"California is to incarceration what Mississippi was to segregation—the state that most exemplifies the social and legal deformities of the practice."
- Jonathan Simon, Berkeley Law Professor
“If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you never did.”
- Anthony Forrest, Re-Entry Hire at Planting Justice
California’s over-incarceration problem has been growing for a long time. That 500% increase in the prison population that occurred between 1975-1995 is due in part to the state’s dismal recidivism rate, which has been the highest in the nation for decades. About 65% of people who leave a California State Prison end up back inside in less than one year. While sentencing - tough on crime policies like three strikes & mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders - receives most of the attention when it comes to the mass incarceration issue, the over-incarceration problem cannot be meaningfully addressed without radically reforming our broken parole and re-entry policies. Even if we drastically reduce prison sentences, apply those reforms retroactively, and implement common-sense policies to get tens of thousands of people out of prison, we will be unable to make a serious dent in our prison population so long as only 3 out of 10 prisoners who exit prison are able to successfully re-enter society. California needs a comprehensive strategy to re-integrate formerly incarcerated people back into society - and we need to start by recognizing that what we’ve been doing ain’t working.
What makes California’s recidivism rate so high compared to other states?
For over a decade, California has had one of the highest recidivism rates in the United States. This is due to a number of factors, most significantly:
The State of California was unable to build and fund the infrastructure necessary to keep up with the rapidly increasing incarceration rate. By 2001, California prisons were so overcrowded that the average facility was operated at 200% capacity. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plata vs. Brown that the conditions in California prisons due to overcrowding violate prisoners’ constitutional rights. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society." As a result of extreme overcrowding, California prison spending has been more focused on expansion - building more beds to warehouse more prisoners - than on rehabilitation. While the State of California has spent billions building more prison beds, rehabilitative programming, which is absolutely essential to preventing recidivism, has been cut drastically. Without rehabilitative programming like substance abuse & mental health treatment, opportunities to obtain basic and higher level education and job training, etc. prisoners are set up to fail, when they try to re-enter society upon their release. Not only do many California prisoners not have access to rehabilitative programming, the deplorable conditions in over-crowded California prisons (everything from medical neglect to sexual assault to psychological torture via solitary confinement) likely have long-term negative health impacts on prisoners that continue to burden their families and communities long after their release.
California’s parole system has long been one of the most draconian in the nation. California prisoners spend more time on parole than anywhere else in the country, and technical parole violations (where parolees are sent back to prison for violating some term of their parole) occur more frequently in California than in other states. (See table below) A California parolee can be sent back to prison for violating any term of their parole - including infractions that wouldn’t mean jail time for someone who is not on parole, which, of course, means that many parolees end up recidivating while on parole. You can read about Planting Justice’s formerly incarcerated staffers’ experiences with the CA parole system.
Attempt at Reform - Public Safety Realignment
"For too long, the state’s prison system has been a revolving door for lower-level offenders and parole violators who are released within months—often before they are even transferred out of a reception center. Cycling these offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation, and impedes local law enforcement supervision."
– Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Governor’s Press Release, April 5, 2011.
In 2011, the State of California made an attempt to address the prison-overcrowding crisis by passing a reform known as Public Safety Realignment, which essentially stopped the practice of sending parolees back to state prison for parole violations - but sending violators into the county jail system instead. Realignment also cut the maximum sentence for a technical parole violation in half - from one year to six months. While Public Safety Realignment is one of the most major prison reforms ever implemented in California, according to a 2014 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, “the post-realignment period has not seen dramatic changes in arrests or convictions of released offenders.”
Why didn’t Realignment work? Because instead of addressing the root causes of the recidivism issue, it simply shuffled parolees and prisoners from state prisons to county jails. While realignment has provided some relief for CA state prison administrators dealing with overcrowding, it has utterly failed our communities, who continue to suffer from mass incarceration, recidivism, poverty, and violence.
The Failure of Public Safety Realignment:
“Although Prop 47 and other reforms have reduced the prison population by 8,700, the budget projects that the population will grow by 1,153, or 0.9%, to 128,834 people.”
“They never lied to us; it’s all right there in the title. Public Safety Realignment. They’re not changing anything, they’re just moving stuff around.”
- Gene Allen, formerly incarcerated PJ Staffer
While the proportion of released offenders arrested within one year of release has declined slightly, the proportion of released offenders who are arrested multiple times within the first year of release has increased by 7 percentage points under realignment. Parolees are now incarcerated in local county jails for short terms stays (instead of in state prison for a longer stay). The impact of this change on the parolee is that they are able to cycle in and out of jail more rapidly (they may be released earlier due to overcrowding, a problem which has now migrated from the state prison system to county jail system), giving them a greater total of “street time” (days not incarcerated) but not necessarily helping them move forward and out of the system for good. Each arrest and each day in jail is a major setback for a formerly incarcerated person trying to get out of the system. Even if these arrests don’t land them back in state prison on a high level felony conviction within their first year of release, they can prevent a parolee from getting and holding down a job, keeping a roof over their head, reconnecting with their families in meaningful ways, demonstrating accountability, etc. This rapid cycling in and out of county jail is a major impediment to a successful transition home from prison, and it puts an additional burden on local law enforcement, who get bogged down in a cycle of catch and release for mostly low-level, economic crimes by people struggling to survive out on the street after years or decades in prison. High arrest numbers might be good for police departments on paper, but these kinds of arrests clearly aren’t making our communities any safer and are detrimental to sustainable de-carceration and re-entry.
Basically, you can’t stop parolees from re-offending by changing what happens to them when they step out of line. In order to stop people from committing crimes during their first year release after a lengthy prison sentence, we need to address the set of conditions that might motivate parolees to break the law in the first place.
The State of California has attempted to address the issues arising from realignment by funneling hundreds of millions of our tax dollars into county jail construction and expansion. This push to expand county jail capacity is a pre-emptive plan for failure. With high recidivism viewed as a given - an attitude based on ahistorical, racist assumptions about the inherent, incurable criminality of our incarcerated population - no serious attempt is being made to address the root causes of criminal behavior. Instead, we are continuing to make massive investments in a system that reproduces the violence and social instability it claims to address.
Recidivism CAN be prevented - but only if we invest significant resources in community-based re-entry services like job training and placement, housing, individualized case management, mental healthcare, and substance abuse counseling.
We know that incarcerated people are perfectly capable of successfully returning to their families and communities and becoming valuable assets to those communities because we see it every single day at Planting Justice. All seventeen men who have come through our re-entry program have not only stayed out of prison and beat California's sky-high recidivism rate; they are becoming leaders in their communities, building community gardens, mentoring high school students, and supporting others who are making the transition out of California's brutal prison system. Our entire organizational budget is approximately 0.002% of the budget the BSCC just approved for jail expansion - and we have a 100% success rate against recidivism, while California jails have a 65% recidivism rate. Justifying half a billion dollars in jail construction spending in anticipation of maintaining these high rates of recidivism does a profound disservice to the communities most impacted by mass incarceration.
We need to start investing in formerly incarcerated people - not more incarceration.
The Planting Justice Re-Entry Model
“Let’s say life is wonderful. Although there are many adversities one faces during re-entry, being able to face those adversities is a blessing. This organization has afforded me a platform to give back and let my positive light shine through for all those who I encounter.”
~ Bilal Coleman, Re-Entry Hire at Planting Justice
Planting Justice is not a government program; we’re a small social-enterprise non-profit that is 40% self-funded (through paid contract work) and 40% grassroots funded (through small individual contributions). We operate at a small scale (in 5 years of operation, we’ve supported 18 men transitioning from San Quentin State Prison), and we understand the challenges entailed in supporting successful re-entry for the tens of thousands of prisoners released each year.
But in 5 years of operation, our re-entry program has a 0% recidivism rate.
0% compared to California’s 65%.
While in just the past year, the State of California spent $500 Million building new jails to prepare for "inevitable" recidivism, Planting Justice has kept 18 parolees out of prison, with the help of a few thousand regular people who donate generously to make our work possible.
We have developed an innovative, sustainable, self-sufficient model for prisoner re-entry in California that actually works.
The 5 Keys to Our Success
“I was so excited to get out....I was dreaming about the job and getting out. Haleh told me, ‘don’t worry, I got you’ and sure enough, when I got out, I found everything she was saying was true.”
- Darryl Aikens, Re-Entry Hire at Planting Jusice
1) Start on the Inside:
One unique attribute of our re-entry program is that it starts inside the prison. Our partnership with the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin State Prison enables us to train prisoners in permaculture gardening work before they even make parole. By the time a PJ parolee leaves prison, they already know that they have a job waiting for them the next day with people they already know and trust. Especially for people who have been incarcerated for a very long time - our most recent re-entry hire was locked up for 20 years starting at age 17 - coming out is an incredibly difficult transition, especially in the first few weeks. Many have lost contact with relatives or friends who could offer them a place to stay or some help getting back on their feet. Establishing a healthy relationship between the parolee and the re-entry program before release can help stabilize that early transition.
“I really feel good about myself now, because I can support my family without having to look over my shoulder all day.”
- Maurice Bell, Re-Entry Hire at Planting Justice
2. Living Wage Jobs:
If a formerly incarcerated person cannot get a legal job that pays enough for them to fully support themselves financially, they will have to find another way to survive. The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people in Oakland is 70% - think it’s a coincidence that the unemployment rate is the same as the recidivism rate? The #1 thing a person transitioning home from prison needs is a good job. We start all of our hires coming out of San Quentin at $17.50/hour - $5.25 higher than Oakland’s minimum wage. This living wage policy means our staff can depend on their job at Planting Justice to cover their rent, bills & necessities without needing to engage in the extra-legal economy to survive and advance financially. In an economy that systematically devalues, under-employs and underpays formerly incarcerated people, our $17.50/hour starting wage is a political statement that the labor of former prisoners is valuable and that their success and well-being is a worthy investment. A real living wage is a real incentive to show up for work every day and avoid things that could jeopardize the job.
“It helps to work with other people who have been to prison and have stayed out. Because it’s like, “If they can do it, I can do it too.”
- Maurice Bell, Re-Entry Hire at Planting Justice
3) Peer Support:
With over 50% formerly incarcerated staff (including former prisoners who did not come to us directly through a re-entry program), the struggle to recover from criminalization and incarceration is an experience that is shared by most people in our workplace. When a parolee leaves prison and joins our staff, they enter a workplace where their co-workers understand what they’re going through and are willing to go out of their way to support this person through their transition. Every week, we hold a peer support group for formerly incarcerated staffers called “Moving Forward.” Moving Forward is a space where formerly incarcerated staff can receive and provide support for each other on everything from rebuilding family relationships to opening a savings account. Working every day with other people who have successfully made the transition out of prison helps parolees in our program feel more confident that they too will be able to stay out of prison long-term.
“Well, I never thought I’d be a gardener to be honest. But hey! Everything’s been working since I came home from prison. It’s quiet, it’s serene, and I’m just at peace within myself and my spirit. To get paid, and still have that peace and tranquility within your life? You can’t ask for anything else.”
- Siddiqqi Osibin (Rest in Peace), Re-Entry Hire at Planting Justice
4) Prioritize Health:
At Planting Justice, we know that the health & well being of our staff - which have been severely damaged throughout lifetimes of poverty and incarceration - is critical to our ability to keep doing this work sustainably. All of our full-time staff receive comprehensive health, vision & dental insurance, as well as generous sick days & paid time off. We also strategically invest resources in creating a “culture of wellness” at Planting Justice - offering workshops and seminars on everything from self care to long-term financial planning. While traditional re-entry programs (including parole) are focused on policing parolees behavior, we try to focus on supporting our re-entry staff to solve problems, overcome obstacles, and heal from the trauma of long-term incarceration. Our own program was devastated earlier this year when, after finally making it not just out of prison but off of parole for the first time in his adult life, our Transform Your Yard team leader Siddiqqi Osibin passed away in his sleep due to an unknown health issue. Given the enormous tolls that both early life poverty and long term imprisonment have already taken on folks by the time they leave prison, improving and maintaining the health of former prisoners should be a top priority for every re-entry program.
“I think having a meaningful job makes a big difference, as far as staying out of prison. Because you’ll do anything it takes to keep that job, if you care about it. You’re not just trying to change your life, you’re changing everybody’s life.”
- Maurice Bell, Re-Entry Hire at Planting Justice
5) Meaningful Work & Opportunities to Advance:
A job at Planting Justice isn’t just a paycheck - it’s an opportunity to be a part of a growing movement to transform our food system so that everyone has access to healthy food and the ability to live a long, healthy life. Can you imagine spending 10 years in prison, then coming out and getting paid a living wage to build vegetable gardens in the neighborhood you used to sell drugs in? Meaningful, community-serving work can help heal a formerly incarcerated person’s relationship to the neighborhood in a powerful way. We’ve watched men who’ve served hard time transform into impressive educators and skilled community organizers, inspiring classrooms full of Oakland teens to grow, cook and eat vegetables and signing up thousands of monthly donors to support Planting Justice’s work. After working with us (and staying out prison) for one year, the re-entry wage jumps from $17.50/hour up to $20/hour, and every department from landscaping to canvassing is geared towards developing formerly incarcerated workers’ leadership. Maurice Bell celebrated his one year anniversary with Planting Justice by becoming our first Media Apprentice, and now spends one day each week receiving training in everything from photography to editing to database management. Five years after leaving prison for the last time, Anthony Forrest has been promoted to a hybrid role as a Case Manager, Educator and Spokesperson at Planting Justice. In January, Anthony gave a presentation at the American Corrections Association national conference in Louisiana - presenting as an expert to the same people who had overseen his own confinement for over 25 years. I recently observed Anthony coaching a newer re-entry hire on how to ask for and negotiate a pay raise. It’s clear that our staff who originally came to us through the re-entry program and ultimately stayed to build careers at Planting Justice are our greatest asset and critically important mentors for each new parolee who enters our program. This is one of the most important paradigm shifts that must be made in the prisoner re-entry sector: we have to orient re-entry programs towards long-term investments in human beings instead of viewing parolees as numbers to shuffled around.
We Need Transformative Reform Now
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.” (Unknown)
“You gotta be really blessed...to actually put your hand on something like this and call it yours. I see a lot of future out here. A lot of future for a lot of people, you know what I’m saying? And...pretty much a lot of hope, too."
- Julius Jones, Re-Entry Hire at Planting Justice
Mass incarceration has taken too much from our communities for too long. If a 7 out of 10 failure rate were a grade, it would be an F. If a medicine killed 7 out of every 10 patients, doctors would stop prescribing that medication. The dominant model of prisoner re-entry - which emphasizes policing formerly incarcerated people’s behavior - is an undeniable failure and must be radically re-thought. We can’t keep building more prisons. We can’t jail our way out of our own failure to “rehabilitate” people. There is little evidence that bureaucratic reforms like Public Safety Realignment have helped the situation at all, much less done enough to seriously address the cycle of incarceration that is swallowing the lives of millions of Americans, mostly Black and poor. The mass incarceration crisis didn’t happen overnight and we won’t solve it overnight either - but it’s time to abandon the losing strategy of investing in police, jails, prisons, parole and the endless game of catch and release that inevitably ensues with each investment in the ever-expanding prison-industrial complex.
A 65% recidivism rate is not inevitable. The (admittedly anecdotal data) from the Planting Justice experiment suggest that a 0% recidivism rate might be possible if every prisoner had access to:
job training & mental health support while incarcerated
a guaranteed job that pays a true living wage upon release from prison
a workplace sensitive to the natural, human needs & struggles of post-incarceration
peers and mentors who share similar experiences of poverty, racism, criminalization & incarceration
comprehensive health insurance
meaningful work & opportunities for professional, leadership & skill development/advancement
Does this transformative reform agenda call for a massive, unprecedented investment? Absolutely. You know what else is unprecedentedly expensive? Our current prison system. The proposed California state budget for 2016-2017 brings spending on corrections to $13.3 billion, up more than $600 million from last year. How many more years are we willing to spend $13 billion on a failing prison system that has become an international human rights embarrassment?
It does not have to be this way.
By Nicole Deane