Arkansans Organizing 4 Justice

Two Cents

We need more honor in the prisons

The governor should not have vetoed the highly successful Prison Honor System

By Kenneth E. Hartman

October 23, 2007

Governor Swarzenegger’s veto of Senate Bill 299, which would have mandated Honor Programs throughout the dysfunctional California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is a mistake that illustrates all too well the failure of this state’s leaders to understand what needs to be done to rescue the prison system.

In my 28 continuous years of incarceration, I have not ever served time on a more productive, more positive or more rehabilitation-friendly yard than here in the Honor Program.  You see, the sad truth is California’s prisons are worse than a mess, they are a catastrophe.  Costs are spiraling, thousands of guard positions are vacant, violence is pervasive, and the federal courts are about one hearing away from seizing control of the whole disaster.  Recidivism rates are so bad that many of the 174,000 prisoners are actually parole violators.

But down her on Facility-A at California State Prison-Los Angeles, hidden up in the high desert north of Los Angeles, a remarkable thing has happened over the past few years.  Prisoners, some forward-thinking staff and a cadre of selfless volunteers have worked together to create an island of relative calm in the storm.  The facts are compelling:  violence is way down; drug and alcohol abuse is down.  In fact, the difference between the Honor Program yard and any other in the state is so dramatic that administrators from other prisons come here to see it with their own jaded and unbelieving eyes.

The program works because it rewards positive behavior; encourages prisoners to make serious, transformational change; it holds individuals accountable; and is voluntary.  The prison system, as a whole, fails because it uses only negative reinforcement, blocks all efforts to make positive change, uses ground punishment and forces prisoners into ill-conceived programs, regardless of need or desire.  Simply affixing the label “rehabilitation” onto the same old system of force and coercion won’t work and, as recent history has shown, it hasn’t worked.

The governor, in his veto message, stated that SB299 was “unnecessary because the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) already has the authority to establish and expand honor programs administratively.”  While the governor is technically correct, the bill was necessary because the CDR has not established, or formally implemented, any Honor Program.  What we have done here locally has been resisted, bungled and undermined by the leadership of the prisons for the past eight years.

So, another real opportunity to actually bring rehabilitation into the prison system has been squandered.  Perhaps the prison bosses have persuaded the governor that they are working to make things better, that they don’t need to be compelled by legislation.  If so, I’m afraid that still another governor has been duped. 

One thing I am certain of is that the work we have done to bring reform and sanity into this system will, eventually, come to fruition.  The desire of human beings is to live as human begins is irrepressible.  The Honor Program isn’t going away; all good ideas have a power that carries them on.

Kenneth E. Hartman, C-19449, was instrumental in the founding of the Honor Program at California State Prison-Los Angeles, and serves as the chairman of its steering committee.  For more information, visit www.prisonhonorprogram.org.

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