By Bill Sessa, CDCR Public Information Officer
“It’s not unfair!” shouted inmate W, as he pounded the speaker’s podium for emphasis. Over and over again he repeated the refrain. “It’s not unfair!”
It’s not unfair, he said, when inmates complain about how they are treated or how messed up things are. It’s not unfair,” he added once again, “even if the Governor pulls my (parole) date.”
“But this,” he said as he swiveled around and pointed dramatically to the speaker who had just left the podium, “is what’s unfair. What she has gone through, that is what’s unfair,” said inmate W, who has been incarcerated more than a quarter-century after being convicted of murder and who recently was found suitable for release by the Board of Parole Hearings. “I could do 10 years or 10,000 years in prison and it wouldn’t be unfair compared to what she went through.”
In a sometimes tearful presentation, Theresa Cortemanche had just told 50 inmates, all of them lifers, what it felt like to get a fateful late night call telling her that her son, a 22-year-old Fairfield city councilman, had been shot in the head in a case of mistaken identity over a drug deal and how her family had coped with the tragedy in the years since.
Cortemanche’s personal story and the valedictorian-style presentation of Inmate W, a lifer whose parole grant is pending, were part of a graduation for a new CDCR program specifically designed to help long-term offenders prepare for the possibility of being released from prison.
The segment on victim impacts is intended to make inmates more aware of how broadly their criminal behavior affects others, from the direct victims of their action to their own families and others in the community.
“There is no rhyme or reason for murder,” said inmate W to the other inmates, “and the ripple effect of what we created never ends.”
Other segments of the Long Term Offender Program, a pilot program at California State Prison, Solano, contend with issues that force inmates to address their value system and ways of dealing with life situations. Segments on Criminal Thinking, Family Relations and Positive Minds challenge inmates to change how they make decisions and teach constructive approaches to solving problems.
The topics are not new to CDCR rehabilitation programs, but the approach is. The program is concentrated and requires inmates to participate, not just attend. Its aggressive pace, with courses jammed into a 12 week session, is designed to produce an intense, effective learning experience.
As the courts have more narrowly defined criteria for denying parole, the number of inmates serving life sentences who are being found suitable for parole has increased in recent years. The job of making them ready to re-enter society is more challenging than it is for inmates serving shorter, determinate sentences. Most have entrenched habits and values shaped by decades of incarceration.
They may be returning to families that have created their own habits and living patterns while adjusting to the inmate’s absence. Even ATMs and cell phones can be hurdles to reintegrating in the community.
“After decades of being told what to eat, what to wear and what to do, the inmates who earn parole will be making decisions for themselves for the first time in a long time,” said Rodger Meier, CDCR’s Deputy Secretary for Rehabilitation. “This program will help them make better decisions.”