By D. Razor Babb
Mule Creek – In late September of 2019, Ralph Diaz, who was then the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and Director of Adult Institutions Connie Gipson joined senior staff from the governor’s office, peace officer union representatives, prison reform advocates, and formerly incarcerated reform advocates on a six-day Norwegian fact-finding tour.
Diaz came away from the excursion with the impression that “we have to create a more human prison system. [Not the] Norway or European way, but the California way. We are a unique and diverse populace with cultures within cultures, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make necessary changes.”
Diaz explains that the positive impact that he and the group witnessed in a correctional setting acknowledges the suffering of crime victims; promotes safety, wellness, and rehabilitation; and takes into account the mental and emotional strain of correctional officers as well. “I saw staff and inmates engaging in a very positive way, as if the environmental belonged to all of them, not just inmates or staff.”
California research indicates a public health, crisis among correctional officers. who are highly prone to depression. suicide, and poor life expectancy. Tour participant and former prisoner Adnan Khan is co-founder of Re:Store Justice. an organization that brings victims and offenders together for healing. “My advocacy has always been about crime survivors, bringing them in to prison, and currently or formerly incarcerated people,” Khan said. “but [the talk] about suicides and life expectancy of staff – that bothered me. Human rights and public health advocacy has to include correctional officers that are suffering and in pain [also].”
Norway has an intensive public health approach to its correctional system. Every program policy is directed at health and wellness. not only for inmates but for correctional staff as well. Officer training lasts for two years, as opposed to CDCR’s 13-week basic training. Training covers psychology, criminology, human rights, and ethics, and encourages staff-inmate interaction that emphasizes a humanistic, mutual-respect approach.
Gipson says she was skeptical initially, because of the violence and gang mentality of the California prison system. However, she soon came around. “I saw aspects of the Norway model that can be implemented in California. The more I started to listen to their concepts and principles of normality and humanity, the more I bought in. Everything clicked and I was just blown away. I came back excited because I feel there are a lot possibilities for us.”
The Norway approach didn’t develop overnight. The Country has been working on it since a parliamentary shift in rehabilitation toward a more humanistic model since the 1990s. Over time, changes in sentencing laws and all aspects of incarceration have led to a recidivism rate below 20 percent.
Diaz emphasizes the importance of institutional programming that supports an environment which acknowledges crime victims and delivers on a mission to create fewer victims in the future.
“My big takeaway is a sense of urgency to make these necessary reforms because we have witnessed positive impact for all those involved in the correctional setting and for those returned to communities,” Diaz said. “I know what can be done. I know the department’s abilities and the ability of staff to get things done.”
When Diaz was at Mule Creek State Prison in December of 2019. he expressed an intent toward better Staff-inmate relations and pro-social programming in the CDCR. Gipson’s visit on the Day of Peace and Reconciliation, January 28, 2020, reflected the same optimistic vibe. It’s very similar to the direction Mule Creek appears to be headed, a more forward-thinking, pro-rehabilitative culture.
“I believe we have segments of what is happening in Norway going on in our institutions,” Diaz said. “We have to… give employees the permission to care about the inmate population and remind them that has been a part of their job since the day they signed up.”
Razor Babb is incarcerated at Mule Creek. He is editor of the Mule Creek Post.