Diagnosing crime: The failures of rehabilitation in the justice system

EL PASO, Texas — “When you’re through changing, that’s when you’re through” reads a motivational poster hanging in the main hall of the Education Building of the Rogelio Sanchez State Prison, El Paso’s largest state correctional facility. It is a sinister wink at the failing system of reform that classes taught in that building aim to provide.

Crime rehabilitation has proven to be a failed objective of justice systems in America, experts say. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice lists “To provide for confinement, supervision, rehabilitation, and reintegration of adult felons” as one of its goals in its Annual Review. Like most government documents published for public viewing, it is carefully worded: They aim to provide for rehabilitation, not for the success of rehabilitation.

In its latest study (conducted in 1994), the US Department of Justice reported that national prison recidivism was at 67%.

“I’d say there’s about a 70% recidivism rate,” in the unit, said Lieutenant Vicente Quidachay, Unit Risk Manager at the Rogelio Sanchez Prison.

Recently, Quidachay gave me a tour of the facility, where I was introduced to the steps the prison is taking to include the rehabilitation process.

“A reason for the recidivism despite classes like this one is because the prisoners lack skills, ” says Carmen Canalda, a teacher at the prison where she’s been teaching for 12 years. Skills, she means, such as carpentry, agricultural skills, culinary skills – skills to keep prisoners away from what got them in trouble in the first place.

Rogelio Sanchez State Prison. (Raymundo Aguirre/Borderzine.com)

Rogelio Sanchez State Prison. (Raymundo Aguirre/Borderzine.com)

Currently, the Sanchez Unit only offers HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) classes, but every heroin addict, gang member, and thief cannot possibly go into the HVAC business.

So, for the past six years, she has taught a class called CHANGES, which stands for “Changing Habits and Achieving New Goals to Empower Success.” The class is a step in the rehabilitation process where inmates learn things that will help them in re-establishing their lives upon release like writing résumés, job interview techniques, budgeting, how to buy a home, medical health, and drug awareness.

Funding is a major factor of state prisons’ capacity and competency to rehabilitate. This is why only HVAC classes are offered at the Sanchez Unit. Also, due to budget cuts, a drug rehabilitation class that the Sanchez Unit offered years ago was nixed. As a result, the CHANGES class was assigned the prisoners who had “drug rehabilitation” in their Individual Treatment Plan.

According to the 2010 Texas Fact Book, released by the Legislative Budget Board, only 9.4% of last year’s proposed budget (approximately $7.3 Billion) went to Public Safety and Criminal Justice. The proposed 2010-2011 budget only allots 5.9% (approximately $10.7 Billion) to Public Safety and Criminal Justice. Federal funds to be appropriated to Department of Public Safety are $359 Million, ranking 12th in the list of agencies in Texas receiving the most amount of funds, even though the DoPS ranks 7th in the amount of employees per agency.

The annual operating cost per state correctional inmate is $13,808. That is according to the 2006 Texas Fact Book which cites the price was a 2001 estimate.

The problem with funding is nationwide.

Jose Cortez, a recently-released inmate who served five months in Tehachapi State Prison in California, recalled the prison rehabilitation programs there: “We had classes for anger management, substance abuse, one for sexual predators, and others. The problem was that you had to sign up for them and there was a long waiting list. I was in there for five months and I never got entry into the substance abuse class.”

Cortez, 23, is a rare exception to rehabilitation. Currently back in El Paso, he attributes his recovery to the strong support he has from his family.

He says that a large part of recidivism lies in certain factors of prisoners’ lives that the justice system can do very little, if anything, to control. He refers to an anxiety of living a “normal life,” saying, “You try and go back to society and you get tired of the same thing. You find the easy way out. You make $1,500 selling dope. When you get out, there’s no luck finding a job.” Many prisoners, upon release, have no other choice but to return back to where they were before being incarcerated: the same environment, the same people, the same habits.

During my tour of the Sanchez Unit, two prisoners acted as my and Lt. Quidachay’s chaperones. These men are his “gophers,” his right-hand men with the official title of “Special Support Inmates.” I was not allowed to ask their names or what they were in for. One of them did not speak English very well and kept quiet, while the other provided a consistent view of a prisoner’s reality with respect to environment: “The irony of the system is that prisoners are better in the system than when they’re out in society. It’s a controlled environment in here. Here, they’re healthier and drug-free.”

Perhaps a counter-irony to that point is the perpetuation of gang life in prisons. “Some people join gangs because they need protection due to the crime they committed, some are snitches,” says Cortez of his experience with gangs in prison. Cortez, himself, is not gang-affiliated, but did get to know the workings of gangs from his time in prison. “When you get out, you still have to do the gangs favors. There’s communication within gangs inside and outside. You work for them until they say it’s over,” he says.

According to Lt. Quidachay, there are 12 major gangs that the state of Texas deems as “security threats” and are monitored by the in-house Security Threat Group. These gangs include the Barrio Aztecas, Texas Syndicates, the Aryan Circle, and the Bloods among others. There are also lesser-monitored gangs, known in the Sanchez Unit as “clikas,” that consist of people brought together by region of origin. Lt. Quidachay estimates that “a good 75% of gang members will be back.” He also estimates that there should be about 15 to 20 new gang members who join in the Sanchez Unit annually.

The prison environment, in addition to gang life, seems to generally affect prisoners negatively. “It’s a vicious circle. We have officers provoking the offenders and offenders provoking the officers. It just makes for a stressful environment,” says the Special Support Inmate.

The first department I was taken on my tour was where they assigned incoming inmates their cells. Every inmate’s information was on a label that was put in a plastic keychain that was either white (Caucasians), blue (African-American), or orange (Hispanic). They do not simply assign inmates to rooms randomly. This is a security measure.

“When you go to school, they teach you to tolerate people of all kinds,” says the SSI. “In jail, there’s no tolerance. There’s no diversity.”

Cortez cites exposure to those knowledgeable to crime as another downfall of the prison environment’s supposed rehabilitative efforts. “You go in there with an Associate’s Degree in Crime and you leave with a Doctorate,” he says. “You learn a lot of crazy things in there. I’m not saying you end up doing them, but it’s in your head. You’re in there with the worst of the worst, and you learn from the best.”

Outside the prisons walls, the world of prisoners on parole does not do much for rehabilitation either. Certainly, state-mandated rehabilitation programs are attended, but the programs’ efficiencies are hard to measure. “I’m ordered to go to AA three times a week,” says Cortez. “Most of us don’t go because we really want to. Lots of them go in the last 10 minutes to have a piece of paper signed to show their parole officer.”

“Speaking of parole officers, rehabilitation becomes a checklist,” says Dr. Theodore Curry, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at El Paso, who teaches Criminology and conducts research in deviance, crime, and social control. “This checklist is not rehabilitation, it’s security.”

The futility of rehabilitation in the justice system is a burden on taxpayers and the communities that departments of corrections and safety aim to keep safe. “Some criminals are just not interested in changing,” says Dr. Curry. “This does not make them good candidates, which makes rehabilitation programs a waste of time, money and effort.”

“There is no rehabilitation,” says the SSI. “For some of these prisoners, their backgrounds are so engrained in them.”

Most experts knowledgable with crime agree that the American justice system has been reduced to a gratuitously expensive system of punishment. Inefficiencies in funding have brought the responsibility of criminal justice to the private sector with the creation of private prisons. But to presume that privatizing prisons will make rehabilitation more effective is putting trust in the elusive Free Market to solve a problem as urgent and pervasive as crime.

Public or private, the system merely prescribes momentary relief to the disease of punishment rather than curing it.

Punishment is perspective, not change. “Change: it’s got to come from within,” says Detective Armando Fonseca, retired El Paso police officer, now working as a detective with the UTEP Police Department. “It’s having the want.”

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4 Comments

  • essence says:

    well I like the topic of gang violence but it started off kinda dull.I feel that to make these piece better start off talking about how many people died being in a gang in Texas, or how many people stop participating in a gang. I also like the program chanes I feel that it should be in every state for members in violence.

  • m says:

    I found the interview with José Cortez to be illuminating. Thanks for the glimpse into the experience of living in prison. And the photos are beautiful and stirring, you capture a bit of his spirit…

  • panchito says:

    Please, we should defund our prison system. They are criminals pure and simple, no one made them break the law.

    Let them live in squalor for a few months or years, they wont want to go back.

  • chula says:

    Not all inmates are criminals. There are people that have been put into these prisons and they should have never been placed there to begin with. In my opinion, it begins with your lawyer and the representation you have as well as who you are and who you know. It begins with our court system. I have learned more than I ever wanted to learn about our judicial system. I have seen someone with previous convictions kill someone with a motor vehicle while racing and driving recklessly and get his charged reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor and on top of that get a probated sentence. (And this person’s father was a deputy sheriff). In addition, I saw someone with no criminal history whatsoever have an affair with another person (both over the age of 21) but because of her position (jailer) and his (inmate), was sentenced to a year in prison. I just don’t understand our system and how it works. I would think she would have been given probation and the one that actually killed someone would have been given prison time. So now this poor girl, with no priors and first time offender, gets introduced to a world of violence, corruption, crime, not to mention danger. She is liable to get picked on, beaten up, mistreated by guards and other inmates. Why do we have probation if probation is not given to first time offenders but rather to repeated offenders?

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