Pushing for Real Rehabilitation in Calif. Prisons

California added the word "rehabilitation" to the name of its troubled Department of Corrections last year in an nod to calls for reforming the overcrowded system. Prison officials say the name change hasn't made much difference, but a pilot program to teach prisoners how to behave is showing promise. Tamara Keith of member station KPCC reports.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. Coming up, you walk 600 miles across the Alaskan wilderness, and what do you get? The delicious answer, coming up. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

First, everyone agrees California's prison system is in crisis. The prisons are all dangerously over crowded, and in this state, more convicts get out of prison, then get caught for crimes and go back to prison, than any other state.

It is hoped, that offering rehabilitation services to inmates, will help.

BRAND: But aside from adding the word rehabilitation to the department's name, a year ago, officials admit, not much has changed.

From member station KPCC, Tamara Keith reports on a pilot program that is showing some progress.

(Soundbite of crowd)

TAMARA KEITH reporting:

High Desert State Prison is a maximum security facility, in rural northern California. Some of the state's toughest convicts are locked up here, surrounded by a lethal electrified fence.

The prisoner's movements are controlled by armed guards, yet fights often break out in the exercise yard. Gang activity is a constant.

Mr. MIKE WRIGHT(ph) (Acting Associate Warden, High Desert State Prison): It's not like in a lower level institution where we can just pop the doors, let them go to yard.

KEITH: Mike Wright is the acting associate warden.

Mr. WRIGHT: We're constantly searching these inmates when they go to yard. We don't allow them to purchase or have razors in their cells. And we're constantly doing things to increase our security out in the yards.

KEITH: One thing they've done, is create something called a Behavior Modification Unit, to cull out prisoners who refuse to program - prison speak for following orders and participating in activities.

Mr. WRIGHT: The majority of inmates, really - whether they're violent or not, in nature - they want a program. They want to go to school. They want to go to work. So, if you can get that bad element away, and put them in an area, you know, isolated - then possibly, the yards will program better.

KEITH: The basic idea, says Wright, is to isolate the troublemakers, teach them to be better inmates, and give them some skills for living on the outside.

(Soundbite of gate closing)

KEITH: But it's not like California's traditional security housing, what some inmates call being sent to the hole. In that setting, prisoners aren't doing anything to make themselves better people, says Dennis Gunther(ph), the public information officer at High Desert Prison.

Mr. DENNIS GUNTHER (Public Information Officer, High Desert State Prison): He can go in there, and just sit there and do nothing, and as long as he doesn't get in trouble, he's out. He doesn't have to learn anything. He doesn't have to interact with anybody.

In the BMU program, if they go in there and refuse to participate, they don't earn their privileges.

KEITH: Privileges like TVs, radios, phone calls, and time on the yard - all stripped away when inmates enter the Behavior Modification Unit. In the unit, inmates earn back privileges, incrementally, if they behave and attend classes on how to control their anger, to get off drugs, get out of gangs, and just how to function in society.

Every 30 days, the inmates meet with a committee of prison staff to review their progress.

(Soundbite of meeting)

Unidentified Prison Staff: We're taking you up to step 2. You've been program, and you're (unintelligible). Your canteen goes up to $90. You're doing a good job. Keep it up.

Mr. LAWRENCE KODDELL(ph) (Prisoner, High Desert Prison): Alright.

Unidentified Prison Staff: See you in 30 days.

Mr. KODDELL: Alright.

KEITH: At the time of this meeting, inmate Lawrence Koddell has been in the unit for two months. He says he misses listening to music on his radio. Although he's attending anger management classes, he says he doesn't really believe in it.

Mr. KODDELL: Even though they give you the pamphlets or whatever about trying to tame your anger, all that is, is words, though, you know. A person's going to do, is going to be himself. It still don't make no sense.

KEITH: Prison officials insist there's more to it than pamphlets. The program uses a specific curriculum. It includes workbooks, videos, and discussion sessions.

Koddell is 26 years old. He's serving a life sentence for murder and carjacking. Despite all his tough talk and criticism of the program, Koddell is reflective when asked if he thinks anything will change because of his time in the unit.

Mr. KODDELL: Hopefully my behavior will. Hopefully. You know, think twice about my actions.

KEITH: The concept of positive reinforcement as a behavior modification tool has shown promise in other states, says attorney Don Specter with the Prison Law Office, an inmate advocacy group. But Specter, a frequent critic of California's prisons, is not ready to endorse the pilot program at High Desert, yet.

Mr. DON SPECTER (Attorney, Prison Law Office): The important part is not sort of the taking away of the privileges. The important part is giving people the tools to be able to use when they go back onto the general population, and mix with the other prisoners. What are they going to do differently, once you give them back their radio? I mean, what's to prevent them from going back to the same behavior?

KEITH: The program has been in place since November, and prison officials say they've seen signs of success. The inmates who've graduated, a few dozen of them so far, are staying out of trouble.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Sacramento.

BRAND: There's more coming up on DAY TO DAY on NPR News.

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