Marcus Blevins

Even in a Pandemic, San Quentin Must Restore Rehabilitation Programs

By Marcus Blevins | December 14, 2020
San Francisco Chronicle

With COVID-19 running amok in lockups across the state, California’s prison population at San Quentin State Prison is suffering a double blow. As of Oct. 20, there were more than 2,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its residents and 28 deaths.

Not only must the other residents live in fear of getting sick, their minds are being starved by lack of stimulation. A state of emergency has virtually confined them to their cells like penned cattle. And with the holidays fast approaching, the level of anxiety might be further heightened with the exclusion of the customary observances that have been a programming hallmark at San Quentin State Prison for decades. This lack of exposure to rehabilitative programming deprives them of the resources that would prepare them for their return to society.

When I was first incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in the fall of 2016, it was a hub of rehabilitation. The Prison University Project provided an avenue for me to improve myself academically. Criminal Gangs Anonymous and Millati Islami, an Islamic 12-step program, offered peer-to-peer support and recovery-based studies on the underlying causes of substance abuse, recidivism and criminality.

At my parole suitability hearing, the panel members from the Board of Parole Hearings remarked that it was my participation in rehabilitative programming that guided their decision to find me suitable for parole. They reasoned that it would be one thing to be able to enjoy the fruits of scholarship by securing a well-paying job, and another to have those gains go up in smoke in the form of vaporized rocks ingested through a crack pipe.

During the coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, social isolation protocols were implemented and rehabilitative programming was suspended in response to the coronavirus. While those measures seemed justified, it has been nearly eight months since all rehabilitative programming was discontinued, and it looks as if no attempts are being made to address the programming needs of San Quentin State Prison’s rehabilitation-starved residents.

The indefinite suspension of rehabilitative programming runs counter to the mission of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Since 2004, the CDCR has invoked rehabilitative programming as an essential function of its operations, along with corrections officers, civilian support personnel and medical staff. None of these other components faced indefinite suspension, and neither should rehabilitative programming.

Restoring programming could be done safely. One approach would be to install more kiosks in the housing units, like the kiosks that are currently available for legal research. Secure media platforms such as kiosks, electronic tablets, e-readers and correspondence coursework would give prison officials enough latitude to continue rehabilitative programming activities that will meet the needs of the residents, as well as address any security concerns during the pandemic. But the use of these media seems to have been overlooked or dismissed.

The installation of additional kiosks might be costly, and not everyone can afford an electronic tablet or e-reader. The staff needed to maintain security and provide technical support might also strain resources. In addition to that, I am certain there are those who might say: “These people got themselves into prison, so why waste precious resources when society is being equally challenged by the pandemic?” But the suspension of rehabilitative resources could prove more costly than folks might imagine.

Take the case of an incarcerated individual who suffers from the disease of addiction and receives no in-prison substance abuse treatment. CDCR recidivism tracking data, from 2014 to 2017, shows that of those who did not receive in-prison treatment 47.8% were convicted within three years of being released. By comparison, of those who completed both in-prison treatment and aftercare 18.5% were convicted within three years of being released. According to California’s Legislative Analyst Office, in 2018-2019, it costs about $81,000 per year to incarcerate someone in prison in California. The data speaks for itself: rehabilitative programming works and is less costly. It also shows the antiquated approach — which proposes we leave those who fell from grace to their own devices — does not work and is more costly.

Rehabilitative programming was my key to freedom. And rehabilitative programming continues to play a pivotal role in my recovery. Moreover, in my case, it is because of rehabilitative programming that society has thus far gained the benefit of having another citizen that can contribute to the well-being of all of its citizens.

Pandemic notwithstanding, rehabilitative programming should be reinstated and California’s authorities need to step up to the plate to see to it that my comrades have a decent shot at returning to their communities better off than when they suffered what can arguably be construed as one of the worst moments of their lives. That is what the CDCR declared in its mission statement and this is what the public should expect.

Attribution: This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on December 14, 2020. Read Story