Saturday, 27 October 2012

San Luis Obispo – California Mens Colony

The main “East  Facility” that was visited houses medium security (level 111) inmates, with individual cells, housing two prisoners in each cel; it has a fenced perimeter with armed guard coverage from watch towers. The housing is divided into four quadrangles. Each quadrangle has its own dining room, work rooms, recreational area and two three-story housing units. There is also a fully licensed hospital located centrally to the four quadrants that provides a comprehensive  range of medical services; those services that are not provided on site are provided either at other correctional institutions (Haemodialysis) or the general hospital system (specialist surgery). The facility has a comprehensive Mental Health Delivery System in the form of an Enhanced Outpatient Program and Outpatient treatment for inmates. Offenders may also be  assigned to the Correctional Clinical Case Management System, as well as a Mental Health Crisis Bed Unit.

There is also a West facility that houses minimum security inmates in dormitory settings – this facility was not reviewed. 

As of March 2012, the CMC’s total population (East & West)  was 5,524, which is 143.9 percent of its design capacity of 3,838. The West Facility opened in 1954, and the East Facility opened in 1961; whilst the facility is somewhat old and seemingly overcrowded, it is essentially well maintained and an air of harmony within the prison walls is sensed.

The security arrangements are again different at the CMC East area. I am checked in at the first / front entrance and my passport is cross referenced to an approval form. Shoes off, belt off and walk through scan. I receive a prison visitor ID and I am only allowed to proceed through locked doors, and lethal high voltage fencing with my contact host. During the process, I notice other corrections staff walk in with bags etc. show ID’s and walk through. Some are carrying pizza boxes and other sort of food containers. Long terms staff appear to be considered less risk and do not have to undergo a daily complete screen. Whilst, no doubt, some correctional authorities would not tolerate this risk; I consider there is something refreshing and trusting about this approach and wonder what I will see ahead.
Once inside the prison, another check occurs at the central area. We quickly tour the hospital, which on quick inspection is similar to other hospitals visited. My host and I agree, there is more learning to be gained by reviewing the housing units for the cognitively impaired and seeing the Gold Coats working; than reviewing another hospital. (The Gold Coats are prisoner support roles)

As mentioned, the east  facility is designed as a set of four quadrants (A,B,C,D) each separately secure and each radiating from a central court yard. There are two three story buildings (housing units) that run the two external walls of each quadrant. Each housing unit / building houses approximately 300 offenders – that is approximately 600 offenders per quadrant. Each quadrant has wide open yard about 100 metres x 100 metres square. One side of the quadrangle has  a high solid wall (that is use for racket and hand ball) and the other side of the quadrangle is staffing / support areas.



Guards are visible on the route to each quadrant, but once you are in the quadrant, you have to look hard to see guards. There are towers on the most external corner with armed guards, these seem unobtrusive and no threatening despite their presence.Again, this whole security overlay is different to what has been observed. There are at least 100 to 200 offenders intermingling in the court yard. Some playing ball, some sitting and talking some doing exercises some just pacing. It reminds me of the high school yard I spent many years at (it was a quadrangle to – run by the Christian Brothers ) I am struck by the large amounts of offenders grouped in one area and the apparent harmony. Offenders are dressed in blue trousers, white tee shirts and intermingled amongst the blue and white are gold (faded yellow) coats. These are the Gold Coats. I also notice a few women? I am told these are transgender offenders. (This answers a question I had in the back of my mind – where are transgender offenders placed – male or female prisons? – In California at least, in male prisons.) Some offenders are noticed to be wearing vests. Hearing impaired and vision impaired have special observable vest so guards and others offenders (Gold Coats) will know that an offender who fails to respond to a call or whistle etc, has a special need and should be assisted not reprimanded.

As we walk across the yard to observe one of the housing units, one notices a female staff member (social worker) walk across the yard on her own, unaccompanied. This seems out of keeping with other correctional structures viewed before. Here you see single women (she is not a guard), walking through approximately 200 medium security, cognitively impaired offenders, in a yard 100 x 100 metres unaccompanied. Yes there are guard towers, I have not witnessed such “freedom” in other correctional facilities I have visited before.

I discuss these observations with my host. In some ways, it is difficult for them to understand my fascination as it is what they live every day, what they have become used to. I wonder why this works the way it does. I am also told that CMC is the prison most offenders in the State of California want to be transferred to. This is interesting in itself. There is nothing glamorous about CMC. It is an old prison. Sure you can see the sky and some mountains and the climate seems very comfortable. I initially think to myself “the other places must be pretty bad” – but again I reflect on the observed harmony, the “freedom” of staff to walk through a large cohort of offenders – yes this is behaviourally very different. My host, a senior psychologist tells me, he thinks it has a lot to do with offenders having their own key to their cell. “What?” – I think to myself.

On entering the housing units one is greeted by a guard in a raised platform desk type area that is  central to two long corridors. Off each side of the corridors are the offender’s cells. As mentioned, each offender has a key to their shared cell.  Most cells are shared cells some are single cells. 

One is immediately confronted by the small size of the cells. These cells are the smallest I have seen. They are small for one person, let alone two. One bed must fold upwards during the day so offenders can move in the cell and use the toilet in the cell. My guess is that these cells are 2.5 metres by 1.5 metres! Each cell has a solid door with a small window and the other external window is barred and approximately 300mm x 300mm. The other two longer walls are solid concrete. Offenders are locked in during the night, approximately 2100 – 0600, by a central locking system, but during the day the doors to the cells are controlled by the offender and their “roomy”. Some rooms do not have a power outlet and some do. Some offenders have televisions. Rooms are heated but there is no cooling. There is a central showering area for each floor and a small TV room (2 metres x 4 metres with rowed seating. (I am told group counselling session also occur in these rooms)

It is hard to describe one’s emotion / feeling on seeing the size of the cells. I inwardly protest and think how inhumane these cells are, thinking “this is wrong – this is so wrong”. I cannot help but comment to my host and I feel somewhat embarrassed at my escaped thoughts. My host acknowledges the cell size as an issue but says it is all that they have, and the offenders don’t seem too bothered by it. We view some more cells and I have chat with a couple of offenders. Again I notice the harmony, there is definitely less agitation here. A couple of offenders confirm, CMC is considered one to be the best prison in the State to be at.

As meals are served on the third floor of each building; there are no offenders with significant ambulatory concerns at CMC. Older more frail offenders, who cannot manage their own care or ambulation, are either transferred to the hospital or another facility that is better equipped for offenders with disability needs. Unit D does house offenders who have mental health concerns and or cognitive impairment (including dementia). Offenders who are capable, self manage their medication. (Opiate and mood altering medication are controlled and dispensed through similar structures and staffing systems seen in other facilities). There is one registered nurse per quadrant who oversees and provides triage for offender’s health care needs (1:600). There is a significant number of psychologists and counselling staff (approximately 1:30).

There is nothing like the moment when you have your whole world turned on its head! The assumptions you have made; the opinions you have formed; I can’t help smiling and thinking wow! The cells are very small. Some don’t have power. There are quite a few older offenders here. The outside yard, whilst a good size is relatively crowded. This is an old prison.  So against all of these factors, what makes CMC a popular prison as judged by offenders?
  • ·         Is it the offenders control over the key to their cell, as my host has indicated? I am told CMC is the only Californian prison where offenders have a key to their cell. I am not aware of other US prisons with this practice but it appears this is a practice in the UK with some controversy
  • ·         Is it the significant mental health program and mental health support offered? CMC appear to have a greater provision of mental health service than other facilities visited. All facilities visited in the USA have had, by Australian standards, significantly more mental health support; but CMC seems to have more support than their US comparators. There is a respectful transaction noticed between correctional staff and mental health physicians that is different to other facilities visited. I had formed the opinion at other facilities that correctional concerns over-road all other concerns; in turn this provided correctional staff with the “final say” over issues of concern. At CMC’s guards were seen to defer questions of behavioural concerns to the mental health physicians; that is, their default on behaviour concerns was to the psychologists. There appeared to be a subtle difference in the custodial power relationship within CMC. One example of this occurred during my discussion with Michael the recreation therapist. Michael is youngish and full of energy (he could easily fit into the Wintringham’s Recreation Team) Michael descries the recreation program; there is a significant exercise routine; some of which, he tells me, is about maintaining function (use it or lose it). Other activities include basketball, and other modified ball games, domino’s and jigsaw. He indicates there are budget restrictions and corrections considerations that impede some recreational ideas. Further he says he would like to get more involved with the offenders, be involved in their ball games etc,  but he has been advised, by the custodial authority, that he should not – because of the risk an offender may take advantage of the situation and the possibility Michael could be hurt. This is interesting given my previous discussions with my psychologist hosts. One doubts the guards would insist the same concerns and precautions with the psychologists and I raise this doubt with my hosts. They tend to agree with this observation. There are other examples where the risk assessment and activity is left to the discretion of the psychologist. This does seem quite different to other institutions visited. Eventually this same deference of risk may extend to other staff?
  •       Could it be because of the “Gold Coat’ program? The program is now about 15 years old. It involves younger offenders being trained to support a cognitively impaired prisoner. I am counselled and assured this support model does not involve assistance with personal care. If an older / cognitively impaired offender needs support with any form of personal care, they are either transferred to the hospital or another facility. On further discussion with my host and a Gold Coat by the name of Phillip, I find the role is like a buddy role. They prompt, they advocate, they support; they are in effect the peer support, the team leader. Examples are sited where the general prison population defer concerns to a Gold Coat. (there are examples sited where some of the more hardened inmates might call them “dogs”, but these occurrences are few and far between. Phill (gold coat) tells me, the program has given him a total new outlook on life. The themes he raises are similar to what I have heard from other: orderlies/prisoner supports. I am absolutely convinced of the benefit a prisoner support model has for a correctional facility: enhanced caring culture, savings in cost of care, prompt and improved care delivery, improved self esteem of inmates and more harmonious correctional environment.
  • ·     Is it the approach to the correctional support and security overlay seem to have a more trusting approach (of staff and offender alike)  and this “culture” provides for greater harmony? – as it would in any work place.

·      It is probably all of these issues and more? Before this visit, I had placed a large significance on design and structural issues. I m left believing that whilst the design and structure are important for enhanced care of older inmates, they are not the key issue.

I was able to return to CMC the next day to observe the recreation program with a group of cognitively impaired older offender. The program was being run in an indoor  hall / recreation area that doubled as a gym, basket ball court area. Whilst it was aged and dated with signs of patch repairs – it was a good space away from the business of the the court yards. I am greeted by Michael the recreational therapist. Friday was movie day. My hosts were disappointed that I could only observe movie day as there were a lot of other recreation activities the older offenders are involved in but they genuinely enjoined movie day. The film on show was Captain America (2012). About 20 offenders were observed (16 cognitively impaired / aged and 4 gold coats). The Gold Coats were evenly dispersed amongst the group. 

I observed the session for about 30 minutes whilst talking with my hosts and “Marti” one of the guards. At first nothing seemed too grand; seeing these offenders watch a program. All of these “guys” just sitting quietly and enjoying the program. After some further thought about this seemingly unremarkable event, one realises that most of these men have cognitive impairment. One is noticed to get up and pace around a table every so often, and another staring blankly into a distant spot “somewhere”. They are generally well engaged and well behaved during the show. Gold coats are noticed, every now and then to help focus some individuals.

During these observations I have a discussion with Marti, the guard. Marty has been working with this group for at least 25 years. I ask why here. Marty shares he has a family member with special needs, so he understands the issues. He also says he loves coming to work. “There has not been one day, that I have not looked forward to coming to work”. Marty also tells me, “you have got to learn about the guys. You have to know what’s normal and what’s not. You need to know how to listen & not just with your ears – your eyes as well”. I observe the offenders and Marty are on first name basis. (no Sir, Mr. or Boss) Marti also tells me there are times you need to correct a behaviour, but you need to understand why the behaviour occurred. He says the education he has received from the doctors has been very helpful. 
Every prison needs a Marty.

I later wonder..... “could we possibly introduce a structured “gold coats” program at Wintringham? Could some of our younger more active residents be engaged as a support person for some of our more impaired residents? ..........

There is no doubting that the cohort of offenders D block have support needs beyond the standard offender populations and similar to populations previously observed. They are well supported to maintain their independence so they can stay in their “home” environment. Following the review of the recreation program I engage in further discussion with my hosts. They inform me, every new prisoner has a cognitive screen undertaken. CMC use the QUICK assessment too l Offenders who are flagged through this tool may have a follow up assessment completed using the TONI assessment tool.

Some other important considerations come to light. California has a highly litigious culture. Several significant cases are quoted, where an offender’s representative has taken legal action against the State and the resultant law suit has seen major changes to care and support within the correctional environment. The result of which drives a watchdog approach from many authorities which result in further “quality improvements” to support offenders. There is no doubt the support and care is available and working for CMC, but one is left thinking the same support and care could be achieved differently.

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