VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: Fostering Trust

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By F. Orlando Wells

The philosophy and culture of prison in California is steadily changing, some might say for the better. I am an optimist, so I try to look at things through that lens for the most part.

Governor Newsom’s approach to a new and innovative rehabilitation model based on the Scandinavian model is ambitious, and I think it is missing some very important information regarding the people that the program affects, which is the staff, administration and the inmate population.

The big question is whether or not those who are initially affected really are on board with this great new idea. Optimistically, I would say yes, but realistically, it is a resounding no. This is not to say that it’s doomed to fail or anything negative along those lines; however I would posit that there are a number of current problems that thoroughly undermine the project before it even gets off the ground.

The word that best defines my meaning is TRUST. Let’s be honest, very little trust exists between staff and inmates and that is the culture for generations historically. Now, I’m not going to elaborate on all the awful history that has culminated in the current status of prison culture today, but needless to say, my statement stands that the result is no trust exists.

CDCR has long been thought to be the “experts” on what is or is not effective in maintaining the safety and security of all the prisons within its purview. This includes expertise in recidivism, rehabilitation programming, and cost effectiveness. It means that CDCR has the ability to provide research and data to back up their decisions overall. It is the core of what inmates consider to be the status quo. CDCR does in fact go to great lengths to maintain that image, despite the fact that the culture being created in their prisons is still very toxic and counterproductive to real rehabilitative change across the board.

The general consensus is that the “old guard” mentality and the existence of the “green wall” are still prevalent and continue to create and maintain mistrust between staff and inmates because training people to dehumanize someone will have a lasting negative effect and is termed as cognitive dissonance. Essentially, it means that it contradicts acceptable social behaviors and interactions on an interpersonal level that people have trouble disconnecting from, and it interferes with other aspects of the staff members lives personally. This likely explains why there are so many negative statistics surrounding the occupation as a whole. So if the initial training is to instill mistrust that continues to foster between staff and inmates, what hope is there that this new idea will ever get over the hump and find its way to actually helping reform and rehabilitate the incarcerated?

The first line of trust is already starting at a deficit when the people (staff & administration) rely on mistrust starting with their training and the experience of veteran staffers, who in truth are already jaded from all the stress and criminality they endured through many years of distinguished duty. They may have started out caring and wanting to make a difference but let’s be honest bureaucracy, policy, peer pressure, and the extremely negative atmosphere and behaviors of the inmates changed them and created the inability to trust.

I had the distinct pleasure of talking to a staff member who really is committed to changing the status quo and conditions within prisons and believes in forward thinking for culture change, the idea that the lives he impacts matter. It was refreshing and enlightening. The downside was how he explained the barriers existent to resolving simple everyday problems that affect everyday life and the ability for inmates to just participate in rehabilitative programming. Sadly, it was bureaucracy, and non-receptive other staffers who refused to accommodate simple resolutions to the problems being presented that they could in fact fix. It was disheartening to hear the amount of work he invested was wasted because of someone else’s unwillingness. There was also the good ol’ passing the buck situation that is common in such situations.

I broached the subject of how “Active” Gen Pop inmates were being brought to programming yards against their wishes and the violence being committed on vulnerable inmates when they arrived at the programming prison. It was eye opening to hear his response. I didn’t know that many of these people being sent aren’t fully informed about where they are being sent or they are outright lied to about their situation. For instance, many of the people are sent to a level 1 facility but aren’t told that they have to be processed and housed on a level 2 yard, pending their move to the level 1 yard. Such placement often conflicts with their values since programming yards contain a wide variety of inmates convicted of crimes that Gen Pop inmates cannot according to their “code” live with or even be around. So they must commit violence upon any inmate on the level 2 yard just to get off that yard. They are upon arriving at R & R given every opportunity to program positively and give it a chance. It rarely works so what ultimately happens is the violence, which in my estimation completely goes against CDCR’s mission statement and overall purpose of maintaining safety and security for their staff and inmate population. It certainly doesn’t lend itself to fostering trust across the board.

On the other side of things, I must address in all fairness inmates themselves who also contribute to mistrust and have reason not to trust the word of officials. There have been many instances historically of politicians and legislators committing to changing the status quo for the improvement of prisoners and prison living conditions that have for the most part led to nothing.

Inmates look at this new idea of Governor Newsom’s with a great deal of skepticism for a number of reasons. First, the trust issues that are pre-existent, and secondly, it is clear, as clear as it can be that he may get this program started but what happens when he leaves office in pursuit of presidential aspirations? Will the next Governor continue to work on the program or will he scrap it? This certainly does not engender a reason for trust, in fact it smacks of historical outcomes we inmates are all too familiar with.

In essence, trust is foundational to the success of this new Scandinavian approach to rehabilitation, and I’m not knocking its potential for great change to reform and rehabilitation, but it seems to me that addressing the core problem of trust or rather mistrust must be the priority. The unfortunate truth is on one side staff and administration are still stuck in the old mentality that inmates are nothing more than animals and not worth the effort or money because inmates can’t and never will change. Let’s be honest, a good number of inmates are in fact acting like animals, not just in their continued criminal behaviors but maintaining a culture of violence drug addiction, and antisocial activities that continue to keep a barrier between staff and inmates alike to maintain the status quo and the mistrust.

Trust can’t be fostered when there is blatant unwillingness, and EVERYONE is not committed to trying something different for the greater good. There seems to be no real honesty, integrity, or willingness that is reasonable to even negotiate the problem. Moreover, there is a distinct lack of incentive for all parties involved. If you ask me incentive is the key to success, the question is how can it be created and implemented?

Maybe start with the stress that is created in prison for both staff and inmates. Maybe it shouldn’t be the standard or goal anymore. For instance, I wore a baseball hat with a beaded 49er’s emblem attached to it. I am an avid fan and was born in San Francisco with no gang ties ever. A lieutenant from a level 4 yard working relief confiscated it giving me no warning and I was immediately stressed because our regular staff on our level 2 yard aren’t concerned with such trivial matters as a hat. Now, I know that in all honesty it is an altered article of personal possessions, but the attitude and demeaning nature affected me. The ranking official that handled this interaction  was very stressful. I complied and remained calm, yet was demeaned by the officer unnecessarily. I immediately didn’t trust her in her official capacity solely based on her conduct in dealing with the matter. She was correct that I was in fact out of compliance with the regulations which I personally don’t deny and accept as my responsibility. What I am saying is it was not necessary for the staffer to dehumanize me in the process. I didn’t get a confiscation slip (in accordance with proper procedure) and in all likelihood won’t get the hat off my books either so I can replace it. What I’m getting at is this is the type of thing that undermines trust. Her approach to the issue exhibited the “I’m just a piece of s**t” mentality and her attitude clearly demonstrated that which in turn put my guard up and deepened my mistrust of authority figures, which by the way is a core issue of my own childhood development, very poor modeling by parental figures. This instance for me was just more evidence that the old guard is alive and well and still can’t be trusted and isn’t about to change.

The old mentality existing between staff and inmates must be fully reimagined. It’s hard for staffers to trust inmates who constantly create situations that put people in harm’s way through violence and criminality that increase stress for the staff. It is equally hard for inmates to trust staff when the main contact with staff is always demeaning or dehumanizing in its nature, and worse that inmates know it has to do with their training.

People have to start looking at themselves and decide that change is inevitable and constant. If you truly want to make society and community safer, try to envision what your part in that is. It doesn’t matter if you’re a staffer or an inmate. There can no longer be this idea that a hierarchy of crime can exist, and that one crime over another is somehow better. The bottom line is people were hurt by what got you put into prison for and you are accountable. As a staffer, helping to change people who have made critical errors resulting in harming others should be primary to your goals as a professional and propagating the problem by mistreating inmates isn’t changing things for the better, and ultimately only contributes to recidivism or simply put the continuing of harm to the public. This is the bigger picture for everyone. If you really want to protect your families, the communities, and society as a whole, start by being willing to change your perspective, and providing a path for everyone who ever made a serious mistake which landed them in prison to just heal. “One bad apple spoils the lot.” Trust building now will have far reaching effects regarding social change and cultural change within prisons nationally.

Trust, “Build it and they will come” (From the film Field of Dreams). We are all needed in this journey. If the Berlin wall can be dismantled and taken down, maybe these walls of mistrust can be too. It certainly is worth the effort.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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