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Prison Crisis: Life at Richard J. Donovan State Correctional Facility

A group of Donovan State Prison inmates are taking part in a substance abuse program called the Amity Program.
Ana Tintocalis
A group of Donovan State Prison inmates are taking part in a substance abuse program called the Amity Program.
Prison Crisis: Life at Richard J. Donovan State Correctional Facility
Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility is the only State-run prison in San Diego County. It was built in 1989 and was designed to accommodate 2,208 medium to high-custody inmates -- today more than double that number, 4,680 inmates, call the facility home. What are conditions like for the prison population?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Yesterday, as we began our week long series on California’s prison system, Folsom prison warden Michael Evans told us he believes prisons should be a place where individuals have the opportunity to change if they choose to. Because of budget cuts and overcrowding, critics say it’s getting harder for the state’s 167,000 prison inmates to make that choice and change their lives. California’s prisons now have the highest recidivism rate in the country. A panel of federal judges is in the process of reviewing the state’s plans to reduce prison overcrowding. If the judges reject the plan, the legal battle that ensues may go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And in the middle of the battle are California’s prison inmates, living in crowded, racially charged facilities where rehabilitation services are evaporating. Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility is the only state run prison in San Diego County. Today, we’ll be hearing from several guests to give us an idea of what life is like for the people who are doing time inside Donovan. We’ll start with the perspective of two prison wardens. And I’d like to welcome my guests, Donovan State Prison’s Chief Deputy Warden, Dennis Morris. Mr. Morris, welcome to These Days.

DENNIS MORRIS (Chief Deputy Warden, Donovan State Prison): Thank you very much, Maureen.


CAVANAUGH: And Associate Warden Elias Contreras. Mr. Contreras, good morning and welcome.

ELIAS CONTRERAS (Associate Warden, Donovan State Prison): Oh, good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have a question about Donovan State Prison or a comment about conditions there, give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, Mr. Morris, let’s start out with you and for those of us unfamiliar with Donovan, I’d like to go over some of the basics.


CAVANAUGH: Where is the facility located?


MORRIS: Donovan is located about a half mile from the international border of Mexico…


MORRIS: …on the – probably the east end of San Diego, so we’re located at the end of California off the 905 freeway.

CAVANAUGH: And how many inmates are currently housed there?

MORRIS: Our population is currently 4762. 4,762.

CAVANAUGH: What are conditions like at Donovan? I’m wondering, it’s – I looked at a map and it sort of looks to me out in the middle of nowhere. Is that a fair characterization?

MORRIS: That’s a fair characterization. If you’ve been out here, though, you’d see a lot of development. There’s other correctional facilities, country-run facilities, privatized facilities. There’s a new Calpine energy plant. And it seems to be growing out here.

CAVANAUGH: And – But the area is sort of – could you describe it as sort of a desert?

MORRIS: Yes, that’s a good example or good description out on the mesa out here.

CAVANAUGH: And is it pretty hot most of the time?

MORRIS: Hot? No, I wouldn’t say that. Our weather’s rather timid (sic). I mean, it’s – The ocean breeze comes through here so it keeps it in the eighties. We have some hot months. We just passed through those in August and early September.

CAVANAUGH: Now Donovan is home to inmates who are classified at Levels 1, 3 and 4. What do those levels represent in terms of crimes committed?

MORRIS: Okay, Level Ones, you know, there’s a screening criteria for these crimes and there’s also a criteria for them to be involved in the Level One Minimum Support Facility are low-level custody inmates. You could have burglaries, you could have some drug offenses, but we don’t allow violence, violent histories, sex offenses and the more violent crimes so it is low custody level.

CAVANAUGH: That’s Level One.

MORRIS: That’s Level One.

CAVANAUGH: What about 3 and 4?

MORRIS: Level Three, and we have a point system that is assigned to the inmates when they go through the classification system. Level Three will be, you know, repeat offenders, violence. Their programming, drug offenses, a little more serious drug offenses, just a long – a little more longer criminal history.


MORRIS: And, yeah, that’s our Level Threes.


MORRIS: Four is your more violent individuals. They’re doing a lot of time. They’ve got a lot of violence in their record, a lot of crimes in their record and, you know, a lot of instability.

CAVANAUGH: And there’s no death row at Donovan.

MORRIS: There is no death row at Richard J. Donovan.

CAVANAUGH: And what about – But do people spend life sentences there?

MORRIS: We have lifers at this prison, yes.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder why there’s no Level 2? What would Level 2 be?

MORRIS: Well, Level Two, and, again, it goes off of a point system.


MORRIS: And, Mr. Contreras, if I mess this up, please step in and correct me.

CONTRERAS: No problem.

MORRIS: Yeah, but our low – our point system goes zero, I believe it’s to 21 for our MSF, 21 to thirty – or, let’s see, 21 to probably low-thirty for Level Two, your 29 to probably 31 – let’s see…

CONTRERAS: Fifty-one.

MORRIS: Forty – Fifty-one? Yeah.


MORRIS: 51 for our Level Three and then 51 and above is our Level Four.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So it’s all points depending on what your crime has been and how your behavior is, etcetera, etcetera.

MORRIS: Your history, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, okay. Now, Mr. Contreras.


CAVANAUGH: Associate Warden Contreras, welcome again.

CONTRERAS: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now we just heard that there are more than 4700 inmates at Donovan. How many inmates was the prison designed for, do you know?

CONTRERAS: Well, when we first activated back in 1987, we were delayed because of the LA Prison Bill. We were originally supposed to activate in October of ’86 but we were tied into that element which delayed our activation until July of 1987. Our actual population projection was at 2200. It was a vocational, educational, industry prison for the incarcerated felons. Subsequently, due to the prison population growth so quickly, we quickly rose from 100% to 140 to 170 and currently at 190%, and now we’ve gone over that based on our activations of our gymnasiums and some day room beds. So we’ve definitely increased in the past from the original 2200 to approximately 4750, all the way up to 4800.

CAVANAUGH: So how is it that the space has been modified to accommodate the extra inmate population? You talked about putting up cots in various areas. Tell us about that.

CONTRERAS: Well, when this prison was originally constructed, it was built for 100%. However, the cells were already modified for 200% capacity, so they’re actually able to house two inmates per cell.


CONTRERAS: So thus, you know, from 100% to 200, that quick overcrowding could be conducted in the house units. So each house unit could house up to 200 inmates. Now the bad beds that the department has been impacted with, we’ve gone to dayroom beds. And what we had to do on that, it actually puts 40 double bunks on the dayrooms of some of the housing units and then we had to modify a couple of the cells. So actual populations in those house units rose to 236 possible. In the dayroom – or, the gymnasiums, we had to convert our gymnasiums also based on the overpopulation. Originally it was at 122 bodies and then we went into overcrowding in the gymnasiums to 152 bodies so…

CAVANAUGH: Now when you – where – When you’re saying that, you mean over the percent that you should be housing, is that right? Like it’s 156% of what it should be.



CONTRERAS: So the gymnasiums themselves were never projected for housing units…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

CONTRERAS: …so right off the top when we were at 190% for the house units based on dayroom beds, which were not projected into our overcrowding package, in addition to our gymnasiums being activated house units, that increased us over the 200%.

CAVANAUGH: And you referred to something called bad beds. Could you explain that for us?

CONTRERAS: Well, the bad beds were identified as beds that we were not established for incarcerating felons in a secure setting. This prison, our minimum facility, was established for 200 beds. That’s dormitory living. And then our house units, they’re constructed for in-cell living. However, the bad beds construct, meaning they’re not in-cell. They’re in…


CONTRERAS: …dayroom activity – or, in dayroom areas. So that’s a challenge for us in ensuring programs are being conducted, showering, television usage, just the dayroom daily activities are conducted. Also, our gymnasiums, they were not constructed for, again, housing, so we had to modify the gymnasiums for showering and toiletry areas. So that was a major impact on us.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Associate Warden Elias Contreras from Donovan State Prison. Also on the line is Deputy Chief Warden Dennis Morris. And we’re talking about conditions for people incarcerated in Donovan State Prison. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Alan in North Park is on the line. Good morning, Alan. Welcome to These Days.

ALAN (Caller, North Park): Yeah, good morning. Say, I just spent the weekend down at Donovan Prison. I’m a volunteer with a wonderful organization known as the Alternatives to Violence Project. And it’s really great that Donovan is right close by here to San Diego where there’s lots of volunteer groups that go in. What we do is a workshop that consists of a series of exercises that are quite serious to learn better communication skills, better cooperation skills, mostly better listening skills, which is a lot of things, it can help reduce violence. Then we go into a series of role plays where people can actually feel what it’s like to be in a tense situation and, hopefully, use some of the tools they’ve learned in order to act out and practice alternatives to the violence. We also include a series of really silly and fun and upbeat and uplifting games that we play in a workshop, and these workshops are very beneficial. There’s been several studies done over the years that show that recidivism rates are really reduced by people that have just been through one, and only one, workshop.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Alan…

ALAN: Umm-hmm?

CAVANAUGH: Alan, thank you for the call and thank you for letting us know that. I’m sure that your efforts are greatly appreciated at Donovan. And actually Alan’s call, Mr. Morris, has made me think about what an average day can be like for an inmate at Donovan. What do inmates do? Does it differ between the levels that one is classified at?

MORRIS: Absolutely. And I would like to start off by saying that, you know, we have approximately 600 volunteers. We have a partnership with the community. The community’s been great and it embraced change for the prisons and we’re going to need those folks during these difficult times.


MORRIS: And it does vary. Your lower custody level inmates are going to have a little more freedom of movement. Their job assignments are going to vary. They’re going to be able to go out on outside crews through a screening process, of course. They’ll landscape on the outside of the prison, they’ll do prison maintenance, in fact they even do inmate work labor projects which are construction. So they have good skills, they’re taught good skills, and they’re able to have a little more freedom. Their time in a dayroom setting is much more abundant due to the fact that they’re in a dormitory type setting. They, you know, television areas, phone areas, yard time areas, just more freedom on that Level One…


MORRIS: …and that’s because they’re less of a threat to escape or to cause any harm to the public.


MORRIS: Our Level Threes, which was where we go to next, their time is a little more restricted. We have several different counts during the day to account for them. We have structured time for, you know, whether it be their access to healthcare, access to mental health, access to dentistry, job assignments where they can either be in one of our vocational or educational programs to learn a trade or improve their education levels, and then with recreational activity. We like to keep them as busy as possible and that helps reduce the violence.

CAVANAUGH: And Level Four, can – in that extreme sort of incarceration, what do the prisoners do at Level Four?

MORRIS: And, again, it’s all worked on schedules. Our activities are all preparedness and response so that we can curtail any violence that occurs. These folks in our Level Four, they have movement but it’s a lot more restricted, a lot more cell time than yard time, and they do go to their work assignments.

CAVANAUGH: And what kind of work?

MORRIS: Our Level Four yard currently has some vocational programs, vocational shoe. I’m sorry. I said vocational. It’s Prison Industry Authority and that’s a partnership with Prison Industry Authority where they have assignments. They actually make tennis shoes for other inmates, they make bread, they make – we used to have a vocational eyewear; that program’s recently gone away but it was a good program. Job assignments like work crews on the yards to landscape and maintenance. Maintenance, you know, plumbers…


MORRIS: …electricians. You know, they do a lot – we have supervisors that help them do the work in the facility, keep it running.

CAVANAUGH: Now I want to point out something that you said, Mr. Morris. And, Mr. Contreras, please feel free to chime in. I know that our education reporter here at KPBS, Ana Tintocalis, was down at Donovan this week and she was there specifically to do a feature on rehabilitation programs. You just mentioned, Mr. Morris, that some of those programs are in the process of drying up and I wonder how – what it used to be like and what it’s like now.

MORRIS: Okay, I’ll let Mr. Contreras and then – start on this and then…


MORRIS: …I’ll jump in if I hear something that I need to add.

CONTRERAS: You know, through these trying times, you know, the budget’s impacting all, even the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And within that, we’re in the process of downsizing our education component and also our substance abuse component. However, you know, we’ve already went through these challenges in the past in the early ‘90s when, you know, the state had a major budget crisis. So, again, adapting to these, you know, overcoming challenges isn’t unusual for us. And so we have to be creative again in how we roll out our processes. Education component’s the major element in especially reducing recidivism and that’s been identified in multiple studies. And one of the elements that we, you know, we’ve really maximized here at Donovan is the inmates, the tutoring, the support that they give fellow peers, incarcerated felons. And we’re going to be utilizing that tool. You know, again, we are going to have to reduce our educational staffing, however, again, thinking outside the box, is maximizing our resources. As like our substance abuse, we started that program back in the early ‘90s and it rolled out to a very positive element for the Department of Corrections and it rolled out to multiple institutions. The biggest challenge we have here, though, is, you know, our substance abuse program, known as Amity Foundation, is being discontinued but that doesn’t mean the population is not retaining all that education they received as mentors and our participants. So now thinking outside the box, and like the previous caller stated, the wonderful thing about San Diego County is we have so many volunteers willing to step up whether it’s in religious programs, educational programs, and/or in job skill programs to give back to the incarcerated felons because the majority of these individuals are going back into our community. And, thus, you know, our best product is our population. And, again, as a industry element, thinking about our product being the inmates, we want the best product going back out in our community and the reason being because we want them to be role models for their families, for their kids, for the community as a whole. And, thus, by, again, utilizing every tool we have in the system to make these guys a positive element for the community, you know, it’s great. You know, just like our recent graduation we had here at the institution, we had 107 individuals obtain their GED. Out of our Vocational Lectures Department, we had 31 individuals receive their certification. We had 2 business certifications, 3 AAs and 1 BA. And that’s while these individuals are incarcerated. Now the individual that received his bachelor’s, he was a lifer. So when you look at those elements of why would an individual pursue his bachelor’s if he’s in here possibly for the rest of his life, well it’s because he wants to be a role model for those incarcerated felons also to show that, you know, while you’re incarcerated doesn’t mean you have to give up on life. But at that point in time you also can give back to the individuals, noting that, again, the majority of our population will be paroling and the gift they have going back out in the community and doing it in a positive role model instead of a negative role model…

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mr. Contreras, I know that you’re used to speaking in prison bureaucratic lingo so let me just make it very clear that…


CAVANAUGH: …when we say that you’re experiencing downsizing in the substance abuse component and education program component, it means you’re losing funding for rehabilitation programs and substance abuse programs, is that right?

CONTRERAS: That is correct.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And let me go on, if I may, because I really do want to talk about this big issue that the federal courts have focused on, and that is the medical facilities at the California State Prisons. I wonder, either one of you, Mr. Morris or Mr. Contreras, if you could tell us a little bit about Donovan’s medical facilities and how they’re operating.

MORRIS: E, I’ll start off with this one.



MORRIS: And before I jump into that, you know, we are looking at – when we do lose resources and we do have to downsize and it is – You know, we understand we have our responsibility to the taxpayers also.


MORRIS: And we’ve had traditional models of education programs, substance abuse programs, and when those funds go away, we have to look at alternative ways to achieve those. Similar to that caller that called in, the faith-based groups…


MORRIS: …the volunteer groups, and changing the model of how we operate, and education’s going to be one of those where, you know, you had a traditional classroom where a inmate student would sit in class for six hours, they’re looking at different type of home studies where he comes to the classroom for his hour, gets his lesson plan, goes back to his room and/or cell, and he has his own homework type stuff that he needs to do. Similar more to the way the high schools and colleges are. And then we have peer mentors and tutors that are going to be able to help out. So we are going to have to change our models and we are moving towards that. Same thing with the substance abuse group. We’re already trying to put together a system where it’s more faith-based and volunteer so we can continue on with it. It’ll be a similar problem – product but downsized, definitely, and a lot less expensive. Now the healthcare system.


MORRIS: It’s similar to what folks are going to have out there and probably a little bit easier to get ahold of because you live here and the system’s here. It consists of a primary provider, a system where an inmate can put in a sick call slip. We call it a 7362 Sick Call Form, where it’s screened and triaged by a nurse to see the severity and elevated to the level of care that it needs to go to. It may be a doctor’s visit, it may be an RN visit. Once the doctor or the RN—and let me preference real quick, the facilities where the inmates live all have clinics. In those clinics are dental clinics, medical clinics, and psych services unit within that yard. So they have the three different disciplines that make up our healthcare system, in addition to the nursing program, the support systems of a lab, an x-ray, a pharmaceutical, and medical records. Now the inmate can, when he goes and sees that level of care, depending on what it is, it can be elevated even to a specialist if the doctor makes the referral. And there has been quite a bit of change. They’ve up – they’ve raised the salaries of the healthcare providers so that we can be competitive and get quality ones. In addition to that, we can fill the positions. We had a very difficult time in the past filling those positions, so in past conversations with Mr. Cate and yourself on one of your talk programs, he – the receiver has done a good job of helping us get to where we need to go on the healthcare front.


MORRIS: Is it perfect? No.


MORRIS: But it is a lot better system than what we’ve had. We also, the other component that’s missing, the pillar that was missing was access to care. And, you know, everybody has a lot of responsibilities and a lot of duties they have to do in their assignments. There’s some dedicated staff now that makes sure the inmates patients get from their cells, their yards, their areas where they work, to a provider, and that’s probably been the biggest component. So systems we’ve put in place is the ability for an inmate to say, hey, I’ve got a problem or I want – I need some healthcare, and also the ability to make sure that that patient gets in front of a provider.

CAVANAUGH: Right, and so as far as you’re concerned, Mr. Morris, all these things have improved in the last couple of years?

MORRIS: Definitely.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, though, is overcrowding still a challenge when it comes to providing medical care for the people at Donovan?

MORRIS: Oh, overcrowding’s going to be a challenge to – for everything we do and it’s similar to going to the grocery store on Thanksgiving eve and/or Christmas Eve and it’s packed and the lines are longer and, you know, and there’s more tension and it’s louder and noisier. Any time, you know, you overcrowd something, it’s going to cause tensions and problems, and our staff do a phenomenal job of keeping that violence down. And it does, it definitely impacts, you know, everything from litigation, appeals, stressed lines for medication, and, you know, just everything gets stressed. But, again, the staff preparedness and response and the ability to adapt and make the changes and they’re doing a very good job.

CAVANAUGH: And my final question to you both is, in researching this segment, it’s been brought to my attention on a number of occasions that prisons seem to be run for, to a large extent, by the prisoners. Would you agree with that?

MORRIS: We – And I’ve mentioned the words preparedness and response and that’s our keys. Communication is probably our biggest tool. And we’re able to put enough programs into place to keep them busy, keep it consistent, keep it fair, keep it impartial, and that’s what makes it work. And, yes, we’re outnumbered. You know, there’s more inmates than staff. But it’s a very productive time and preparedness and response, the ability to put certain inmates, a certain number of inmates on a yard or in a chow hall or in a pill line or a clinic, helps us maintain the violence from increasing.

CAVANAUGH: And, Mr. Contreras, a final word.

CONTRERAS: Maureen, one of the biggest challenges we have in our system is our population. When we received our Level 4 inmates here at Donovan, it was a major transition for our Level 3 population to Level 4. And approximately 600 of those are lifers, meaning they’re not going home. This is their home for the rest of their life. However, they want to be safe just like everybody else. They want a program just like everyone else. And once you put those primers in place and ensure accountability and enforcement of the rules, no deviation from those processes, they’ll follow those programs appropriately. And one of our major components, our industry programs are on our Facility 3 yard so I was very disappointed when we had that transition. However, when the inmates did receive in, you could see their willingness to program and our staff’s diligence in enforcing the rules. So that – you know, that mutual collaboration and working relationship of accountability, I mean, inmates will adapt to that and they’ll follow the rules in all levels. But the biggest part about it is the accountability, one of those elements that, I think, in society is just enforcing those rules of the social norm of responsibility, character building, and the things that we have to teach individuals prior to going out.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much for joining us today. Associate Warden Elias Contreras, thank you.

CONTRERAS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Chief Deputy Warden Dennis Morris, thank you so much.

MORRIS: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And both of those gentlemen from Donovan State Prison. We’ll continue our discussion about life in California prisons after just a short break. And I just want to remind everyone, KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis did visit Donovan State Prison earlier this week. She is preparing a special report on rehabilitation programs at Donovan. That will be airing Thursday on Morning Edition. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Today is part of our series on California prisons. We’re focusing on what life is like inside our state’s overcrowded prisons. The state is in the process of trying to satisfy a federal order to cut the prison population but until they do, state prisons remain packed to the rafters, increasing the dangers and tensions involved in prison life. Joining me now to discuss what life is like behind bars in Donovan State Prison and other prisons up and down California, are my guests. Alan Mobley, Ph.D., Professor of Criminal Justice at San Diego State University. Good morning, Alan.

ALAN MOBLEY (Professor of Criminal Justice, San Diego State University): Good morning, Maureen. Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Tom Miller is founder of the prison consulting organization called Dr. Prison. Tom, welcome.

TOM MILLER (Co-founder, Dr. Prison Consulting Organization): Co-founder.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

MILLER: And thank you for having me on this show, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome. And Ken Lane is a consultant with the organization, Dr. Prison, and Ken served 13 consecutive years in California State Correctional facilities, including 7 years at Donovan Correctional Facility. Ken, good morning.

KEN LANE (Consultant, Dr. Prison Organization): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And we’re inviting our listeners to join the conversation. If you know what California prisons are like right now because you’ve served time or you know someone in prison, give us a call, or if you have a question or comment about this topic. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Alan, as a professor of criminal justice, you’ve been to the Donovan Correctional Facility, is that correct?

MOBLEY: Yes, that’s correct.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us a little bit. We heard what – We heard where the facility is from the wardens, we heard kind of what it’s like, but what are the dorms like? What is it like inside?

MOBLEY: Well, Ken is actually someone who’s lived there…

CAVANAUGH: Sure, sure.

MOBLEY: …he could probably address this in much more detail. But one thing about Donovan I think that’s very distinctive is that it’s in the south of California and most of the state’s prisons, nearly all, are in the central or northern part of the state. And so it’s considered to be something of a privilege for people who are from Southern California to be able to come down to Donovan. As one of the warden (sic) mentioned, Donovan is a relatively new prison, constructed in the ‘80s. And when I was visiting there, I was working for the governor doing an assessment of their substance abuse programs and so I spent some time in the Amity program that they mentioned is now closed, which I think is a very unfortunate thing. And my impression was that the facility seemed pretty calm. It did seem that most of the prisoners were relatively happy to be there, right, given the fact that they’re prisoners, that they would rather be in the south and so they’re trying to get along with one another. And the facilities were clean, for the most part, with cleaning operations going on by the prisoners, as the staff members mentioned. And I think the overriding impression I had was that the place is stark, right. So as far as does it look like it’s a war zone, does it look like it’s trashed? No, it’s not. It looks like a fairly hygienic place to be. But as a place to live your life or to go to work every day, it seemed to be fairly unpleasant with concrete, steel and dirt being the predominant environment.

CAVANAUGH: Ken, since you’ve spent time there, let me ask you then, as Alan suggested, what is it like inside Donovan?

LANE: Well, there’s – they have 200 beds in each building. Each yard has five buildings on it and a gymnasium. Now I went there in 1989 and I think within three years of that, they were housing people in the gyms at that time. And the gymnasium is like a – see, we never really had access to the gymnasiums for what they were meant for.

CAVANAUGH: Because there were beds in there.

LANE: Yeah, there was beds for…

MILLER: Triple bunk.

LANE: Triple bunks but there was only double bunks when I was there. And the main buildings are cell living. There’s 100 cells in each building with two men per cell. And I guess that’s changed now. They had beds in the dorms – I mean, in the dayrooms now there, too. So…

CAVANAUGH: And as Alan sort of described it, did you guys – the same impression? Like it’s clean but it’s…

LANE: It’s concrete and dirt. That’s what you see is concrete and dirt. I mean, it’s just – I mean, not that it’s dirty. But…


LANE: …you look outside and they’ve got all the vegetation cut back away from the fence so, you know, to prevent people from escaping, you know, even though it’s got two fences and an electric, you know, barrier so it’s still – They have to keep it down so they can see, you know…


LANE: …around the prison.

MOBLEY: And part of what I wanted to get at about it being stark is just so much of what we take for granted, I mean just – those of us out in the free world in our every day lives, is we see trees and flowers and shrubs and birds and cats and, you know, wildlife and things that are just living. And in Donovan, besides other human beings, you don’t really see much at all that’s alive.

LANE: Now, there is cats there. I mean, there was feral cats running around the prison. We had pet cats over in PIA when I was there. Maybe I shouldn’t say that but we did. And snakes and lizards, you see that kind of stuff. Whatever can get under the fence or around it comes in.

MILLER: I mean, it was – it’s like the desert and they called it Rock Mountain.

LANE: Yeah, that’s…

MILLER: When I was there, it was The Rock because what you see is you see a mountain that’s rocky.


MILLER: It’s kind of, you know, like, you know, Mexico before it was even inhabited.

LANE: And the point about the trees, I didn’t see a tree until I transferred upstate to Tehachapi and there’s some trees on the Two yard there and there’s some trees on the One yard there.

CAVANAUGH: And how long was that?

LANE: Seven years.


LANE: Without seeing a tree and, you know, I was so fascinated taking the bus ride up from Donovan to Tehachapi, you know, seeing Escondido and places I hadn’t seen because you see absolutely nothing there except for the mountain in the background and dirt.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Ken Lane, Tom Miller and Alan Mobley. We’re talking about conditions at California’s prisons, most particularly Donovan State Prison. Alan Mobley, you are professor of criminal justice at SDSU. I want to ask you your take on why the state has allowed Donovan and other correctional facilities to become so overcrowded without building more prisons if they were going to give people more – longer sentences and incarcerate more people.

MOBLEY: Well, it’s difficult to lay the problem at the feet of the Department of Corrections. They have what they have to deal with, the budget that the legislature provides for them. The main story has to do with sentencing, both with sentencing lengths with virtually all category of crime having their sentences lengthened over the last few decades as well as the very well known occurrence of Three Strikes, which also has a Two Strike provision that greatly lengthens the people’s sentences. So as prisoners have begun to – as they began to serve longer time, those with really long sentences stack up and then, as we’ve mentioned before on this program, the policies of the Parole Division where Parole has kept returning people over and over again back to the state prison, so on the one hand you have the long term prisoners who are stacking up with their long sentences with very little hope of getting out and, as we know, it’s been the norm in California for many years that the Parole Board will not release people who have life sentences. Even when the Parole Board has recommended release, the governor, both Gray Davis and Schwarzenegger, have denied that request for release. So on the one hand we have the long-termers stacking up and on the other hand you have people being returned over and over again for parole violations some of which, no doubt, reflect serious conduct problems in the community but others, those referred to as technical violations, perhaps more discretion and more alternatives could be utilized to keep people out on the street. But with these two occurrences, both at the high end and the low end of things, we’ve had this massive increase in prison population and the Department of Corrections has just had to adjust with the budget they’ve had which means turning gymnasiums and dayrooms, throughout the state, not just at Donovan, into housing units and going from single bunks to double bunks to then triple bunks with the person on the top being up in nosebleed territory where they could hurt an ankle trying to get up and down.

CAVANAUGH: I want to bring Tom Miller in the conversation. You’re co-founder of Dr. Prison. Tell us about this organization. What does it do?

MILLER: Dr. Prison, it’s a consultation service and, you know, I was in prison in 1990 and when I went in I was thinking, well, what am I going to do? How can I help when I get out? And so years later I met Steve Scholl and we started to talk and then I told him that I worked with after care people being released from prison, we – and I helped putting them – put them in programs. And he goes, wow, you know, I have this business and I haven’t – It’s been idle for about a year. And I go, what’s that? He goes, it’s called – it’s a consultation service for people going into prison. So it’s for first-time folks that are going in, and we teach them not only to survive but get the most out of the prison experience. And so, you know, people call us because they’re afraid.


MILLER: They’re in panic. You know, what happens in the prison system? And so the organization has 20 or so coaches, prison coaches, and the coaches basically coach and give the person information on how to navigate through a system that’s potentially very dangerous.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you more about what kind of advice you give to people who are entering California’s prisons but I want to take a few phone calls because there are people who want to join the conversation.


CAVANAUGH: Once again, the number is 1-888-895-5727. And Tom is on the line from Scripps Ranch. Good morning, Tom. Welcome to These Days.

TOM (Caller, Scripps Ranch): Good morning. Just a brief comment, I’ve worked in state government for 41 years. I retired recently. I mean, I’ve been the head of the FB618 reentry program at Donovan Prison and at California Institution for Women. And basically I think they really need a paradigm shift in correctional thinking. We need to get away from the idea of building prisons. I think if you build more prisons, you’re just going to add more people to the prisons. We need to look at, like many other states, reducing (sound dropout), increasing rehab programs that are evidence based that document that we can keep people out of prison for longer periods of time, and really get back to the whole issue of thinking of correctional rehab by increasing education, vocational and reentry programs.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Tom, thank you for that. I really appreciate it. And let’s – there’s another Tom on the line, Tom in North Park is calling us. Good morning, Tom. Welcome to These Days. Hello, Tom? Okay, we’ll skip that because Tom’s not on the line anymore. Let me ask you for a comment about what our first Tom said about the idea of building more prisons is just ludicrous. But I’m wondering, how politically – how it would work politically to do some of the things that Tom, our caller, suggested.

MOBLEY: Well, his comments are very well taken. It’s true that California has built a lot of prisons. The idea that I mentioned earlier that Corrections just has to deal with the budget they have, you know, of course that’s true with this huge number of prisoners coming in but it’s also true what Tom mentioned, that California has built more prisons, has added more bed capacity than, as far as I know, any other jurisdiction in the history of the world in these past 30 years. So this prison construction boom that California has undertaken, along with the lengthening sentences and the parole policies, has really been unprecedented and it’s been the cause of this problem, right, this problem of overcrowding. Certainly the additional sentences have been the cause of overcrowding and the parole policies but also the idea that we can build, all right, we can build more, we can solve our problems, problems that we’re experiencing on the streets, with failing schools, with underemployment and unemployment, with people who just don’t seem to be fitting in, that we can solve them through building prisons and that has been an ideology that has been fairly firmly in place for the last 30 years or so. And Tom asks for a paradigm shift and in recent years, it does seem that some sort of shift is underway. The Department of Corrections has renamed itself, Corrections and Rehabilitation, trying to now perhaps walk that talk implied in the renaming. And there is some movement about reentry programs such as the Senate Bill 618 Reentry Program that tries to diagnose prisoners’ shortcomings while they’re incarcerated, work on them while incarcerated, and then help them get resettled in the community. But I would say that, for the most part, the paradigm shift is – has not really come about, that the 618 curriculum goes from while someone is in prison and so it’s not really meant to keep someone out of prison, not in the front end, perhaps be preventative as to preventing a violation but not really addressing the need to keep people out of prison in the first place. I think we really just can’t lose sight of the fact that prisons themselves damage lives and that once people are put into prison and their chance of living a successful post-release life is lessened.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Tom Miller, people hear about what Alan was just talking about, how prison can damage your life, how overcrowding, gangs, violence, I’m thinking someone comes to Dr. Prison as a – not a career criminal usually and is going perhaps into prison for the first time, so what is it they’re afraid of? What do they come to you – what do they ask you?

MILLER: Well, first I would like to start with – and I would like to talk about how – see, this is very painful to watch all these substance abuse programs go away.


MILLER: You know, it took a long time to build on building it. You know, because I did a presentation a while ago to a lot of professional people involved in the Corrections Division and then after I got done, I said, well, can you tell me what I just talked about? And very few hands went up. And then I said, this is what we’re dealing with when we’re putting people in substance abuse programs because if it’s not ongoing, they forget the information that they really need. Not only – You know, the substance abuse people have a hard time with an attention span but, yeah, I just had to say that because they’re down to 13 substance abuse programs from 33 now in the State of California.

LANE: Right, right.

MILLER: And it is a tough job for CDCR so – but, yeah, you know, so what we want to do as far as Dr. Prison services, we want to help someone not get killed. You know, and people that are going in really just – they don’t know some of the ins and outs so some of the things that we talk about and teach them is, you know, that they have to stick with their own race. You know, there – it’s a different world in there as far as blending with different cultures and races. In there…

CAVANAUGH: And we’ve talked about that on this program before. Not all prison systems allow that self-segregation by – in racial gangs but California prisons do allow that.

MILLER: Right, you mean the segregation?


MILLER: It’s absolutely -- because, you know, there – you know, they have the blacks, they have the whites, they have the Hispanics, and each one is pretty much – they want to survive. And so if a riot breaks out, you need a group of people, and everybody runs in groups. So we teach people right off the bat is, is that you don’t smoke after another race, you don’t get tattoos. If the tattoo person is tattooing, you don’t get tattoos after another race. You don’t eat at the same table. And these are all things that are – were odd for me but how to survive is what I needed to know and we tell people that. Another thing is, is that stay away from the criminal activity such as drinking and using drugs and be – stay away from sexual relationships in prison because there’s a lot of jealousies and all kinds of oddities that go on there. Don’t become too friendly with the guards because your peers are watching every move you make.


MILLER: You know, everything.

CAVANAUGH: We had a caller, Tom or Ken, I don’t know who wants to take this, who asked about the prevalence of rape in prison because, you know, in popular culture, that’s something that we hear about all the time. And I wonder in real life, how big a problem that is.

LANE: It goes on but for the most part there’s enough people in there that are, I would say, that would tend to go that way and, you know, there’s homosexual activity in there and you expect to see it but if you’re – if you just stay to yourself and watch what’s going on around you and don’t put yourself in a position where you’re in somebody’s cell, you know, that you don’t know, you should’ve have any problems.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Gretchen is calling from Spring Valley. Good morning, Gretchen. Welcome to These Days.

GRETCHEN (Caller, Spring Valley): Good morning. I have a long history with Donovan State Prison. My son, who is a drug addict and was incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses was one of those kids that just kept recycling through the system. He’d get seven months on a drug charge, come out, still be addicted, get picked up and on a technical violation or a dirty drug test, and find himself back behind bars. And this was – So I went to Donovan every week to visit my son and I know what it feels like there. It is cold. I mean, all the descriptions you’re talking about, that cold concrete, barbed wire, hopeless situation. I think that even programs can’t work behind bars right now because there’s so much overcrowding that the inmates can’t even access those programs. I think a driving force of our over-incarceration is our drug problem and our society’s way of handling it. We are making criminals out of people who have drug problems. And now some of these people with drug problems do commit crimes to get the drugs that they think that they need but what’s happening is you got a lot of nonviolent drug offenders put in – By the way, Level 3 is where my son was and he had never had any violent charge. So he would be behind bars with murderers and, you know, that – there’s a whole mix in that Level 3. And…

CAVANAUGH: Gretchen, how is your son now?

GRETCHEN: He’s fine. He works as a drug and alcohol counselor now. But – So eight years – that was about eight years ago. But then after that, I co-founded an organization called A New Path, Parents for Addiction, Treatment and Healing. And I was actually the state chair of Proposition 36 which mandates treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. And that is what our organization promotes. As a visitor, we put in a self-reflection garden there because I felt like how is anybody ever going to get the sense that they can be anything but a criminal in this kind of environment? How can they ever have a sense of hope? So we put a self-reflection garden behind bars there on the Level 3 yard, which now that is Level 4 and so nobody’s taking care of the garden and it’s not there anymore. But there was a sense that they need to have some place where they can go to believe that they can change.

CAVANAUGH: Gretchen, thank you so much for the call. Ken, I wanted to ask you, I know you haven’t been in Donovan for several years now but I know you do talk with people who’ve come – recently come out of Donovan State Prison, how has it changed since you’ve been there?

MOBLEY: Well, the beds in the dayrooms in the individual buildings, that’s new. The elimination of the Amity program, I was there when the Amity program came in, and first it was one building, then it was two buildings and…

CAVANAUGH: And that’s the rehabilitation program…


CAVANAUGH: …that’s been cancelled.

MOBLEY: Yeah, it’s, like I said, it’s down…

MILLER: Yes, it’s been eliminated.

LANE: Umm-hmm.

MOBLEY: …eliminated…

MILLER: This month, it will be cut off.

LANE: It was a good program for helping people that had problems with drugs, you know, because a lot of – most of the offenders that are in there now, well, I can’t – I don’t have the numbers but – are drug related offenders and there’s got to be some kind of a program to reach out and try and help these people.

CAVANAUGH: And, briefly, Alan, I wanted to ask you, with the majority of people cycling in and out of prison, with drug related programs and violations and parole violations, do you think that the legislature is actually going to address this with prison reform? Is that – Are we going to see a change in the number of people who get violated on parole and keep getting recycled?

MOBLEY: It’s hard to know. I guess the only thing that we know for sure is that budgets are being cut and programs eliminated. And I was really struck by the wardens on earlier in the program with this emphasis on volunteers, and it – volunteers, of course, have always been—always—the first days, over 200 years ago, always been a big part of a prison, especially with the programs and services and religious services in particular. And, yeah, there’s a lot of programs going on at Donovan that are volunteer run and the overcrowding and the staff shortages that they spoke of that reduce access to medical care are also a big complication for volunteers because when you show up to the prison to try to help with the program, if there’s no staff to come and get you and escort you in and then also escort prisoners to a place where you are, then that program can’t happen. So it’s a tremendous frustration relying on volunteers to do what really are essential services around prison programming such as these treatment, education and others but with today’s budgetary climate and with prisoners long seen as the least eligible for public funding, it seems that – it would seem best not to expect too much from the legislature.

CAVANAUGH: Gentlemen, we have to end it there. We’re out of time. We could talk about this a lot longer but I want to thank you all so much for coming in. Alan Mobley, Tom Miller, Ken Lane, thank you all.

MOBLEY: You’re welcome.

MILLER: You’re welcome. Thank you.

LANE: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know our series on prisons will continue tomorrow and we’ll focus on how California’s laws on sentencing have contributed to overcrowding in our prisons and the politics involved in the battle to reduce some harsh sentencing laws. And stay with us because These Days will continue in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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