By CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan
I am not sure this organization truly understands the significant achievements it has realized in the last few years. I also fully appreciate that some, both inside and out, may not even view these changes as achievements. These naysayers will focus on the indisputable “bad things” that happen both in the prisons and on parole. These “bad things” have been a part of incarceration in our state since a prison boat was docked in the San Francisco bay in the 1850s. It is even more remarkable that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has persevered throughout this remarkable period of reform of our criminal justice system while still managing the other daily problems we face.
Literally every division in headquarters and the field has been challenged to address the constant workload of the organization while managing this reform. You have all changed how we incarcerate and rehabilitate in this State and displayed the courage to begin solving long-standing seemingly intractable problems in this imperfect system. For many years a number of these problems have been left unaddressed because of politics, risk aversion and lack of consensus. We have so many stakeholders with a say that we became organizationally paralyzed and these problems were allowed to fester for decades. CDCR is confronting these problems head on and the system is better for it.
As an example, over 20 years ago correctional executives attempted to address escalating violence and created sensitive needs yards (SNY). The idea was simple: move inmates that were threatened in the general population and create yards where they could live safely. About one-third of our over 129,000 inmates today are housed in these yards. New SNY gangs have emerged, the violence has escalated, the bifurcated system has challenged all of our systems (custody, population management, health care, mental health, etc.) and this intractable problem has resulted in the largest protective custody population in the nation. This well-intended policy simply has not worked, but doing anything about it is risky. Diverse opinions on how to tackle the issue resulted in no action for years and the problem continues to fester.
In this era of significant criminal justice reform, a window to address the SNY problem has emerged and the Department is taking it. We opened two of our new in-fill facilities as integrated (programming) yards. It doesn’t matter if an inmate is SNY or general population: if he or she is going to be housed at one of these facilities with enhanced programming and privileges, there could be no prison politics. California Correctional Health Care Services was next to take on the issue with the thought that if you are housed at a prison health care facility, you need to be a programming inmate. We are integrating our enhanced out-patient populations with the underlying thought that if you’re severely mentally ill, your focus should be on treatment not prison games. Further steps are planned at our fire camps and minimum-support facilities with the thought that if you are getting two days off your sentence, plus Proposition 57 opportunities, for every day served, you need to co-exist peacefully, just as you will have to in the community.
The reforms in our prison system have provided opportunities for inmates like nowhere else in the nation. We are creating a system where the inmate is treated as an individual, and with that change we have to expect conformance to behavioral standards just like in the community. I could not be prouder of the staff implementing this solution to the SNY problem. You are displaying leadership and courage and taking on a problem that needs to be taken on.
The SNY problem is just one of the many problems this Department is taking on. I will expand on some of these other challenges in future messages. As always, thank you all for the incredible work you are doing each day.