#FreeCaliforniaMovement: A Call to Action.
By Ivan Kilgore
Every individual must take the oath [to reject government oppression] him or herself, facing not to his neighbor, but his God. Nor should it be taken in order to gain power over anybody but oneself, for the power of the oath is defined by what one can promise to do, and what he is willing to suffer: insult, incarceration, hard labor, flogging, fine, deportation, and even death.
I would like to begin this letter by commending the families, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, the prison wives, the prison abolition organizations, above and underground organizations who advocate on behalf of the countless children, women and men incarcerated in California, myself included. Thank you. That said, I’m writing this because there is a rather pressing issue that I have been working tirelessly to sound the alarm on.
About a year ago, I read The Rise & Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement by Eric Cummins. In it, he essentially described how prison officials and legislators effectively dismantled the People’s call for change during the 1940s to 1970s by co-opting the movement, n.b., incorporating underground prison organizations and self-help groups, making accredited college courses and other vocational programs available, sentencing reform, parole grants, commutations, Etc –all of which Cummins explains were used as instruments of social control. It was and has been aptly described as the “first wave” of the California prison system’s rehabilitative model.
Having been incarcerated in California for some 20 years, I have noted a “second wave”. In 2004, the department officially changed its name to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and proclaimed a facetious mission to implement a number of self-help and educational programs. Thereafter, we indeed would see a number of our loved ones who were granted parole on life sentences. This, we know, was the result of legislative changes in the law. For example, SB 261, which is a juvenile lifers’ bill that essentially stated that children sentenced to life were not psychologically developed and thus should be afforded a second chance. We even seen number of life sentences without the possibility of parole being granted commutations. But I caution you, this wasn’t new! This is not change! This is an old ploy to neutralize our movement! And it is working. Many advocates and fellow prisoners have laid down their arms and have bought into this diabolical scheme once again.
Now I realize that many of you do not want to acknowledge this because it extinguishes your hope of seeing your loved ones come home one day or that of getting out yourself. However, with less than a 35.7 percent parole grant rate in some cases, and even less than ten percent depending on what facility the hearing is being held—for an 18 percent average—more than 82 percent of our loved ones will die in prison. That said, it is imperative that we both recognize and counter this scheme that is currently neutralizing our demand for real change. (See “What Happened to California’s Prison Movement.”)
Here, I can only hope that by exposing these hard truths it will encourage you to stay the course and continue to demand real change! I ask of this because as it currently stands, CDCr and legislators are demanding that those of us who are eligible for parole must serve some two decades, if not three, behind bars on a life sentence before even being considered for parole. Now, let me ask you this: what’s to say in the next 20 to 30 years the political climate will be the same? If history is any indicator, we know it will not be.
So what does real change look like? Let’s open the floor for discussion. In my opinion, I believe it’s important that we start by obtaining the demographics on what the parole statistics look like: Here’s what we need to know in terms of parole grants in California:
- Average time served
- Age at time committed to CDCR
- Educational level prior to incarceration/upon release.
This information is vital to organizing both the inside-outside collective, laws, etc. because it leaves no room to dispute our odds for parole. For I am of the opinion that, given what happened during the “first wave” of CDCr’s rehabilitative model, we are again being manipulated by a token parole system that has effectively created an illusion that parole is viable for everyone who is eligible for a hearing.
Second, CDCR has currently created a rehabilitative model that, according to Cummins, previous directors and legislators declared ineffective. Logically then, how is it they can continue to deny parole grants for failure to partake in or comprehend its programs when the very programs themselves are said to be ineffective?
Thirdly, if we are to invest in the notion of rehabilitation and entrust American institutions, then we must demand that CDCR release our loved ones, including those serving LWOP and death sentences. For as Cummins noted:
[In the 1950s, two death row prisoners in San Quentin, Caryl Chessman and Wesley Robert Wells plea] that they had been rehabilitated was the first sign that inmates were about to use the rehabilitative rhetoric of prisons to subvert their own imprisonment. At the center of the maelstrom was an unrecognized contradiction in the design of the rehabilitative prison, which insisted that prison reform and long-term [that is, life terms, the death penalty] prisoner custody are compatible. They were not. The notions of prisoner rehabilitation and continued custody warrant ineluctably at odds—prisoner’s reform by definition required his release. And California prisoners, who were the first to grasp the seriousness of this ideological contradiction, would soon use proof of their own rehabilitation to dispute the need for their continued custody…
In other words, what Cummins has put to us here is the fact that, if CDCr’s mission is to quote on quote “rehabilitate” prisoners, then given the resources that have been expended to achieve this goal and the fact that the department holds steadfast to the notion that they are indeed accomplishing this goal, then we must ask ourselves why is it we are not seeing more lifers paroled? After all, they’ve spent decades undergoing this rehabilitative treatment.
This, of course, leads us to the next demand: changing the composition of the parole board. According to California Penal Code section 5075(b)(3), the board is to be a composition reflective of “a cross section of the racial, sexual, economic, and geographic features of the population of the state.” Currently, the California Parole Board is largely comprised of former correctional staff. (See Board) This definitely must change so as it reflects a more broader spectrum of community leaders and those who are not necessarily to benefit from the continued incarceration of our family members.
Next, and this ties into the third suggestion, there’s a much bigger problem here that we are overlooking. Our current approach essentially is catching the ‘crime issue”, and I use this term phrase for a lack of a better expression, by the tail and not the head. Think about that for a moment, then ask yourself why is it we are seeing schools defunded and jobs outsourced to foreign countries and then once incarcerated we get access to rote education models and employment opportunities for pennies on the dollar, if any wage at all? I will tell you why! It is because crime is a social political process that occurs as a result of a complex design of policies, racist policies, which affect underserved and poor communities.
Indeed it is a very deep and intense subject to go into that, unfortunately, this letter is not necessarily for. However I have written extensively on the subject in my book Domestic Genocide: The Institutionalization of Society.
Lastly, it’s only fitting that this letter serve as a call to action to address a number of issues surrounding the shortcomings of CDCr. Those who are interested in learning how we can change the dynamic and would like to join a statewide and the National Freedom Movement coalition we are building to address issues surrounding the prison industrial complex, please contact us.
For more information on CDCr’s parole grant rates, see: Predicting Parole Grants: An Analysis of Suitability Hearings for California’s Lifer Inmates.