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What We’re Left With

The Impact of California Budget Crisis on State Prisons

New America Media, Commentary, Michael Cabral Posted: Jul 31, 2009

Editor’s note: Well-known at The Beat, a publication of writing and art from inside juvenile hall, for his penetrating insight, Michael Cabral, 22, responded to a request to write about the impact California’s budget crisis is having on its prisons. Cabral is serving time at the Salinas Valley State Prison.

Most prisoners are perpetually miserable. We’ve generally lived lives void of self-respect, first from the destructive forces of poverty, and now in the near-hopelessness of incarceration. I believe it’s what keeps us coming back to prison. Until recently, though, there had been at least a glimmer of hope for some inmates, and thus for the communities they inhabit (prison itself), as well as those they will eventually return to.

With rare insight and even rarer compassion, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) provided a small, but significant assortment of self-help programs, including: “Alternatives to Violence Project,” “Breaking Barriers,” “Epictetus Study Group,” “Alcoholics Anonymous” and “Narcotics Anonymous.” On the surface, each of these programs deals with a different specific issue, but at their core lies a common goal: to promote self-betterment, and through self-betterment, better communities, a better future. And — to the amazement of cynical disbelievers, including me, initially — they work.

It would take volumes to explain the profound effect such programs have already had on the entire lives of many inmates, not to mention the general morale of the wider prison population, program participants or not. I can, however, offer my own personal experience — a common one — as an example.

Earlier this year, I attended an “Alternatives to Violence Project” (AVP) program, a two-day, 20-hour workshop dedicated to community building that develops creative, non-violent alternatives to confrontation and other stressful situations, beginning with self-exploration, identifying internal indicators of what does and does not make one happy. There were about 20 other prisoners participating, one of whom (I’ll call him Joe) I had already had a confrontation with in the yard, where we had a heated exchange of words that was only broken up by mutual acquaintances. (After that, it was only by chance that we never came to blows.)

Fortunately, motivated by a genuine desire to rise above the prison madness, we were able to set aside our differences for the length of the workshop.

It wasn’t long into the course before Joe and I came face-to-face with some big issues relevant to the tension between us. In that first session, we dealt with such issues as racism (Joe is Black, I’m Mexican-American), prejudice (he’s a know-it-all, forty-year-old Muslim; I’m a cocky, 22-year-old who doesn’t believe in religion), pride (neither of us was willing to let the other “win”). We learned how counter-productive they all are.

Then, in a community-building exercise, Joe and I were paired up and given five minutes to tell each other things we enjoyed doing. In that time, we were only able to list three or four pastimes, because everything we listed progressed to a conversation about that which we had in common. We ended that first night with a laugh and a hug, and began the next morning the same way. Every time we see each other now, we hug, calling each other “my A.V.P. Brother.”

Now, six months later, the political solution to California’s budget crisis has eliminated all self-help programs behind the walls. First-time inmates are popping up regularly, impressionable youngsters with a year or so to serve. Without the support of any rehabilitative programs, prison for them will be less “Correction and Rehabilitation” and more “Corruption and Retaliation.”

Of course, a few of the “good guys” will try to lift their spirits, but an overwhelming number will be surrounded by company-seeking misery.

They’ll hear all about the system being out to get them, how their lives are ruined forever, how it would be pointless to parole and look for a decent job (or any job). Then, they’ll hear countless theories and strategies on how to become better, smarter criminals. Their environment will gradually break them down, and mold them into mindless — if not heartless — products of “the way life is” according to convict lore. Finally, they’ll rejoin society, never wanting to return to prison again, but knowing only how to do just that.

I saw Joe the other day. There was a fight in the dining hall. When the commotion settled, Joe and I made eye contact across the room. We smiled, glad that we weren’t involved. Then Joe frowned mournfully, nodded toward where the fight occurred, communicating this sad truth to me: “This is what we’re left with.”

But the sadder truth is that this is what our communities are left with.

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