There’s a sea change happening in California prisons

"Treating alcoholism by building more prisons is like treating cancer by building more graveyards", Donald Kurth M.D., President, Calif. Society of Addiction Medicine.

Most of the people in prison are there, directly or indirectly, because of drugs and alcohol.

Today I heard amazing talks by Jeanne Woodford and Stephen Manley about the seismic shift happening now in California prisons towards rehabilitation and away from punishment. She is Director of the Calif. Dept. of Corrections. He is the author of Prop. 36, which mandates treatment not prison for addicts.

Woodward heads the adult prison system in California and is newly appointed. She is genuinely dedicated to stopping the revolving doors of recidivism, to changing the parole system so it works, and to helping substance abusers get clean and sober so they don’t return to prison.
She’s been telling balky wardens to allow Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings in their prisons, has already made serious changes in the parole system that have substantially lowered the recidivism rate, and works with communities to help addicts find better ways of life.

She said that while warden at San Quentin she brought Spanish-speaking A.A. meetings there but found Spanish-speaking inmates weren’t going. She met and talked with them, then asked, how many of you are fathers. Most raised their hands. She said, if you don’t change, 60% of your children will be here too, then walked out of the room.

For the head of the California prison system to openly endorse rehabilitation not punishment, to actually meet with inmates, is a staggering, most welcome change. She’s the real deal, she means it.

Judge Manley wrote Prop. 36 which mandates using a Drug Court model for drug offenders. He says it does little good to lock them up, release them, only to see them arrested again. In these courts, social workers and mental health professionals are present. Those who want help can get it. He also mandates they go to A.A. or N.A. Because hey, if someone gets clean and stays clean, then they’ll probably stop breaking laws too. Then everyone wins.

They spoke at an A.A. Hospitals and Institutions convention, this being a part of A.A. that brings meetings to prisons and hospitals. Neither of them are alcoholic. In fact, Woodward was just appointed to the Board of A.A. as an non-alcoholic Trusteee (the board deliberately has positions for non-alcoholics.)

After Woodward spoke, Manley said what you just heard from her, what she is doing now, has never been done before in the history of California prisons. He said others in positions like her have said things like prisons employ lots of people and thus are important to the communities they are in. Judge Manley wants to treat the alcoholic and addict so they never go to prison in the first place, or if they do, they then get help and don’t come back.

The California prison system has 155,000 inmates and huge problems. The Special Housing Units in California prisons have been called torture by Amnesty International. Woodward and Manley are bringing serious, desperately needed reform to a cynical, barbaric system that guarantees nothing but endless and increasing numbers of prisoners.

Gary Jeager M.D, Director of Addiction Medicine, South Bay Kaiser, also spoke. He said, there’s no longer any question about it, alcoholism is a biological condition, and is inheritable. 60% of alcoholism is genetic, 40% environmental. They’ve even found one rare genetic marker where 100% of the adults with it are alcoholic.

However, alcoholism and addiction is treatable. And treatment instead of prison benefits everyone.

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