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What Prison Reform Looks Like Inside California State Prison, L.A. County

Minutes before I walked through the barbed wire security gates at Lancaster’s California State Prison — L.A. County (LAC) somebody asked whether I felt scared.

Earlier, while making small talk with the prison’s Public Information Officer and other media personnel in the entrance hall, I mentioned I had never been inside before. Had we been standing somewhere else my comment might’ve been interpreted differently, but at LAC “inside” has only one connotation, a clear cut marker of privilege. You’re either inside — one of the approximately 2.3 million Americans currently incarcerated — or you’re not. You’re outside, one of the lucky ones. You’re free.

In response to this question, I made sure to clarify. I was jittery from all the coffee I drank during the 70-mile drive from Los Angeles that morning, not scared. Fear is not an emotion I typically reserve for theater productions, which is why I was being escorted past the visitation room and into the prison’s B-Yard gymnasium in the first place.

I had been invited to watch an all-inmate performance of Strindberg Laboratory’s original play “Redemption in Our State of Blues,” the result of over six months of writing and workshopping with a group of twenty-two LAC inmates. Strindberg’s drama class within LAC, as well as other arts workshops facilitated by professional artists in as many as twenty prisons across the state, is part of the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation’s efforts to reinstate comprehensive Arts-in-Corrections programming in collaboration with the California Arts Council. The return of Arts-in-Corrections signals the CDCR’s recent focus on in-prison rehabilitation as a way to reduce recidivism and the state’s colossal prison system. 

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Twenty prisons across the state are part of California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation’s efforts to reinstate comprehensive Arts-in-Corrections programming in collaboration with the California Arts Council. Photo by Adriana Widdoes

Established in 1993, California State Prison — L.A. County is a maximum security men’s prison with the majority of its 3,538 total inmates designated as Level IV, the highest possible security level outside of solitary confinement. This includes Strindberg’s cast, which is made up of men ranging in age from their early thirties to mid-fifties. They are African American, Latino, Samoan, and Vietnamese, clad in prison blues and tattoos, and all are serving impossibly long sentences, often for violent, gang-related crimes. I interviewed one inmate named Terryance who said he’d been sentenced to 388 years for robbery, his first conviction as an adult. Another inmate I met had been locked up since he was sixteen years old, so long ago that he couldn’t tell me exactly how many years he still had left inside. He said ten, maybe thirteen.

Though they tended to speak of their crimes in vague terms during my interviews, most of the inmates I met were eager to have their voices heard by someone on the outside. Their eagerness was palpable and overwhelming. They swarmed around me to have their pictures taken, gradually inviting more and more fellow inmates into the frame until I assured them I had photographed every possible iteration of the cast. They were concerned whether I’d have enough time to interview everyone. I responded optimistically but realized quickly there was not enough of me to go around.

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Michael Bierman and Meri Pakarinen (pictured on the right), directors of the Strindberg Laboratory, worked closely with inmates at Lancaster’s California State Prison for 6 months to produce an original play. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.

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According to Strindberg’s directors Michael Bierman and Meri Pakarinen, this outpouring of camaraderie and enthusiasm was not always the case among the inmates. Both long-time theater actors, Michael and Meri began their drama workshop at the prison in August 2015 after being awarded a CDCR-funded contract by the California Arts Council. They said the transformation they’ve witnessed since then has been night and day. “They work with each other. Their focus is greater. They know what to do creatively more,” explained Biernan. “They have a voice and they’ve started to find what they want to say.”

What they want to say has been written directly into the play, which dramatizes biographical scenes from many of the inmates’ lives before and after they were locked up. The focus is not only where they’ve been — orphaned, homeless, fighting in Afghanistan and in professional boxing matches — but where they might be going if they can be forgiven of their mistakes.

In one heartbreaking scene, an inmate named Edgar finds his father dead at home as a young boy. He proceeds to bear his father’s metaphorical crown, attempting to follow his father’s positive example throughout his troubled teenage years living in group homes around L.A. County. The crown is later taken away upon Edgar’s arrest by the LAPD — they say he doesn’t deserve it. Only when Edgar sees himself as more than just a criminal, as a human being with flaws and a past, is he able to wear the crown again.

When I spoke with Edgar before the performance, we discussed the emotional benefits he’d found through the workshop. Edgar is thirty-one, but this is the first official arts program he’s had the opportunity to enroll in since he was locked up ten years ago. He is proud of how far he’s come from his angry and drug-addicted adolescence and spoke of his former struggles candidly, allowing them space in the room, airing them out. “I look at this like a resource,” Edgar said. “Instead of having to reach to something negative to escape, I reach to something positive. It’s not dipping back into that negativity that just deters and is like moving backwards.”

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Biographical scenes were written directly into the play. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.
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In 2013 CDCR pledged $2.5 million to bring Arts-in-Corrections back as a two-year pilot program at California’s “high-need” correction facilities. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.

Correctional Crisis

Prior to 2013, when the CDCR pledged $2.5 million to bring Arts-in-Corrections back as a two-year pilot program at California’s “high-need” correction facilities, this outcome seemed beyond the realm of possibility in recent years at LAC. One reason is because the state’s Level IV facilities are full of warring gangs with strict racial boundaries that keep many inmates from associating with each other peaceably.

Donald Hooker, a member of the L.A. Crips who acts as a parole officer in the play, explained to me how important Strindberg’s drama workshop has been in altering some of the prevailing racism within the prison system: “When we came in here there was that tension, like ‘Oh, he's from here. He’s from there,’ and through this work it's been broken down. That doesn't destroy the demarcation lines, but when other inmates see the play, they walk away with, you know, it's not about black on brown violence… All that stuff about us being at odds, it’s not about that.”

Other reasons formerly limiting arts and other rehabilitative programs within many of California’s most isolated prisons included increasingly strapped budgets and severe overcrowding. There just wasn’t enough physical space to provide many avenues towards rehabilitation inside. It wasn't many years ago when LAC’s B-Yard gymnasium — where Strindberg’s workshop and performance was held — was used as a makeshift dormitory, housing prisoners in triple-bunks from wall to wall when there were no longer enough cells to meet population needs. But this overcrowding wasn’t contained to LAC alone.

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Though overall crime rates have dropped over the years, California’s recidivism rate has remained one of the highest in the nation. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.

Since 1971, California’s prison population has risen over 500%, while the amount of CDCR staff has increased over 800% to accommodate the growing numbers. Despite the construction of over twenty new prison facilities since 1980, California has continually struggled to keep up with the astronomical growth in its prison population. The overcrowding eventually became so endemic, resulting in inadequate care for prisoners with serious medical problems, that in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Plata that California was in violation of the 8th amendment — cruel and unusual punishment — and demanded that the state reduce its number of inmates to at least 110,000.

Several factors have contributed to California’s “correctional crisis,” including many policy changes over the past forty years that increased mandatory minimum sentencing. Most notable of these changes is 1994’s Three Strikes Law, which automatically sentences individuals who commit felonies on their third offense to twenty-five years to life.

Though California once led the way on progressive rehabilitative philosophies centered on education, by the mid-1970s Americans began to favor “tough on crime” retribution over reformative treatment for offenders. By 1977, Governor Jerry Brown had ended indeterminate sentencing — a major cornerstone of rehabilitation — in favor of stricter, more standardized prison sentences that decreased the power of parole boards to release inmates based on their improved behavior inside.

Overall crime rates in California began to fall, but without much focus on treatment, California’s recidivism rate has remained one of the highest in the nation. Following mandates received from the federal government, in 2005 the CDC (California Department of Corrections) reorganized to become the CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation), officially changing its name to demonstrate a newly restored commitment to rehabilitation within its prison system.

The CDCR’s revival of Arts-in-Corrections marks a new era of prison reform in California. Historic initiatives like 2011’s Realignment Act and 2014’s Proposition 47 have so far relieved some of the overcrowding burdening California’s state prisons. This has also freed up some of the CDCR’s budget for more rehabilitative programming, although not as much as initially projected.

Luckily, California isn’t starting from scratch when it comes to Arts-in-Corrections. The state actually has a long history of successful arts programming within its prisons, spearheaded by the late artist and former director of the California Arts Council Eloise Smith. But funding for that programming ended after 2003, when Governor Gray Davis made draconian cuts to the CAC’s budget. As a result, the B-Yard at California State Prison — L.A. County hasn’t seen any arts education in over ten years, until now.

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Photo by Adriana Widdoes.

Opponents of initiatives like Prop 47, which reduces punishment for many “non-serious, nonviolent crimes” (i.e. drug possession, theft) by reclassifying them as misdemeanors instead of felonies, have pointed to L.A.’s recent crime surge as a major criticism of reforms the CDCR is trying to make. While it is still difficult to prove a direct correlation between Prop 47 and the city’s increase in crime, it seems an appropriate time to ask what role rehabilitation plays in all of this.

What effect does prison life have without adequate treatment or education? The stress of it all is certainly felt by the inmates (most of them black, Latino, and other minorities), who still face major risks inside. At best, it can feel dehumanizing. At worst, more lives are lost.

“What do you want people on the outside to know about you?” was the last question I posed to another inmate enrolled in Strindberg’s workshop, Tue, before the play began. Tue wore cracked prescription lenses with his pants belted high on his waist, the look of a sheepish criminal I doubt would instill fear in most. “Life is not always easy and sometimes you make mistakes,” he said, after a moment of quiet consideration. “Personally, I learned from my mistakes and right now I'm trying to better myself so I can move on with life and help society, become social instead of antisocial, and be positive.”

Top image: Exterior of Lancaster’s California State Prison — L.A. County (LAC) by Adriana Widdoes.

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