Catch and release

California’s prisons are packed with repeat nonviolent drug offenders. Folsom State Prison’s Parolee Substance Abuse Program seeks to rehabilitate, not incarcerate.

Julius Johnson’s pursuit of the eternal buzz landed him repeatedly in prison on nonviolent offenses. At the Folsom Transitional Treatment Facility, he hopes to restore balance to his life.

Julius Johnson’s pursuit of the eternal buzz landed him repeatedly in prison on nonviolent offenses. At the Folsom Transitional Treatment Facility, he hopes to restore balance to his life.

Photo By Kyle Monk

For more than 20 years, Julius Johnson’s life swung dangerously out of whack. Although he tried to attend school and hold down a job, plans for how and where to get his next drink or bag of weed crowded his mind. Constantly drunk, stoned or both, he landed in prison multiple times.

“You don’t wanna know how many times I’ve been in,” says Johnson, shaking his head. At 45, his face is still boyish, but the ache in his voice reveals a man who has suffered beyond his years. He’s tried to walk the straight and narrow, but always loses his balance and winds up back “behind the wall.”

This time it’s different. After his most recent parole violation, Johnson was given a choice: Go back behind the wall, or enter the Parolee Substance Abuse Program, located in the Folsom Transitional Treatment Facility, in the shadow of the maximum-security state prison.

Johnson chose the latter, and now he says he’s been “reborn.”

Like Johnson, all of the 200 parolees participating in the recovery program have at least one nonserious, nonviolent felony on their records. Some have been in and out of custody for as long as they can remember. This time when they violated parole—many, but not all, for failing drug tests—they were given the same choice as Johnson: Return to prison for five months to a year or begin a 90-day substance-abuse and transitional living program at Folsom’s minimum-security treatment facility.

With California’s prisons facing unprecedented overcrowding and ballooning costs, proponents of parole reform are looking at programs like Folsom’s to keep inmates from repeatedly returning to prison. Many experts say California’s rigid parole policies result in parolees returning to prison at nearly twice the rate of the national average. They want more options for parole violators, including expanding rehabilitation and transitional services as an alternative to lengthy and costly prison terms for nonviolent offenders.

Nevertheless, systematic improvements have been met with resistance from government leaders, the public and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature have repeatedly stricken reform measures from the budget, while voters and the CCPOA continue to hold fast to “three strikes.”

The short of it? Unless the state takes immediate action, the three federal judges empowered in 2007 to reduce prison overcrowding may turn loose as many as 50,000 nonviolent offenders on the streets. Many won’t have the skills to survive and will land right back in trouble. And thanks to the state’s ongoing financial problems and lack of political will, recovery programs such as Folsom are in short supply exactly when they’re needed the most.

“If no one addresses their substance abuse, even if they have a job, they’re right back,” insists Thomas Powers, director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Division of Addiction and Recovery Services. “The more risk and needs we can address in an inmate, the lower chance they have to recidivate.”

The school of drugsand hard knocks

In the cavernous room where Johnson and the other men sleep, a row of low concrete walls separates narrow beds from a section of the dorm used as a classroom for new arrivals. Battered lockers next to each bed provide some sense of individual space, and slivers of natural light fall from narrow windows. Outside the window, a fence topped with barbed wire and video cameras encloses the property.

The mattresses aren’t soft, but it could be worse. The parolees could be behind the wall. A 2007 audit of CDCR’s rehabilitative services labeled in-prison programs across the state “a complete waste.” The program at the Folsom Transitional Treatment Facility, outside the main prison, offers a stark contrast to that assessment.

The Contra Costa County Office of Education runs the program; principal Shannon Swain monitors activities on site. She strolls across the linoleum floor in a long skirt, passing parolees who move aside and say, “Excuse me.”

All along the watchtower. Minding the beat at Folsom State Prison.

Photo By Kyle Monk

One guy looks up, his blue eyes dancing, and grins at Swain as she passes.

“Hey, you’re the director or head coordinator or something, right?” he asks. The yellow lettering on his uniform reads “CDC Prisoner.” Although the CDCR changed its name to include “Rehabilitation” in 2005, not all of the uniforms reflect the change.

“Principal,” Swain says.

“I knew it was something like that.”

Swain and project coordinator Sam Williams Jr. proceed across the enclosed outdoor common area to a classroom where parolees in their first 30 days of the program—Phase I—are reviewing the answers to a test on psychopharmacology. They sit around tables in small groups, folders, paper, pens and blue “Framework for Recovery” workbooks covering the surfaces in front of them. A few men chatter. One rests a foot on a chair.

The teacher, a small, peppy woman with graying hair moves back and forth to the whiteboard at the front of the room. She has written the objective at the top: “Student will classify drugs into categories and will be able to identify two withdrawal symptoms from each category.” All of the teachers at PSAP are credentialed. They utilize structured lesson plans as wells as hands-on and cooperative learning to keep their students engaged.

“Under law, barbiturates are classified as … ” she calls out, getting the ball rolling.

Answers pop up from around the room. A blond-haired guy calls out from the back row, “B—narcotics!”

The teacher writes the answer on the board and continues. The pace is quick. Participation is high.

“A lot of drugs make you impotent,” she mentions at one point. A lanky college-age parolee whispers a question from his seat in the front.

“Not being able to rise to the occasion,” answers the teacher.

The guy mouths, “Ohh.”

Slumped in his seat in the back of the room, a short, muscular Latino man with tattoos under both eyes and above one eyebrow folds his arms tightly across his chest. His jaw is set and he looks tense, guarded, as if he’s defending a one-man fortress. He’s been staring straight ahead since Swain and Williams entered the room.

Tight quarters, but life in Folsom’s minimum-security treatment facility is a lot cozier than life behind the wall.

Photo By Kyle Monk

Swain asks to borrow his test packet momentarily. He nods.

“How are you doing?” she asks, gently lifting the packet from his hands.

The man’s pained face softens into a smile. His shoulders drop. “Good, good,” he says quietly. He has been here two weeks. The first days and weeks of Phase I are perhaps the most difficult. Detox, depending on the parolee’s drug of choice, can be physically demanding, and the intense psychological work needed to root out the addiction can be emotionally draining. At least two parolees per month drop out of the program and return to prison.

But Julius Johnson is no quitter. It was during Phase I that he realized he’d been given a second chance. Outside the wall, Johnson spent most of his time trying to score. Early mornings would find him passing by the same building where the same group of people always seemed to be standing outside, waiting to get in. Even when it was cold, even when it was dark, they were there.

One day, returning with his stash, Johnson noticed the walk in front of the building was empty and decided to investigate. He pushed opened the door, stuck his head inside, and was greeted by a roomful of familiar faces turning to look at the man hovering in the doorway.

Johnson backed out of the silent room, away from the faces. Later that day, he asked a custodian what took place there in the mornings. It was an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

The next time he passed by, he could have walked in, grabbed a cup of coffee and taken a seat. He could have told them his name and admitted he had a problem.

“That should have been my wake-up call,” he says. “This is where I was supposed to go, but I didn’t.”

When his parole officer suggested he attend a rehabilitation program instead of returning to a prison cell, Johnson initially resisted. He knew how to do prison. He’d never attended recovery before, and he didn’t believe in it.

“I knew I had a problem,” he says. “But I always thought if a person wanted to stop, they would.”

“The first week or so, they don’t wanna be here,” confirms project coordinator Williams, who passed on his powerful physique to his NFL player son. “Their parole officer did them an injustice. Then after about a week, it’s ‘Oh, this isn’t as bad as I thought it was. I could learn something here.’ We see that all the time.”

Phase I opened doors for Johnson, teaching him how to raise his self-esteem and understand his emotions.

“It was like I was reborn,” he says.

Stephen Siscoe’s life spun out of control thanks to methamphetamine addiction, landing him in prison multiple times. He hopes to break the cycle with the help of Folsom’s Parolee Substance Abuse Program.

Photo By Kyle Monk

Later in Phase I, Johnson and his classmates cycled through lessons such as “The Process of Addiction” and “Cognitive Restructuring”—or as Williams calls it, “changing their stinkin’ thinking.”

The walls come down. Denial and grief are exposed. The men often keep it together in the classroom, only to break down in sessions with their independent-study teachers later. They reveal that a father abused them or that a mother taught them how to use drugs. To climb out of the hole, they’ve got to get to the bottom of it first.

In response to the 2007 audit, Gov. Schwarzenegger and prison leadership convened an expert panel to make recommendations for improving rehabilitation and reducing overcrowding. Among the numerous problems they found with existing in-prison programs were shoddily monitored care providers, classes frequently interrupted by lockdowns and prison politics that distracted inmates from the mental and emotional work of recovery.

Stephen Siscoe, a recovering methamphetamine addict currently going through Phase I, has experienced prison politics up close and personal. He says the continuous, often violent struggle between various gangs and factions behind the wall don’t apply at Folsom’s minimum-security program. After spending six hours a day in classes together, many of the men go back to the dorms and continue their conversations. Some talk about their pasts. Others prefer to focus on the future. There is almost always someone willing to offer support.

If Siscoe hadn’t been sent to the program, he has no doubt he would still be on the streets, addicted and on the run.

“I would be out there cheating, lying, justifying my behavior, looking behind my back,” he says, elbows perched on a metal table bolted to the dormitory floor. Siscoe’s large hands spill out of his denim uniform as he describes what landed him here. Family, adolescence, culture, choices.

“We’re all adolescents inside,” he says. In Phase I, he finally began to grow up.

Breaking the born-bad mold

The sign above the door of the Phase II classroom reads: “Nothing Changes Until I Change.” Williams and Swain venture into the classroom, where parolees continue to focus on unlocking negative thought and behavior patterns. They learn how to manage anger and maintain healthy relationships, all the skills necessary to stay clean and sober outside the wall.

The room is packed with men sitting in pairs at rows of tables. An animated discussion in the classroom next door filters through the floor-to-ceiling room divider, but no one seems to notice. Someone jokes, “We’re all crazy in here,” but no one laughs.

Even with his beard, the teacher looks younger than the majority of men in the room. He’s not intimidated, and enthusiastically leads a lesson on stereotypes.

“Is there such a thing as a ‘bad’ person?” he asks.

The room is quiet, and the teacher asks a thin young man with a close-shaved head if he would like to answer.

The man says he’s not sure, so the teacher presses him to share some things about himself that show he’s a good person.

Mike Gray brings 30 years of social work and teaching experience to Folsom’s Parolee Substance Abuse Program.

Photo By Kyle Monk

“Playing with my kids, hanging out with my old lady, working. Those show I’m not bad.”

A few others raise their hands. The discussion takes a philosophical turn.

“Everyone does bad stuff, it’s just some get caught,” comes a voice from the back of the room.

Cedric McKinney reached his turning point one day during the second phase. He and his classmates were asked to consider the way substance abuse had affected their lives. The teacher told them to think of three things they had lost.

“I could think of more,” he says.

McKinney wants to change. That increases his chances for success. But in a prison system where participation in some rehabilitation programs has actually been correlated with a higher recidivism rate, wanting to change isn’t always enough. For McKinney, the difference is in the support he receives from the teachers at Folsom.

“The people who run the program give you all they have,” says McKinney, who tutors fellow parolees for the GED in the evenings after class. “They don’t just let you float through like it’s prison.”

James Ayres spent 31 months behind the wall and was released back to the community before coming to the program. On the outside, he informally counseled other addicts on the street. Then he got hooked again himself.

Ayres prefers to keep to himself in the dorms, but he has developed an admiration of teacher Mike Gray. Beyond helping him develop a transition plan for attending school, Gray has helped Ayres understand what the experience might be like.

In Gray’s classroom, a detailed pencil drawing of Emiliano Zapata rests on a table. Gray encourages his students to explore and take pride in their cultures.

Throughout his 30 years of social work and teaching experience, Gray has worked to balance the need to maintain appropriate boundaries with his students and communicating to them that he knows where they’ve been.

To Ayres, Gray is “on the level.”

As the lesson on stereotypes continues in the Phase II classroom, a common theme emerges.

An instructor asked parolee Cedric McKinney to list three things he’d lost because of substance abuse. McKinney came up with a lot more, and the realization helped turn his life around.

Photo By Kyle Monk

“No one in society thinks we can be better,” one parolee says soberly. “You find that out when you try to get a job.”

“You begin to feel hopeless,” another student chimes in.

From the front of the room, a heavy-set African-American man gets the floor.

“They don’t care about us,” he says. “Or they say they care, but they do it from a distance. If there were more programs, if we had more people advocating, we’d do better.”

Tough on crime,weak on justice

Dr. Barry Krisberg, director of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, says there are limits to the effect rehabilitative programming can have on reducing recidivism. Nevertheless, he laments what he sees as a lack of reform in CDCR’s rehabilitative policies and programs.

“The principal barrier has been political will,” says Krisberg. “We added the ‘R’ [in CDCR], but the progress has been glacial.”

The three-judge federal panel in the overcrowding case that recently wrapped up in San Francisco found that California could save $803 million to $906 million annually by instituting a system of earned credits and parole reform to reduce the prison population. That money could be used to implement the expert panel’s recommendation to provide more evidence-based rehabilitation programs in the community.

CDCR currently provides 5,692 community treatment slots that deliver transitional services for recently released inmates. Some 2,028 slots are being utilized by parolees in another remedial sanction program for parole violators, the In Custody Drug Treatment Program. The three-judge panel left the door open for state officials to divert prisoners into rehabilitative programs rather than commit to a wholesale release of the estimated 50,000 prisoners it would take to bring the population to a safe level.

Nevertheless, in a March report, the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board noted none of the reforms for rehabilitation programs recommended by the expert panel were included in the governor’s final budget, passed in February.

“The expert panel’s report was basically thrown in the garbage,” says Krisberg. “If we’re unwilling to change because we’re afraid of being seen as soft on crime, then we’re locked into the same failure mode.”

Back at the Folsom Transitional Treatment Facility, it’s almost time for the head count. The parolees have lunch together and return to their classrooms for three more hours of instruction.

Tables are arranged conference style in the Phase III classroom, where Swain slips into an empty seat next to Johnson. All around her, parolees focus on teacher Vic Wedloe, a muscular former cop who leans against his desk and looks hard at the men as he lays out a situation they’re likely to encounter once they’re back home, around the old influences, the old temptations.

“It’s the middle of the night,” says Wedloe. “And you’ve got the craving. How do you get through it?”

A construction-paper mobile hanging over the classroom illustrates the elements parolees must balance to help ensure a sober and successful return to society.

Photo By Kyle Monk

Eyes flicker. The sea of blue uniforms shifts. The men seem to ponder, but no one raises a hand to answer. Wedloe calls on a wiry man a few seats down from Swain.

The man hesitates, but finally says, “If I can recognize it, I guess I can substitute drugs with something else.”

His comment motivates others to speak up. They share stories and insights, chuckles and knowing nods. They articulate their plans: Turn on the television, rearrange the fridge, use positive self-talk. But Wedloe doesn’t let them off easy. There are plans, and then there’s the reality of facing a lifelong drug addiction.

When Johnson suggests he will call his sponsor, Wedloe challenges him.

“It’s 3 in the morning. You wanna wake him up?”

Johnson pauses, looks down. “The way I understand it, he’s gotta pick up. If he’s a good sponsor, he’ll pick up.”

Wedloe nods, satisfied. If the men become familiar with their symptoms and have the tools to fight back, they can recover.

“That sensation’s never gonna rule your life again?” asks Wedloe.

“Never,” Johnson says.

Like 60 percent of the program’s graduates, Johnson will attend a 90-day after-care program that includes transitional housing, recovery services and job assistance. Krisberg and other experts say aftercare is critically important—to increase the odds that a parolee will, in fact, stay clean.

Williams, the program’s coordinator, is careful to point out that recovery, like addiction, is a process. Some of the parolees will return. Recently, a man who was part of the first group to attend the program approached Williams in the yard and asked if he remembered him.

Williams had to think a minute, but then recalled the man’s stay. It wasn’t a pleasant one, and the man didn’t attend aftercare.

“I shoulda listened to you,” he told Williams.

Revenge or rehabilitation?

John Ayers spent 31 months in prison and informally counseled addicts on the street upon his release. He got hooked again, and chose toenter the Parolee Substance Abuse Program instead of returning to prison.

Photo By Kyle Monk

Although the price tag for a parole violator to attend substance-abuse classes is $50 higher per day than a prison stay, the program stands to save the state money since the stay is shorter and, at least anecdotally, the parolees who attend the Folsom program stay out of trouble longer, even if they do eventually recidivate.

“The old approach based on revenge needs to be replaced with something based on science,” says Krisberg.

Williams isn’t about revenge. He shakes his head when he talks about the parolee in the yard, but his voice is filled with understanding.

“We’re not mad at them if they come back,” he says. “If a lifelong addict can stay clean for six months to a year, it is counted as a success.”

“Of course, we hope they stay out for longer,” he adds.

Graduations occur on a rolling basis, since new parolees enter the program almost every day. CDCR director Powers says there are no current plans to expand the Parolee Substance Abuse Program, but he is optimistic that improving in-prison rehabilitative programs will lower recidivism rates. “What we’re trying to do is make the whole yard a therapeutic yard,” he says.

He also stresses the need to expand the number of openings in community-based transition programs for parolees beyond the current 5,692 slots. California currently releases more than 100,000 inmates back to the community each year.

With Assembly Bill 900, the Public Safety and Offender Rehabilitation Services Act of 2007, Gov. Schwarzenegger and legislators attempted to improve prison conditions and rehabilitation programs without releasing prisoners. Since the bill’s passage, the number of in-prison drug-treatment slots has increased to nearly 10,000.

Powers, however, estimates 35,000 to 40,000 inmates could benefit from treatment. Many other experts, including Dr. Joan Petersilia, a professor of criminology at UC Irvine who served on the state’s expert panel for prison reform, put the estimate at more than twice that.

Meanwhile, Stephen Siscoe will soon leave Folsom to enter a recovery program and take steps towards becoming a substance-abuse counselor himself.

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he says. “If I understand even more, I’ll be more likely to stay away.”

Ayres also plans to become a certified counselor. McKinney managed to enroll himself in a construction training course to begin the Monday immediately after his graduation.

Pastel-hued paper mobiles hang from the ceiling above Julius Johnson. The tags, with words like “hobbies,” “family” and “respect” written on them, reflect the pieces individual parolees must juggle to lead balanced lives.

If he had been sent back to prison for his parole violation, Johnson would still be there, serving out his sentence and waiting for his “gate money,” the $200 all prisoners are given on completion of their sentence. Instead, he will soon enter aftercare and start attending a school that will move him towards his goal of attaining a heavy-equipment operator’s license.

At the Folsom facility, Johnson has been reborn. He’s been given a second chance, and he knows it’s up to him to restore balance to his life. He does not intend to go back behind the wall.