Imagine serving 30 years in prison with no end in sight. Would you survive? Would you not just survive, but actually grow as a person?
While serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole ("the other death sentence") in California's massive prison system, Kenneth Hartman morphed from a violent killer, "a 19-year-old thug from the blasted wasteland of South Los Angeles' urban, post-industrial decay," to an award-winning author, philosopher, and prison reformer.
The subtitle of his autobiography is "A Story of Redemption Behind Bars." But Mother California tells a story much bigger than one man's personal odyssey. Through Hartman, we witness how three decades of irrational, tough-on-crime rhetoric has plunged California's prisons into an abyss of despair, violence, and criminal recidivism, all the while emptying the state's financial coffers.
Take Christmas. When Hartman first came to prison, in the early 1980s, the cellblocks were decked out in holiday lights, wreaths, and trees. Prisoners decorated their cells with holiday cards from loved ones, the Salvation Army donated candy and nuts, and, in the visiting room, "one of the old guys dressed up as Santa Claus for pictures with the kids and the young wives."
Within 15 years, holidays had been banished. Santa was gone, along with the decorations and treats. Every day resembled the last in its dreary monotony. "The walls are the same unadorned concrete every day of the year. My first Christmas at Tehachapi, one of the guards got on the public address system to tell us about the great meal he would soon be enjoying, the time he would be spending with his family. We didn't deserve to be with our families, he ranted, we were just where we belonged and have a hearty Merry fucking Christmas."
Watching helplessly as his beloved weight-training equipment is loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck, Hartman realizes "how far the advocates of punishment-for-the-sake-of-inflicting pain will go to turn the clock back" and erase the progressive reforms won by prisoners during the 1970s.
Hartman articulately chronicles the divergent impacts of this tough-on-crime politicking on daily life in prison. At Tehachapi, one of the newer prisons, guards are hyper-aggressive and controlling. At Lancaster, in contrast, the guards have ceded control, locking themselves in their control centers and allowing unchecked chaos and violence. The chapel becomes a crack house, the odors of marijuana and pruno (home-made liquor) fill the air, and almost everyone is high and destitute.
The golden triad
That is how Hartman, in one of his many philosophical essays on the prison system, labels the three proven ingredients to reducing criminal recidivism:
- Increased and enhanced visiting to build and maintain family ties
- Higher education
- Quality drug and alcohol treatment
In my 29 years, visiting has deteriorated from a slightly unpleasant experience to a hostile and traumatic acid bath that quite effectively destroys family ties.The Honor Program
Higher education is virtually nonexistent but for those few with the substantial resources needed to purchase it. In those rare cases where innovative ways have been found to bring education back into the prisons the special interest groups have mounted vicious campaigns to terminate the programs.
The opposition to drug and alcohol treatment, much more widely supported in the body politic, is subtler. Using the proven method of compulsory participation by the least amenable, those programs that are instituted are crippled in the normal chaos of prison.
All of this opposition stands behind the banner of protecting victims' rights, as if only the desire for revenge by past victims of crime matters, over even the potential losses of future victims.
Determined to put his accumulated wisdom and principles into practice, Hartman worked with other prisoners and non-custody staff to design a special program at Lancaster Prison called the Honor Yard. Founded in 2000, the program provides a separate community for 600 men who have committed to living productive lives in which they give back to the community and make amends for past wrongdoings. They must commit to abstaining from gangs, violence, drugs, and racism.
In its first six years of operation, the Honor Program functioned without a single major violent incident, and saved the state millions of dollars. In the wake of its success, state Sen. Gloria Romero sponsored Senate Bill 299 to expand the program to other prisons. Gov. Arnold Schwarzegger, in his infinite wisdom, vetoed the bill.
Hartman's dream, according to a news article on the program, is to be able to live the remainder of his life in a violence-free environment where he can devote himself to his writing. One of his essays won a $10,000 writing prize, with the money going to his wife and daughter, conceived before California took away conjugal visit privileges from lifers. He is currently involved in a campaign to eliminate life sentences.
Instead of reading endless meaningless studies on psychopathy and such, we should spend more time in the real world, listening to articulate autodidacts like Hartman.
Kenneth Hartman's philosophical essays on prison are online HERE. More on the Honor Program, and efforts to save and expand it, is HERE. More on lifers in U.S. prisons is HERE.
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