Changing Philosophies of Imprisonment in California

by TChris

For many years, the philosophy that prisons should be harshly punitive has prevailed in state governments. Year after year, legislatures sliced rehabilitative programs from state budgets as conservatives mocked a perceived liberal desire to coddle criminals. This bleak view of prison life has been embraced by most prison administrators, who seek only to run a prison with the ruthless efficiency of a cattle farm, albeit with fewer privileges for the human cattle.

Most wardens strive only to control and house their share of the nation's growing prison population, which, in the last 20-odd years, has quadrupled, to 2.1 million people. In California, the word ''rehabilitation'' was expunged from the penal code's mission statement in 1976. Since then, prison officials have been exhorted to punish, and they have fulfilled that mandate in new, highly secure prisons, devoid of anything that could lead to accusations of pampering inmates.

Read about San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford and her courageous effort to buck this dehumanizing trend. Her work reflects her belief that people can change if given some help, and that people will only perpetuate their past mistakes (at an increasing cost to everyone else) if society doesn't help them change. With little support from the state government, Woodford found ways to give meaning to the lives of San Quentin inmates.

The prison was bustling with purposeful activity. In the education building, inmates studied for their high-school equivalency examinations and college degrees. In factories, they learned to operate computer-controlled lathes, printing presses and milling machines. Two men pruned a Monterey Cypress tree in the chapel yard. Prisoners in a fathering course practiced reading Dr. Seuss to one another.

Woodford doesn't mind being judged "a naive, criminal-coddling do-gooder." Good for her. And good for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for selecting her to run the state's out-of-control Department of Corrections.

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