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
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
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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