them, not all of them are evidence-based, so oftentimes they will train people to do jobs that they can’t actually get on the outside. Up until recently, the firefighting was one such example, but there are many other examples. The programs that do have occupations where people can work on the outside, like marine technology or carpentry, are highly selective; very, very few people can get in. Overall, a more realistic prospect for people coming out is to become independent contractors and work for themselves.

The kind of work formerly incarcerated people end up doing

Brancaccio: That’s what people end up doing? Working for themselves?

Aviram: Exactly. For example, you’ll find people that are putting together landscaping companies, house work companies. And there are some examples that are really amazing, of nonprofits that people have put on the outside, where they’re working in the marketplace and just doing amazing things. Right next to Hastings, which is where I teach, is a neighborhood called the Tenderloin in San Francisco, which, during the pandemic, became pretty much an open-air drug market — lots of homeless people, lots of misery, mental health, substance abuse, oftentimes people overdosing. And the mayor was upset by this, and a couple of times they sent the police to clean up the neighborhood with everything that stems from that. That was extremely difficult, because there were no solutions for people other than just sort of cleaning up the aesthetics.

And then a nonprofit stepped in called Urban Alchemy. They operate public restrooms, which is incredibly important in these kinds of neighborhoods. They operated safe sleeping sites during COVID. They calmed down violence, they actually revived people with Naloxone who had overdosed multiple times every week. They did amazing things. And what enables them to do this work more effectively and more peacefully than the police, and almost without any show of force, is the fact that they are former lifers, that the people who work at Urban Alchemy acquired these peacemaking and mentoring skills that they use every day on the job in decades in prison. They were elders and mentors on the yard when they were inside, and they retain this kind of calm mentorship role on the outside. And they have done such an amazing job that the change in energy in the neighborhood is palpable.

Brancaccio: Those are special skills that are in demand. It’s a shame that some employers don’t fully recognize this.

Aviram: Exactly. There are many ways in which we look at a criminal record or a previous prison stay as a liability. This is of course difficult, because at any given moment, 1% of the entire population of the United States is incarcerated. So we have a lot of people who actually have acquired skills and strengths where they were that we can use in the marketplace. I’m not just thinking about occupations that are entry-level jobs, I’m thinking even about entry into, say, the California bar, as lawyers. Think about what somebody brings in, coming in with an insider perspective on a criminal justice system, reassuring their clients about what’s going to happen to them, you know, being able to present a realistic perspective. There are so many strengths that you acquire.

One of the most successful programs we have in California is called marine technologies, it’s people who work underwater fixing ships and underwater structures. And this is partly a skill where it’s a great advantage to be used to being in a very overcrowded environment. This is difficult for a lot of people. But people, unfortunately, who spent time in our grossly overcrowded prisons have acquired this skill. This is a market strength that is being undervalued and stigmatized for no good reason.

Brancaccio: I was reading about that marine program. Recidivism, going back to the ways of crime, is near zero for people who’ve gone through that program.

Aviram: Those are good jobs. If you get a job like that, there is no reason for you to commit crime, because you have gainful employment. We have to think more evidence-based about these kinds of programs and strengths in the market and prepare people for that.

Brancaccio: Those programs often can be expensive within the prison. Sometimes when budgets are tight, as you’ve written, that’s the program that gets cut.

Aviram: Exactly. It’s one of the downsides. And this is something that I wrote in my first book “Cheap on Crime,” that we, overall, saw the prison population shrink since 2009. This was a result of the the recession of 2008. But one of the side effects of that that was more sinister was that there were drastic cuts to rehabilitative programming. And that created a big difference, a big gap, between prisons that are set in urban centers, where there’s lots of volunteers and do-gooders that step in and create these programs. Here, for example, in San Quentin [State Prison], we have Silicon Valley entrepreneurs volunteering to teach people the internet, which is very difficult when you don’t have internet behind bars. So we have all of this programming because of the volunteers, because they’re stepping in to fill in the gaps that the state cannot fill. But there are many, many prisons in the United States that are located in these remote, rural locations, very, very difficult to get there, and very difficult to get quality programming that actually prepares people to get good jobs once they get released.