Public safety and rehabilitation are not mutually exclusive

By Scott Kernan, CDCR Secretary

There is so much positive momentum in our Department.  The Governor, the Legislature, the public and even our critics are taking notice.  In spite of this, we are reminded daily of the dangerous environment that we work in. Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) had the most serious stabbing attack of an officer in its history. At Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP), over 100 inmates attacked six officers and gunner staff shot five inmates with lethal force to quell the incident. While all survived, PBSP staff – both on the ground and in the control booths – had to make split-second decisions to overcome a massive assault.  These life-changing events are clear reminders that, while we focus on historic reform, we must also continue to pay attention to our basic responsibility of maintaining security in our prisons.

I want to publicly thank the staff at both MCSP and PBSP. While I acknowledge their courage under fire, we all know that such horrific incidents can happen in any of our prisons at any time. All staff in all disciplines must be engaged and ready for the emergencies that inevitably occur in our workplaces. Public safety remains imperative even while we focus on rehabilitative programming and change how we incarcerate in this State.

As we reflect on these terrible incidents, it might be tempting to conclude that increasing rehabilitative opportunities for inmates is inconsistent with public safety.  I don’t think that is right. Changing our system to a behavior-based model that puts accountability on the individual inmate to be productive is good public safety and will make the prisons safer for staff and inmates. We must acknowledge that there is always a threat when dealing with dangerous criminals, but changing that criminal thinking is an important part of our job. I don’t think that rehabilitation and public safety are mutually exclusive.  We can provide opportunity for inmates to change their thinking while also being a well-trained, professional law-enforcement organization ready to address emergency situations when they inevitably occur.  That’s what we saw with the bravery of staff at MCSP and PBSP in the last few weeks.

The challenge for our prisons, and all of our staff, is to remain unwavering in our overall mission. It’s natural to want to clamp down in response to these incidents.  It’s natural to become pessimistic about giving inmates increased opportunities in the light of incidents such as these. But an evolving professional organization overcomes these natural tendencies. We will hold accountable the individual inmates for their misconduct, we will pray for the speedy recovery of our injured staff, and we will all be ready to heroically respond to the next incident that comes our way. But we can’t lose sight of our overall imperative to continue providing inmates with the opportunity to change. Public safety demands it.

While there has been significant effort to expand programming to our inmate population, I acknowledge that it cannot be done blindly. We have to make sure that we are providing the resources to support this expansion safely. We have to pay attention to the practices that enhance our security even while expanding programming opportunities. Good “custody 101” practices, such as required searching and intelligence gathering, cannot be lost in our efforts. We do a superb job of managing 130,000 offenders, 45,000 parolees and 700 youth, and that cannot be overlooked. You have my commitment that we will work with labor and together fight to seek the resources to continue to change this system safely.

As always, I so appreciate the hard work and dedication that CDCR staff contributes each day. You’re the best in the world, deserve every penny you get, and are leading the nation in how to incarcerate. Thank you for a job well done. And I know you join me in prayer for our injured MCSP and PBSP staff.  Get well soon.

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