Loading...

Straight Time 

The Battle for Drug Treatment in California Prisons

Wednesday, May 26 1999
Comments
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
KERRY WOODS COMMITTED HIS LAST STICKUP ON A Saturday morning in 1994, after a long night snorting crystal meth and guzzling three pints of peppermint schnapps. Sitting in his pickup, not far from his home on the Mexican border, the apple-cheeked, wholesome-looking, 38-year-old Woods had watched the sun set, alternately blissed out and brooding about a recent layoff and his desperate need for money. It was that combination of high and low which always sent him back to his old ways. By morning, as the sun rose into the California sky, Woods had made a decision.

What then transpired turned out to be his singular version of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Grasping a sawed-off .22-caliber bolt-action rifle, he strode into a doughnut shop, pointed at the cash register and demanded its contents. The clerk appeared to cooperate, but dropped the money as he handed it over. When Woods stooped to pick it up, the counterman pepper-sprayed him dead in the eyes. His take, had the robbery succeeded, would have been $50. Instead, Woods got an eight-year sentence in a state penitentiary.

Even though that meant eight years away from his wife and stepdaughter, Woods never felt he'd gotten a bullshit rap. He'd caught the fear in the eyes of the people in the shop. And he knew that he hadn't really been after the money. The thing he'd coveted was the sweet euphoria that surged through him when he got high, and that rose to an exquisite intensity when mixed with the adrenaline rush of putting himself at risk. The search for that moment had resulted in at least five felony convictions, but in that he wasn't alone.

In a state with an astounding prisoner-recidivism rate of over 65 percent, repeat offenses are often linked to drugs. In 1997 -- when more than 17 percent of the state's former inmates were sent back to prison for committing new crimes, and a staggering 51 percent for violating parole -- most of those returnees tested dirty for drugs. Several recent national studies, in fact, have pegged the percentage of prison inmates with a serious alcohol or substance-abuse problem at somewhere between 75 percent and 85 percent.

Related Stories

  • Marry, People 2

    After the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriage to resume in California last summer, people started getting their vows on pretty much right away. See also: Gay Marriage in California: What Happens Next? But California law still contained antiquated language that defined marriage as "a personal relation arising out of...
  • Google This

    Jeez, California, do you have to be so, well, Californian? While not as bad as some of the top Google search terms for New Mexico (UFOs), Texas ("Do I Have Herpes?") and Pennsylvania ("Back Shaving"), California's most frequent searches appear to paint us as the stereotypical West Coasters others think...
  • Glove Law Repealed

    Remember six months ago or so when it looked like everyone from your friendly neighborhood barman to your favorite sushi chef was going to remind you more of a surgeon than someone providing hospitality? That's because on Jan. 1, a law went into effect requiring plastic gloves for all hospitality...
  • Californians Like Teachers But Hate Teachers' Lifelong Tenure and Seniority: Poll 2

    If California teachers felt a shadow pass over today, it was the fairly stunning PACE/USC Rossier Poll showing California residents are sick of "last hired, first fired" teacher union rules and oppose the nearly automatic tenure system that makes it all but impossible to fire crappy teachers. Polls show that...
  • Whole Foods Fined for Overcharging California Customers 5

    Just last week we went into Whole Foods for quinoa and came out with one $150 grocery bag of God-knows-what (we think Parmesan crisps, an organic T-shirt and beer made by Franciscan friars was in there). We are used to, but puzzled by, this phenomenon. So we were more than a little...

At R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility just outside of San Diego, Kerry Woods is trying to break out of that cycle of euphoria, crime and incarceration. Daily, he visits two drab wooden trailers separated by concertina wire from the rest of the prison's vast gray gravel exercise field, and from most of Donovan's 4,400 inmates. The trailers hold the counseling center and classrooms for the Amity Foundation of California, a little-known outside treatment agency working with an experimental therapeutic community of 200 volunteer inmates. Until very recently, Amity's tiny program and several others -- accounting for a population of fewer than 500 prisoners -- were the only places in California's vast behemoth of 33 state prisons and 38 camps where an inmate could receive intensive drug counseling, focus on changing his or her behavior, and prepare to live in the outside world. The program represents the first steps by the California Department of Corrections to confront the link between drugs and violent crime and to deal in a nonpunitive way with a tiny fraction of its 35,000 drug offenders. There are now, however, causes for optimism. Over the past two years, treatment programs have been established for some 5,000 prisoners, as the California Department of Corrections and the state Legislature attempt to deal with prisoners' problems in other than a primitive way.

OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, DRUG ARRESTS AND A $100 billion war on drugs have replaced America's War on Poverty, and California has helped lead the way. In 1980, about 7.5 percent of California's 23,000 inmates were incarcerated for drug offenses. Today, of California's 158,000 inmates, over 25 percent of the men and almost 35 percent of the women are imprisoned solely for drug offenses. And almost 60 percent of the prison population has been sentenced for nonviolent crimes frequently related to drugs. To put it another way, the number of California inmates imprisoned for assault with a deadly weapon or for other assaults and batteries at the start of 1996 was approximately 11,500. More than three times that many were incarcerated for drug offenses.

Despite that, for more than a decade the voices of hard-line prison professionals were allied against drug treatment for prisoners. Local law-enforcement officials, such as former Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner and ex­LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, to name just two of many during the 1980s, began talking about the hopelessness of adult rehabilitation and the need to write off the current generation and concentrate on the young kids. Others, such as conservative UCLA professor James Q. Wilson, questioned the very notion of rehabilitation: "Empty a prison in California," he says, "and ask yourself: What are these people going to do? They are not going to give up crime." In short, once an addict and a criminal, always an addict and a criminal.

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets

Slideshows

  • The World Cup Celebrated And Mourned By Angelenos
    The World Cup has taken Los Angeles by storm. With viewings beginning at 9 a.m., soccer fans have congregated at some of the best bars in the city including The Village Idiot, Goal, The Parlour on Melrose, Big Wang's and more. Whether they're cheering for their native country, favorite players or mourning the USA's loss, Angelenos have paid close attention to the Cup, showing that soccer is becoming more than a fad. All photos by Daniel Kohn.
  • La Brea Tar Pits "Pit 91" Re-Opening
    Starting June 28th, The Page Museum once again proudly unveils the museum's Observation Pit, which originally opened in 1952 but has spent most of the last half century closed. Now visitors can get an up-close look at Pit 91, which is currently under excavation. The La Brea Tar Pits, home of the Page Museum, is one of the world's most famous ice age fossil locations, known for range of fossils from saber-toothed cats and mammoths to microscopic plants, seeds and insects. The new "Excavator Tour" is free with museum admission if purchased online at tarpits.org . All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Scenes from the O.J. Simpson Circus
    In the months after O.J. Simpson's arrest for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in the summer of 1994, the drama inside the courthouse riveted the masses. But almost as much mayhem was happening right outside the building, as well as near Simpson's Brentwood home. Dissenters and supporters alike showed up to showcase art inspired by the case, sell merchandise, and either rally for, or against, the accused football star. Here is a gallery of the madness, captured by a photojournalist who saw it all. All photos by Ted Soqui.