The Magazine

California Behind Bars

Overcrowding, unionization and other prison problems.

Apr 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 29 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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Yet despite the program's success, both the department of corrections and the union have doubts about its worth. "I suspect that many of those in top administrative positions simply cannot grasp the concept of rehabilitation," said convicted murderer Ken Hartman in a letter to this reporter smuggled out of the prison. "They fear this program will topple their empire of concrete and razor wire."

Says one civilian employee of the Lancaster prison who requests anonymity for fear of retaliation, "These men [in the Honor Program] don't want to fight, but the guards call them names trying to provoke a response. Their idea of rehabilitation is to keep people in a cage and poke them with a stick."

Faced with the specter of prisoners being released, California's legislature finally seems ready to reform parole, establish rational sentencing guidelines, and move low-risk offenders to community detention facilities instead of massive state prisons.

"What has been lacking is the political will to solve the problem," the state's Little Hoover Commission noted in a recent report. "Lawmakers afraid of being labeled 'soft on crime' have allowed the correctional system to decay and as a result of their negligence, California spends more on corrections than most countries in the world, and reaps fewer public safety benefits."

"We can start by finding a more appropriate way to deal with those prisoners who are serving 25-year mandatory minimum sentences for nonserious, nonviolent third strikes," says Sharon Dolovich, a Cambridge Ph.D. who teaches prison law and legal ethics at the UCLA Law School. For Gov. Schwarzenegger, who's been calling for action since taking office four years ago, the time seems right.

David DeVoss, editor of East-West News Service, is based in Los Angeles.

Muffled Voices from the Hole

Until they relented to political pressure last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the prison guards' union, where real power is vested, wanted to discontinue the Honor Program at the California State Prison in Los Angeles County despite its measurable success. The reversal allows the program's 1,000 prisoners to remain segregated, but does nothing to correct the flaws endemic to the entire system.

Locked down for months at a time, the program's creator, Ken Hartman, was placed in solitary confinement in The Hole after he started a website arguing for the Honor Yard's right to exist. The three prisoners quoted here were unable to call out of the prison but responded to questions about the program and the guards who wanted to kill it with written responses smuggled out of the prison.

The stabbing ratio per inmate in the Honor Yard is the lowest in the state [prison system] and actually better than some small towns with a similar population. In return for this safest of yards I had to sign a document swearing that I wouldn't attack anyone and that I would submit to random drug tests. That's a fair trade.

Saint James Harris Wood, 51, serving 23 years for second-degree robbery

Inmates in some of the more violent prisons see Honor Program supporters as "working for the other team." According to hardcore prison protocols, inmates are not permitted to relate to the staff or administration in a mature manner.

Cole Bienek, 38, serving 16 years to life for second-degree murder

Being placed in the hole is a traumatic experience. You are separated from your property, your regular program, the telephone, all of the little accoutrements of a prisoner's life that make this experience tolerable. It starts by being strip-searched and placed in a separate building by yourself. It is no coincidence that suicide rates in the hole are vastly higher than in the [general prison] population.

Ken Hartman, 46, life sentence for murder

Lancaster has had four wardens over the past five years and three of them won't support the program because of the guards' union. I can't help but compare the guards who are against us to the unreasonable convicts among us who believe that brute force is the answer to everything.

Saint James Harris Wood

The CCPOA [guards' union] doesn't care whether or not there is an Honor Program. They see prisoners as animals, vicious predators who will descend into violence at the drop of a hat.

Cole Bienek

With a minimal amount of effort, and a truly revolutionary change in the mindset of the prison system, most yards could function as well as this one. If this happened, and we have proved it can, the mentality of combat and violence that defines the current approach would have to be abandoned.

Ken Hartman