With Sentencing Reforms, the Distance Between Prison and the Job Market Is Shrinking

California’s Criminal Justice System Is Offering More Opportunities and Training for Lifers Like Me

With new self-help classes and job training opportunities in prisons, incarcerated people have better chances at rehabilitation, writes inmate David Medina. Participants at an information booth during a program fair at Folsom Prison. Courtesy of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

This piece publishes as part of the Zócalo/The James Irvine Foundation public program and editorial series, “What Is a Good Job Now?” which investigates low-wage work across California. Register for the event “What Is a Good Job Now?” For the Formerly Incarcerated on January 24, 7PM PST.

During the past decade, California’s prison system has undergone a whirlwind of change. In part, this reshaping has come in response to federal court orders to reduce prison overcrowding and improve unsatisfactory living conditions.

At the same time, initiatives by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the state legislature, and voters have gone into effect that prioritize prisoner rehabilitation. Their impact has been especially profound for prisoners serving life sentences, including me. Suddenly, many lifers have become eligible to appear before the parole board decades sooner than their sentences allowed.

That has shortened the time and space between inmates and the world of jobs and careers outside the walls.

The success of these initiatives has created momentum that is shrinking the space further. Under a mandate to create more rehabilitative opportunities for prisoners who would be released sooner, CDCR has allowed some of us lifers to leave high security yards like the Level IV, 180-design facilities—a design that allows a 180-degree view of all cells and dayrooms from the prison control room—where I’ve spent most of my time.

If you’re a lifer with good behavior, you are more likely to be an override transfer to a lower-level yard. Getting to a lower-level yard means access to far more programming.

In prison, “programming” refers to the rehabilitative opportunities available to prisoners at a facility. Much programming involves employment. CDCR offers job-training courses under the Office of Correctional Education. These so-called CTE (Career and Technical Education) programs include courses in construction, business, energy, information technology, public services, manufacturing, and transportation. The courses are aligned with industry certifications, state licensing requirements and apprenticeship programs.

Inmates can also get jobs and develop occupational skills through the Prison Industry Authority (PIA). The PIA operates as a business venture on a profit-loss basis, producing a wide range of goods and supplying various services within California prisons. It seeks to create working conditions for inmates much like those of private enterprise and to help inmates develop productive work habits that they can use upon release.

Many inmates covet PIA jobs due to the training and apprenticeship opportunities afforded there, and the higher prison wages. This “higher” is relative: PIA jobs range from 35 cents to $1 per hour, while most non-PIA jobs pay from 8 to 37 cents an hour—though those numbers are supposed to go up soon.

The job complemented my self-help work. It taught me skills I would have never learned otherwise, gave me a sense of responsibility and normalcy, and allowed me to feel pride for doing something productive. It enabled me to exercise the new identity I was working to create.

I arrived to the CDCR in August 2001. Over the next several years, my misconduct, lack of personal accountability and unwillingness to rehabilitate myself kept me housed on some of California’s highest-security facilities, where extended cell confinement, violence, and limited programming are the norm. Not until March 2022 did I set foot in a lower-security yard.

Having dug myself into a hole during my first 15 years in prison, it took me nearly 6 years of disciplinary-free behavior and positive programming participation to earn the behavioral override that sent me to the lower-level Ironwood State Prison.

That means I have little experience with CTE programs. In 2008, while housed in Kern Valley State Prison, I was assigned to office services and earned certificates for proficiency in several Microsoft programs, filing and records management, and keyboarding.

My lack of experience is not unusual. Very few inmates I know who spent time on 180-design yards received job training there, let alone gained an industry certification in a vocation. Instead, many 180-facilities followed a similar pattern: CTE courses might be offered for a few years, but then they were shut down. A course might resume but would rarely gain traction, or last long enough, to train meaningful portions of 180-yard populations; other courses were never restarted or replaced.

There were often justifiable reasons that courses were shut down. At some yards, the levels of violence led to months or even years of lockdowns. Maintaining CTE staff and resources was often impossible given budget pressures. And lifers too often viewed the courses as pointless given their lack of hope for ever being released. Under such conditions, CTE programs had little realistic chance for lasting success.

But now, times have changed. Sentencing reforms have restored hope for release to many lifers, giving them incentive to participate in programming. Violence also has declined on 180-design yards. Lockdowns continue, but not at the same frequency or duration.

One big contributor to this atmosphere of change has been the introduction of self-help classes. There are now numerous weekly classes available on topics like addiction, gang recovery and victim impact. The classes emphasize personal accountability, empathy, remorse, insight and healthy emotional expression.

The classes can help inmates deal with perhaps the biggest barrier to change: uncertainty. What will my change look like? What will it mean for my life? What will it mean for me as a person? These are the difficult questions every prisoner seeking to fully rehabilitate himself must figure out, come to terms with, and commit to making real.

When I decided to accept change in 2016, I did not have the answer to any of those questions. By chance, self-help classes started on my yard later that year. But given their high demand and the length of my sentence, I was unable to enroll at that time. By 2018, however, I was participating in several self-help classes that began the process of clarifying how change would manifest in my life.

Then I got a PIA job and received job training during the pandemic—opportunities which played a major role in reinforcing my commitment to rehabilitation and expanding my perspective on change. Being an offender custodian—my PIA job—is not a glamorous job. I worked in the facility clinic and mostly cleaned bathrooms, holding tanks, and offices. Yet I also learned chemical handling and safety, floor care, and proper cleanup for blood and bodily fluids. I earned a certificate and money to pay down the restitution I owe for my crimes.

I was extremely fortunate to land the PIA job.  In many situations, inmates like myself serving life without parole are automatically excluded. Even when it is allowed, there is still a 25 percent cap on the number of lifers in an institution who can hold PIA jobs.

The job complemented my self-help work. It taught me skills I would have never learned otherwise, gave me a sense of responsibility and normalcy, and allowed me to feel pride for doing something productive. It enabled me to exercise the new identity I was working to create.

About seven months after arriving to D-facility (a Level III yard) in Ironwood, I was assigned to auto mechanics. It was a truly hands-on CTE course. I had access to torque wrenches, drills, a wheel-alignment machine, crank cases, cars that actually run, and so much else one would find in a mechanic’s garage.

It had been a long journey. It took me nearly seven years on 180 yards before I was assigned to a vocational class, and another 14 years and that transfer to Ironwood to be assigned to my second such class.

It need not be that way for others. Now, prison conditions on 180 yards pose far fewer problems to the operation of CTE courses compared to the past. With self-help classes available, inmates will also have far more opportunities to begin the rehabilitative process. Plus, tablets are in every California prison now and provided free of charge, allowing inmates to connect to online resources.

CTE courses combine hands-on training with textbook assignments. For inmates on 180 yards enrolled in CTE courses, the textbooks could be downloaded onto their tablets to keep course learning going in the event of a lockdown. Revising the current CDCR policy, which currently allows only 10% of a CTE course to include lifers, should be a priority in relation to Level IV yards.

Deeper meaning can be found in job training classes beyond the skills and certification gained. Where prisoner rehabilitation is concerned, it can be the light that shows the best path forward. The CDCR should do more to make such programs a permanent part of its rehabilitative vision at every level of the prison system.


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