It’s a far cry from the maximum-security cellblocks found in California’s state prisons. These are inmates currently housed at the San Luis Obispo County Jail’s Women’s Honor Farm, where well-behaved nonviolent inmates are taking advantage of a host of new programs made possible by an inflow of state money from what has become known to law enforcement, corrections, and probation officers—not to mention the inmates—as realignment.
Dixie Howell, who’s serving a two-year sentence at the Honor Farm for possession and sales of methamphetamine, told New Times that two years ago, she wouldn’t be sitting here. She would be in prison.
“This is something that’s really helped us, the inmates, I think,” said Howell, who’s scheduled for release in 2015. “Especially when you’re talking about some of the longer-term inmates. Most of us struggle in dealing with our thoughts and behaviors.”
The programs made possible by state prisoner realignment—ranging from substance abuse treatment to trauma-based care to re-entry planning—are a welcome alternative to doing hard time, and the county Sheriff’s and Probation departments already have enough success stories to suggest it’s working.
“Before, we didn’t really have any relationships with the COs [correctional officers] or staff that was productive. It was us versus them,” Howell said. “We didn’t have any incentive to stay on track. We were just doing our time. Now with these programs, we’re learning how to process our feelings to survive here and plan for when we get out.”
Before realignment was signed into law, local low-level offenders—many of them sentenced for such nonviolent offenses as drug possession—found themselves shipped away from SLO County Jail to overcrowded state prisons. There they were warehoused in a cell for a few years, surrounded by harder career felons, with little to no opportunity for actual rehabilitation.
Upon their release, they’d be returned to SLO County where the cost of living is expensive, sober-living facilities are few, and decent-paying jobs—especially for a convicted felon—are beyond scarce. To top it off, they’d spent years without addressing the underlying problems.
By sending offenders to their local jail where a growing number of services is becoming available, state and local officials are seeking to change that cycle.
“Anybody who’s done a substantial amount of time and treatment here now has had some kind of breakthrough,” Howell said.
Assembly Bill 109, what Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office calls “historic legislation to enable California to close the revolving door of low-level inmates cycling in and out of state prison,” was signed into law in April 2011 amid mass overcrowding in the state’s 33 prisons. It’s the state’s answer to a Supreme Court order to reduce the number of inmates in the prison system to a still-confounding 137.5 percent of the original design capacity.
Before realignment went into action, more than 60,000 parole violators would return to state prison annually, staying an average of 90 days, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In September 2011, the population of parole violators in state prisons was 13,285; that number was reduced to just 25 by March 2013 due to realignment.
When realignment went into effect in October 2012, stories emerged of packed local jails, hardened state prisoners clashing with local inmate populations, and community leaders warning of an influx of dangerous felons being released into the streets.
That hasn’t been the case, according to county Chief Probation Officer Jim Salio.
“There was a lot of misinformation in the beginning. It’s important that we break the myths down. The idea that they’re going to drive a bus up to your street and drop off these prisoners—that didn’t happen,” Salio told New Times. “The people coming out would have been released here on parole anyway. They are people from the local community, and they are doing as much time in jail as they would have in prison.”
Salio also pointed out that no state prisoners were transferred to county jails; rather, transfers were new offenders who fit the criteria and would serve their sentence locally.
Still, realignment brought with it a spike in violent incidents in the jail, some of which can be attributed to AB 109 inmates with experience in state prison. That trend has subsided to a degree, county Sheriff Ian Parkinson told New Times, though it continues to be a concern.
But many other aspects of realignment—at least as it’s been handled in SLO County—have become reason for optimism. Mainly, locals are looking at new money coming in from Sacramento to actually treat the underlying causes of perpetual incarceration.
“We now have the resources,” Salio said. “There’s a lot to be said about local control.”
People eligible for county jail time include inmates Salio calls the “non, non, nons”: those convicted of non-violent, non-serious (irrespective of prior offenses), non-sexual crimes.
Once in county jail, an inmate must prove he or she is interested, through good behavior and communication with correctional staff, in participating in the Honor Farm, where the new programs are available. Following release, he or she participates in post-release community supervision by the county probation department.
The state pays for realignment through a dedicated and permanent revenue stream of vehicle license fees and through a portion of the state sales tax, thanks to the passage of last November’s Proposition 30, which paid out $400 million to counties in the first half-year after its passage and $850 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year. It’s expected to rise to $1 billion in 2013-14.
In the 2012-13 fiscal year, SLO County received some $5.1 million to fund the additional housing, staffing, and programs. Housing takes the lion’s share, expected to come in at $3.2 million in additional housing costs in 2013-14. And SLO County is in pretty good shape; officials were able to hold over nearly $400,000 from the previous year, according to Salio.
In other words, realignment didn’t catch local officials off guard, because it’s actually been the talk of Sacramento for the last decade. When the budget crisis hit, the Chiefs Association endorsed the idea, and the Sheriff’s Association and Department of Corrections hopped on board to begin crafting a model for what inmate realignment might look like.
“It wasn’t like this just happened in Sacramento and we had no hand in it,” Salio said. “We knew what was coming.”
The county was helped further by the Affordable Care Act, in which Medicare promises to cover inmates’ emergency medical care.
“We’re doing quite well fiscally, and we’re trying to spend that money where it most needs to be spent,” Salio told New Times.
The result is a Community Corrections Partnership (CCP), mandated as part of AB 109, explained Correctional Cpt. Michele Cole, who helps manage the county jail’s Honor Farm operations and guide realignment operations at the jail. The partnership is required to form an executive committee comprised of representatives from probation, the Sheriff’s Department, the district attorney, the public defender’s office, the superior court, a chief of police, and the county Department of Social Services.
According to SLO County Superior Court CEO Susan Matherly, the court’s designee on the committee, its six voting members meet monthly and have been in unanimous agreement on enacting the county’s plan for housing, treatment, and supervision.
“The key that’s made this work is the cooperation within the CCP,” Salio said. “That’s the key to our success: how well everyone’s been able to work together.”
Of those realignment inmates released into the custody of probation, about 90 percent have been male as of July 2013, according to the probation department. About 81 percent of those have been assessed as a “high” or “high-medium” risk of re-offending. About 64 percent of the overall population has prior state prison history, and 30 percent has prior serious or violent felony convictions.
And though reliable, long-term recidivism rates aren’t yet available, the first year has shown some promising numbers. According to probation figures, the county closed 88 cases of post-release supervised inmates from July 1, 2012, to June 1, 2013. Seventy-one percent of those closed were successful, 24 percent had their cases terminated by the court, and only three percent and two percent were returned to state prison and county jail, respectively.
Sixty days out from their release, inmates contact their re-entry case manager and are tasked with drafting a comprehensive, step-by-step plan for success on the outside.
Once out of custody, their degree of supervision is dictated by a risk assessment, based on their prior history and likeliness to re-offend. As the first year’s worth of inmates is released, probation’s task remains a work in progress, but the programs, namely drug and alcohol treatment and sober-living facilities, as well as services like providing bus vouchers, are slowly moving into place.
“Theoretically, this is what we like to see,” Chief Deputy Probation Officer Robert Reyes told New Times. “Having that treatment in place is the big variable in getting them to go and cut recidivism.”
Ahead of the curve
Not all of the state’s 58 counties are faring as well. State funding is assigned to counties based on their size, as well as the number of inmates housed at local jails. The allocation process has been something of a point of contention between some counties that feel the criteria distort a county’s need, that some counties get too much additional funding while others don’t get enough, and some counties are starting from the ground up while others have certain programs already in place.
Before realignment, SLO County jail provided general educational development and English as a second language testing, with other plans in the works, and in some ways was better prepared for the change.
Kevin Goodman is the county’s full-time therapy specialist who leads the behavioral health services under the Jail Programs Unit. He used to treat state prisoners, but his job now is to head three to four group therapy sessions a day as well as the one-on-one sessions at the Honor Farm.
“It’s the question of how to regulate impulse control; it’s about thinking about thinking when you find yourself in a situation,” Goodman said. “Every day they will test these new skills. They may be in the Honor Farm, but they’re still under a lot of pressure.”
The state funding from AB 109 also allowed the county to hire Alison Ordille, who previously supervised drug courts in San Diego County, as its Jail Programs manager. As Parkinson put it, Ordille brings in a balanced perspective from both the law enforcement and social services angles, and specializes in what she calls “coerced treatment,” described as leading a horse to water and leaving his head over it until he’s thirsty enough to drink.
“We can expose [inmates] to a different way of life that sooner or later they will want on their own,” Ordille said. “While we have you in here, you don’t have family, you don’t have work. To me, that’s an optimal time for treatment. We’re trying to interact with them while they’re here.”
The Jail Programs Unit is also thinking outside of the box in terms of what it can offer inmates. On July 24, for example, they brought in Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight Court McGee to speak before inmates at the Men’s Honor Farm. McGee, a former alcohol and heroin addict who turned his life around to win Spike TV’s 11th season of The Ultimate Fighter, was the subject of an ESPN documentary. His life story is the kind jail officials want the inmates to hear.
Plans are also in the works to use some of that state money to contract with an outside vendor for six-month vocational training certificates for a number of skills, the types of head-of-household jobs that are actually available locally.
Not all programs need to dip far into the county’s share of AB 109 funds, either. Another aspect in which SLO County has an edge, Cole said, is the pool of community volunteers willing to offer
free services such as meditation and
“Everybody that leaves here, the plan is that they won’t leave empty handed,” Ordille said.
“Even a year ago, if you had told me that today we would be teaching a class on cognitive thinking, I would have told you, ‘Yeah right,’” Correctional Deputy Lacie Silviera, who works closely with female Honor Farm inmates going through the curriculum, told New Times. “To be able to see the change in these people is very rewarding.”
“Every single day, they’ll test these skills. If it’s working, they’ll start living it here,” therapy specialist Goodman said. “This is just the beginning.”
“I’m continually amazed at where we’re at as far as just getting off the ground,” Ordille said. “I’d say compared with other counties statewide, we’re in pretty good shape.”
“In the last year and a half, two years, I’ve seen a real change in the [Honor Farm] inmates’ thinking,” Parkinson added. “And that’s a significant change.”
In the end, Parkinson said, the focus is to prevent inmates from re-offending once they’re out. The only way to do that, he said, is for inmates to not only learn how to control behaviors, stay sober, or develop a plan, but to put it in practice for the few years they’re behind the walls of county jail.
“You could have a million dollars, a nice car, a wife, and a house waiting for you when you get out and still fail and wind up back here,” he said. “You could have every advantage, and yet, no advantage.”
Life after jail
You’d think the last thing former inmates would want to do is voluntarily return to the county jail months down the road to sing the praises of local law enforcement, much less to share their experience with reporters.
But that’s just what Kaya and Barbara did one sunny Friday afternoon. They’re two of the first generation, if you will, of would-be state prisoners to serve their time in SLO County Jail through realignment and to graduate through the programs. New Times isn’t publishing their last names at their request.
Since their release from the county jail seven and eight months ago, respectively, both have been successful at securing employment and staying clean and sober. Both took the time out of their busy schedules—Barbara is now a proud mother of a baby girl—to sit down with two New Times reporters and discuss what they thought about how SLO County is handling realignment.
Neither has a violent criminal history, yet both have been in and out of jail since they were young, mostly for drug-related offenses. Barbara said that prior to her last stint, she historically hadn’t spent more than a few months out of custody before finding herself back behind bars.
This time turned out differently for the both of them, however, mainly because they were moved through realignment to the SLO County Jail, where they were given the chance—through good behavior—to take part in the Honor Farm program.
In prison, they said, inmates were stacked atop each other; the only real redeeming activity was a chance to read.
“In max security, there’s just fighting and drugs,” Barbara told New Times. “You’re under lockdown 24 hours a day, you shower every other day. You’re basically in a dorm full of bored women. You’re not bettering your life.”
Both met at the Farm. They participated in group together, including the blossoming new courses available to the county under AB109. Fast-forward months later, and both were released upon completion of their sentences. Barbara was waiting for Kaya when she got out.
But the road to success doesn’t stop there. Following her release, Kaya voluntarily checked herself into a drug-free program, one that requires regular screening, as a motivator to ensure that she remains successful and doesn’t give in to old temptations.
“I knew I wanted to be clean,” Kaya said. “But it’s scary, you know, to have all that freedom.”
She added that she wants to prove to Correctional Deputy Silviera that she’s going to succeed, and that the hard work the correctional staff put into her and her fellow inmates was no wasted investment.
“It’s like we’re on a different level. If I were to go out and get high right now, I don’t know, it’s like I don’t want to disappoint her. It would be like slapping all that hard work in the face,” Kaya said. “Hearing [Silviera] say she’s proud of me, that’s like gold.”
It’s the state money granted local jails under re-alignment, Silviera told New Times, that makes it possible for staff to spend one-on-one time with the inmates, providing the personalized attention many need.
According to Barbara, she just celebrated her 13th month of being clean and sober. Kaya, likewise, has been completely clean since her release, as evidenced by her continued success in drug court.
To this day, both remain close friends. Barbara is only a phone call away from Kaya, acting as her support much like a sponsor would in a 12-step program. Kaya, when not working 40 hours a week, helps Barbara out with her daughter when the extra hand is needed.
“It’s changed my self-esteem, my whole life,” Barbara said. “In the Honor Farm, they trusted us, and it makes us trust ourselves.”
But even with the new programs available to inmates on the inside—and more to come—there’s a lot more the county can do to ensure those skills and positive behaviors are reinforced, both women said. Sober living facilities, for instance, are sorely lacking in SLO County, especially for women and new mothers.
Of course, many prisoners will continue to re-offend; that’s a given. But despite the lack of statistics on realignment’s effect on recidivism rates at this early stage, Barbara and Kaya seem to be early anecdotal proof that the programs can produce very real, positive results.
Their stories counter realignment’s critics, who argue that the programs coddle inmates and are a drain on taxpayers—a somewhat detached view that quantifies human lives in dollars and cents.
For the first time, Barbara said, she’s been given the opportunity to build a better future for herself and her daughter. That, she said, is the opportunity realignment has provided.
“Before, I realize I was a terror,” she admitted. “Now, I really do feel like I’m a productive member of society.”
“These ladies have a lot to offer the community, especially considering how many times they had previously [returned to jail], to come to this point where they’re comfortable in their success,” Cpt. Cole said.
“Sometimes it doesn’t feel real,” Kaya told New Times. “I have to remind myself that I am doing good, and remember to give myself credit.”
News Editor Matt Fountain can be reached at email@example.com.