The Right to Live Again

As California prepares to start shrinking its prison system, advocates see more peril than promise.

By Leticia Miranda Nov 04, 2009

November 4, 2009

Michelle Freeman’s life hit rock bottom when she first started using crack cocaine in 1984. She lost all contact with her family and friends and became homeless because of her addiction.

“I don’t think back then that I was living,” says the 50-year-old mother of two. “From that first time on, I was chasing that high. I lost contact with my children, lost contact with life, actually.”

After cycling in and out of jail and prison three times, Freeman was last released from Chino’s California Institution for Women in 2005. She was dropped off at her parole officer’s workplace on the corner of 6th and G streets in San Bernardino, an area known as a local drug market. Her parole officer told her that if she didn’t find a place to stay within the next two days, she would have to go back into the system.

Freeman was devastated. She had only $200, a standard payment the prison gives all prisoners on the day of their release, she recalls, and no place to go. She and her release advisor inside had been planning for months on her finishing parole in Los Angeles. But because of an error in the system, Freeman was told the day of her release that she was going to San Bernardino, not Los Angeles.

Then she remembered a business card she had kept for Kim Carter, the founder and director of A Time for Change Foundation, a service and housing organization for homeless and formerly incarcerated women with children. She had heard Carter speak about the group’s work during a pre-release program in prison.

“Of all the people who came there, her card was the only card that I kept. She was the only one that I listened to,” Freeman recalls.

She soon entered a rehabilitation program run by the foundation. Through the program, Michelle not only became clean and sober, but also worked with state lawmakers to pass a bill in 2005 to strengthen programs to help currently and formerly incarcerated parents stay connected to their children.

But as Freeman now approaches her four-year anniversary of sober living outside of prison, San Bernardino is enacting a city ordinance barring the establishment of new transitional homes for parolees, probationers and sex offenders.

"We can’t feed our families. We can’t get a job. Without the establishment of new group homes, what are we going to do?" asks Freeman, now project coordinator and health policy advocate with A Time for Change.

San Bernardino’s ordinance comes as a federal court has ordered California to devise a plan to reduce prison crowding. As a result, prisons may soon be releasing more people from the system even as the state threatens to cut back the very programs former inmates need to stay out of prison.

The new policy increases the strain on programs like A Time for Change. As one of only a few licensed group homes in the city, the organization runs two facilities at full capacity and receives several calls each day from formerly incarcerated mothers, many of whom are forced to live under bridges or in cars.

“Instead of the state investing more in services, they pass a law that says you’re violating the law if you support women coming back to their community," says Zaheva S. Knowles, director of communications and government affairs at A Time for Change Foundation.

California’s prison population faces cruel conditions on the inside and political alienation on the outside. In August, a three-judge federal court panel ruled that overcrowding and inadequate housing and health care facilities amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.”  The court ordered the state to reduce the incarcerated population by 43,000 prisoners over the next two years. Currently, California’s 33 adult prisons operate at 188 percent of their capacity, forcing inmates to sleep in converted gyms, libraries and recreational spaces.

But efforts to shrink the prison population have been blocked by political resistance to releasing supposedly dangerous criminals. Matthew Cate, Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said releasing prisoners would pose "a significant threat to public safety.” State Attorney General Jerry Brown stoked the fire by saying the judges did “not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed."

Activists and advocates say stories about violent felons like Phillip Garrido, a man who kidnapped and raped a young girl, are being used to paint a distorted picture that allows lawmakers to abandon reform initiatives like investing in treatment programs and amending the draconian Three Strikes sentencing laws.

Moreover, both Republicans and Democrats have a political incentive to avoid bold prison reforms. Many politicians are looking to run for other offices once their terms are up and don’t want to look “soft” on crime.

Nonetheless, after a failed attempt by Jerry Brown and Governor Schwarzenegger to appeal the court decision, California submitted a plan to comply with the order. The proposal would have reduced the prison population by only 23,000 prisoners—half of what was mandated by the court. The proposal would essentially —build more prison cells, transfer some 2,500 prisoners out of state and deport 600 undocumented people. The court rejected the proposal, saying that releasing prisoners does not threaten public safety. The justices warned the state they will be forced to take over the prison system as they did with the prison health care system in 2006 if California does not present a plan that complies with the orders. Governor Schwarzenegger is still pursuing a federal appeal of the mandate.

As lawmakers and the court battle over how to reduce the prison population, activists and advocates say the measures supported by the Governor and State would negatively impact prisoners inside and those just getting out of prison.

They say shifting prisoners out of state is detrimental to prisoners’ rehabilitation. Relatives and friends who don’t have the money to travel would have a more difficult time visiting people inside, which advocates say could break apart family ties, a critical piece of a prisoner’s social support and rehabilitation inside.

“There are thousands of people out there who have changed, but it’s not lucrative to recognize that,” says Manuel LaFontaine, an organizer with All of Us or None, a network of formerly incarcerated activists. Since his own release in 2003, LaFontaine has been working to remove employment and housing barriers facing people who have been incarcerated.

Advocates also point out that, aside from the ethical issues, prison reform saves taxpayer dollars. The National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study found that it costs less per client to run a community-based drug treatment program than to operate such a program inside a prison facility. In the long run, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute, community-based treatment reduces crime and incarceration rates.

While the state’s plan claims to include reforming the parole system to facilitate rehabilitation for former prisoners, the California Department of Corrections is dropping funding for education and rehabilitation programs as part of a projected $1.2 billion cut to the overall prison budget.

Lacking social supports inside and outside prison, some 40,000 people  in San Bernardino are facing bleak prospects as they struggle to complete their parole programs.

“It’s so important that there are group homes and transition homes for us when we get out there,” says Freeman. The post-release services she received were crucial for her transition by helping her regain stability and reconnect with her family. “The successful [programs] are the ones that should be allowed to expand and thrive, not shut down or stopped from being built,” she says. “It’s immoral. It’s someone’s basic human right to live again.”

Leticia Miranda is an editorial intern with ColorLines Magazine and youth program coordinator at The Freedom Archives.