Exchange program gives insights into criminal justice systems

Photos and story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, Deputy Chief
CDCR Office of External Affairs

CDCR was honored to play a small role in an innovative law enforcement exchange program when it hosted probation officers from Los Angeles County and Germany on a tour of San Quentin State Prison.

The LA County Probation representatives and Berlin’s juvenile probation department took part in a significant immersion program this year, exchanging ideas and learning from one another at home and abroad. LA County Probation Chief Terri McDonald, who spent 25 years in public service at CDCR, believes in the benefit of experiencing different cultures and correctional practices, and so enrolled a delegation in the Checkpoint Charlie Exchange Program, which organizes multicultural visits and events designed to further American-German relations.

Officers from LA first went to Berlin to see the system there, touring facilities, spending time on the job with officers and even staying in their homes to experience Berlin firsthand.

“The exchange was excellent,” said Howard Wong, Deputy Director, Adult Specialized & Post-Release Services for LA County. “We were able to fully immerse ourselves into a criminal justice system unlike our own.”

While the clientele were similar, Wong said he and others found Berlin’s approach to criminal justice more progressive than in the United States and even California, which is known for its focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice. Berlin’s probation system focuses heavily on education, vocational training and counseling, which Wong said was inspiring to see.

When it was time for the Berliners to come stateside, the goal was for LA County to give a taste of the entire criminal justice system. The delegation observed juvenile and adult court hearings, toured the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Twin Towers Facility, and saw how the department coordinates with the Department of Children and Family Services. They also wanted to visit a state-run facility and chose San Quentin, the oldest prison in California.

“The visit to San Quentin was a highlight of the exchange program,” said Rose Bertsch, of the Senate Department of Education, Youth and Family in Berlin, talking on behalf of the German group. “The impression one gets from the documentaries about the American prisons on German television could be changed by one’s own experience.”

Nobody from either delegation had been to San Quentin before, so it was a learning experience for all. Lt. Sam Robinson, Public Information Officer at San Quentin, provided one of his famous prison tours, known for historic details, insights into the prison’s architecture, and interaction with staff and incarcerated people.

“The conversations with inmates especially opened the possibility to get a more intensive impression,” Bertsch said.

Along the tour, visitors met with offenders of various backgrounds, from those sentenced as juveniles to people who have been in prison for decades. They toured the prison’s state-of-the-art medical facility, a housing unit, and numerous rehabilitative and vocational programs. Both delegations noted that a key difference between incarceration in Berlin and California is Europe’s emphasis on privacy.

The Berliners were particularly interested in the frank discussions about gang activity, as Bertsch noted that although there is nowhere near the same level of gang violence in Germany, they have seen similar structures developing that may pose a similar problem in the future.

Both groups emphasized the importance of rehabilitative programs and education/vocation studies to prepare offenders for success after release. Several people from Berlin asked staff and offenders about their plans for reintegration, noting that even with advances in rehabilitation, challenges still remain for transition to community, especially for those who have served long prison sentences or who were incarcerated as juveniles.

The tour included a stop in the San Quentin Media Center to visit the San Quentin News, radio program, “Ear Hustle” podcast and “First Watch” video production program. Sitting around the conference table in the newsroom, the groups shared their thoughts on rehabilitation and incarceration.

“We were unsure on what to expect – everything we hear and see is usually secondhand or via the media,” Wong said. “Learning about the rehabilitative efforts and programs at the prison was probably what impacted me the most. Hearing the inmates tell their stories and watching them work on the San Quentin News and ‘Ear Hustle’ podcast was inspiring.”

The groups discussed among themselves and with currently incarcerated people various diversion alternatives, such as home detention and court-ordered treatment, as opposed to imprisonment. All took away more understanding of the opportunities afforded to, and challenges faced by, people returning home after incarceration as they try to find jobs, reunite with their families, continue their education, and continue any treatment they may have received in prison or jail.

They also discussed the importance of positive adult figures, education, and positive activities beginning in youth to help stop the cycle of incarceration, and the challenges in implementing those things in underserved communities. Anthony Ammons shared how it wasn’t until coming to prison that he discovered how his talent on the basketball court could empower him to change his thinking, from considering only himself to focusing on a team, personal accountability and overall wellness.

“There has to be accountability for people’s behavior, but accountability isn’t always a detention plan, or long-term consequences that lead to incarceration,” McDonald shared.

Bertsch said the exchange program “sharpens awareness of the criminal law system, and provides impetus for a critical examination of your own work,” for both countries participating. Wong agreed, saying, “This experience planted the seeds for the growth of ideas that encourages collaborative interventions, a focus on educational and vocational opportunities, and ultimately fosters potential new approaches in probation work.”