Aug. 1 2007 12:00 AM

California's prison problems run deeper than overcrowding. Dennis Malone can tell you all about it.


In his early 20s, Dennis Malone made life difficult for his Grant Hill neighbors.

'I provided most of the drugs for this area,' he says, his eyes scanning the street. It's a Friday afternoon and things are pretty quiet in a neighborhood where bars on windows and yards wrapped with chain-link fences reflect the area's past more than its present. Three decades ago, when Malone went from high-school basketball star to drug kingpin, his neighborhood was, as he puts it, 'the most drug-infested area in San Diego.'

When he was 21, Malone pleaded guilty to armed robbery and narcotics sales and spent almost a decade in prison-six years in the federal system and two years at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa. Back then, Donovan was one of 15 state prisons; now it's one of 33. The two prison systems were different then and are far more different now. 'The federal system, the emphasis is on education and vocational training,' Malone said. 'The state's emphasis is on warehousing, holding you until your time's up-they don't care if you have a GED when you get out.

'The emphasis is not on education, it's not on mental health, it's not on rehab,' he added.

Though it's been 16 years since he was released from Donovan, Malone's still got a handle on what it's like inside. He corresponds regularly with the guys he met when he was incarcerated, and he's become a go-to person for families whose sons, daughters, husbands and wives are about to go in or about to get out. At one point he needed help responding to all the letters he received.

'Last week I received eight or nine phone calls from people who were just getting out,' he said. 'Five of them were females. I gave 'em pretty much the same speech-they're going to really have to make their own way.'


A 2003 report by the Little Hoover Commission, an independent board that investigates state government operations, criticized California's corrections system for failing both the folks coming out of prison and the general population, which counts on the system to help maintain public safety.

According to the report, 'California has created a revolving door that does not adequately distinguish between parolees who should be able to make it on the outside, and those who should go back to prison for a longer period of time.'

Roughly two-thirds of California's parolees will return to prison within three years-three decades ago, only one-quarter of parolees re-offended.

As California's prison population has grown-by 600 percent since Malone was at Donovan-services have shrank. A report commissioned by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) blamed the prison system's high recidivism rate almost solely on the dearth of services. Currently, only one-third of prisoners get access to rehabilitative services-a telling number given the 60-plus-percent return rate.

Bill Sessa, spokesperson for CDCR, said that during the '80s and early '90s, the department placed more emphasis on punishment than rehabilitation, a stance shaped in part by the state's own budget priorities.

'Over 20 or 25 years, some of the rehabilitation and the ethic for rehabilitation that was in the department ebbed away,' he said.

Only 30 percent of prisoners get so-called pre-release assistance. Malone was one of those lucky few. A year before his sentence was up, he won a spot in a program that got him away from the general prison population and all its problems. He got job training and counseling and knew there would be a paid internship waiting for him when he got out. He had a five-year plan that he drew up a year before he was released, a plan that he studied and stuck to.

'You really have to have a mindset,' he said. 'A lot of people-believe it or not-become so institutionalized that they refuse any help, they refuse to accept the fact that they have issues and they need to be dealt with.'

Some people resign themselves to a life in prison, regardless of their sentence. Rather than take their stuff with them when they leave, they'll divvy it up to other prisoners to hold until they get back, Malone pointed out: 'I'll give you my TV, man, but when I get back, I want it back.'

'A lot of these people started doing time as juveniles,' he said, 'so now they're 30 and all they know is society has rejected them. They've rejected society and any societal norms.... So you've got to break those barriers. If you break those barriers, you have a chance of reaching a person.'

Some of those barriers, according to the Little Hoover Commission report and other sources, are:

* Half of the people coming out of prison can't read.

* At least 75 percent of all inmates have substance-abuse problems, but only 6 percent get into treatment programs. Statistics show that more people come out of prison addicted to drugs than go in.

* Roughly half of the people coming out of California prisons haven't graduated from high school or earned a GED. (The federal prison system requires GED classes for anyone without a diploma.)

State law requires that people be paroled back to the community they came from, which too often means a person will revert to old habits if they lack the resources and self-esteem necessary to make a change. One parolee I spoke to said it was easy to fall back into gang life and drug sales because that's the lifestyle he knew best.

'Paroling people back into the same social conditions that led to their incarceration-poverty, perhaps an abusive family, a drug environment if they're drug offenders-will not keep people from committing crimes,' said Jodie Lawston, a sociology professor at California State University, San Marcos. 'If they are not provided with programs in prison to give them the skills to succeed on the outside, and on top of that are kept from getting jobs and housing because they have to divulge that they've been incarcerated, it is no surprise that people will commit crimes once they're released from prison.'

Or, as Malone put it, 'When options are limited, criminal behavior becomes first nature.'


Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that reforming the state's prison system is a priority. Last year, he appointed a new Department of Corrections chief, James Tilton (a prior appointee had already added the 'R'-for 'Rehabilitation'-to the agency's title). This past February, CDCR's Office of Substance Abuse Programs was renamed 'Division of Addiction and Recovery Services.'

Schwarzenegger's committed $7.4 billion to building new prisons-a move that's drawn more criticism than praise. Even the conservative San Diego Union-Tribune editorial page argued that the governor's plan doesn't go far enough, and last week, federal judges in two different cases brought by inmates, ruled that a three-judge panel be established to recommend ways to relieve prison overcrowding, arguing that Schwarzenegger's prison-expansion plans will only exacerbate the system's problems. Schwarzenegger said he'll appeal the ruling.

Sessa said critics of the reform effort aren't seeing the full picture.

'The critics overlook what we are building,' he said. 'They don't necessarily recognize that we're looking to build different kinds of facilities than we have traditionally done.

'California has already learned in the late '80s and early '90s that you cannot build your way out of a prison problem,' he said.

The department aims to build community re-entry facilities that will house up to 500 inmates each (up to 16,000 statewide) and provide intensive pre-release services; parolees at high risk of re-offending will be required to check in at day reporting centers, where they can hang out and get counseling; new prisons will have more room for things like classes, drug-treatment programs and medical services.

'We are looking to a completely different approach to rehabilitation programming in the first place, where we will provide each inmate with an individualized assessment of what they need and have programs broader than what historically has been offered,' Sessa said. 'It's probably going to be awhile before we see all the results, but there's no doubt that the philosophy of the department has changed.'

'It's a system that's been the way it is for so many years that it's going to take a lot of time,' said Rulette Armstead, a retired San Diego Police Department assistant chief who now teaches law-enforcement administration at San Diego State University. Armstead provided testimony to the Little Hoover Commission for its 2003 report on the state's parole system.

'I'm hopeful, you know, because I have seen some change and I have seen some movement-not as much as I would have liked to have seen in the last two years,' she said.

Malone wonders if CDCR's problems run too deep. Though things may have changed at the top of the organization, it's not just prisoners who become institutionalized, he said.

'You can't change the title and say it's rehabilitation without changing the mindset of the folks who are working there. And that's going to take time. A lot of those guards have been there 10, 15 years, and that's the way they've been conditioned to treat these individuals. That's not going to change overnight.'

Indeed, a group of women I spoke to at a residential drug-treatment facility (they asked that neither their names nor the name of the facility be mentioned since all are currently on parole), said they had encountered either prison guards or parole officers who seemed more interested in seeing them fail than succeed.

One woman was charged twice with 'abscounding'-the term for a parolee on the run-because she missed two mandatory counseling sessions. Although she qualifies as indigent, her parole officer denied her request for a bus pass. She did a total of eight months for the two missed appointments.

'He's made it impossible for this lady to try to get her feet on solid ground,' another woman in the program commented. 'There are good parole agents,' she added, 'but they're few and far between.'

Armstead agrees that there's room for better understanding. 'A lot of us in law enforcement simply looked at is as an enforcement issue,' she said. 'We didn't look at it as a social issue and as, let's do more than put these people back in jail or figure out a way to see how they can fail probation as opposed to how can we figure out a way they can make parole.'


Malone spent several years working within the system, first as a counselor at Donovan and then with the largest parolee-services provider in San Diego County. In the past few years, though, he's shifted his focus to policy change. In 2004, he headed a local campaign to overturn California's Three Strikes law, and currently he's working on Ban the Box, a statewide campaign spearheaded by the prisoner-advocacy group All of Us or None, for which Malone heads the San Diego chapter. Ban the Box asks local governments to remove the question 'Have you ever been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony' from their job applications and also require that companies they contract with do the same. Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco and L.A. County have already agreed to do this. Malone plans to start talking to San Diego's elected officials this fall.

'Jobs are the number one thing,' he said. 'How can we open up doors? Let someone who's served their time, paid their debt to society come back with a clean slate. If their skills and education level meet the requirement for the job, give 'em a chance. At least give 'em a second interview. We're not saying you can't do a background check. We're saying at least wait for the second or third interview to ask the questions.

'It all stops when they look at that question. Then you go to the wastebasket or back to the bottom of the pile,' he said. At any given time, an estimated 80 percent of men and women on parole are unemployed.

Malone said the argument that felons can't be trusted or relied upon doesn't bear out.

'They're the ones most likely to be at the job on time; they're most likely to keep the job for long periods of time-they're in need of the money and the security. It's an opportunity they don't take lightly.

'You wouldn't want to put them in a high-risk environment, but in terms of doing city work like parks and recreation, waste management, not giving them too much of an opportunity to go astray unless they've proven themselves over time. They're hungry, they want to make a good impression; they want to make a clean start.'

The pre-release program Malone participated in set him up with an internship with the Lemon Grove Prevention Project, and he spent six months working to get the Lemon Grove City Council to require that liquor stores apply for conditional-use permits. They won.

From there he went to work for a program that connected SDSU varsity basketball players with kids who were at risk of dropping out of high school. Each player mentored a team of kids, working on education, life skills and basketball; the teams then competed in basketball games at the Linda Vista Rec Center. The program was recognized by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton as a model youth-outreach program, and she personally brought them an award.

'I thought that was off the chain,' Malone grins. 'Since then I just kept on going.' He earned his bachelor's degree in social science from Crenshaw Christian College and completed a certificate program in community and economic development through SDSU. He married a long-time family friend while he was in prison and the couple had three children. The marriage lasted 12 years.

'That was not to be expected,' he said. 'They say most marriages in prison don't last more than a year when they get out. But we already knew each other really well.'

The couple's kids are 10, 15 and 17-good kids who've stayed out of trouble, he said.

'They know my story better than I do because they hear me tell it so much. I tell them this is where I grew up and this area was 50 times worse. Back then we used to sell drugs openly on the streets. The neighbors didn't like us, and we didn't respect them.' The woman who owns the house he now rents was terrified of Malone back when he was selling drugs and gang-banging. Now Malone tries to make sure other neighborhood kids don't spend their late teens and early 20s the way he spent his. 'I've got a big debt to pay,' he said. 'I've destroyed a lot of this community. I'll continue to pay that debt until I die.'

A lot of his friends are still in prison, leaving their kids without guidance. Some of them Malone has helped, some he didn't get to in time, like the son of a former fellow Crip known as Finney Boy.

'His kids were babies [when he went to prison] and now they're grown. One of them has already gone to prison. He was one of the ones I was supposed to look out for, but it was too late. He was non-responsive. He got a lot of time, too,' Malone said. 'That's one of the things that's unfortunate-the children follow right behind the parents.'

Malone's mother raised him and his three siblings as a single parent. Of his two brothers and sister, he's the only one to get in trouble, and when he went to prison, she was too devastated to visit him.

'I would talk to her on the phone and send her letters,' he said. 'One of the commitments I made to her was that she wouldn't have to worry about seeing me in there again.'

'Chris' (he asked that his real name not be used) came from a similar family-raised by a single mother who did everything she could to steer him right. Regardless, like Malone, he fell into drugs and gangs. But, unlike Malone, he went back to prison four times after he was first locked up at 21. Like a lot of guys, he turned to religion in prison and says his faith now structures his life.

'I pretty much gave them all my 20s, and I'm 36 now,' he said. 'You grow. You definitely are not the same person you were when you first started into the system. You become an adult.

'It was on this term that I really realized that I was tired of doing it,' he said. 'All my other times, I knew I was going to come back out and get into the gang-you know what I'm saying? I knew even before I came home.'

On a recent Friday morning, Malone took Chris down to the DMV to get a California ID-mandatory if Chris wants to get a job. We had planned to meet at Balboa Park afterward to talk, but only Malone showed up. He said we'd have to meet somewhere else-Chris was a registered sex offender who's barred from being too close to parks and schools, so we picked a different location.

Chris has a handsome round face and a small star-shaped earring in his left ear. When we met, he wore baggy black jeans, an olive T-shirt and brand-new tan utility boots. He has a thoughtful way of speaking that makes him seem more like a teacher than an ex-con.

When Chris was 21, he was caught having sex with a 16-year-old and charged with pimping and pandering, for which he served four years. He's had to register as a sex offender each time he's been released, but this time, because of stricter laws, he wasn't able to move in with his mom because she lives too close to a school. Chris' parole officer got him a room at the Coast Hotel downtown, a seedy residential hotel that has a contract with CDCR to house parolees who have no place to live upon release. The hotel has problems with rats and cockroaches, Chris said. There are no kitchen facilities, and each floor shares two bathrooms and one shower. All residents must be out by 8 a.m. and can't come back until 4 p.m. unless they have special permission from their parole officer. There's a 10 p.m. curfew during the week and a midnight curfew on the weekends. Chris was lucky enough to get his own room. He said some rooms have four guys crammed in.

This time out, Chris was fitted with an ankle monitor with a GPS system, so the parole department can monitor where he is at all times. Every 12 hours, he has to recharge the bracelet's battery. He'll have to wear it for the duration of his parole, three years. His parole officer told him that the state was thinking of making everyone on parole wear ankle monitors, not just sex offenders.

'I don't like it at all,' he said. 'You ever watch Discovery or the wild animal station where they capture animals and they shoot 'em with a tracking device to see how they're doing after they released them back into the wild? Don't get me wrong-I take full responsibility for my actions and that I'm a parolee and I have to do my rehabilitation time, but I definitely don't feel this is necessary.'

Since he's spent the past 15 years in and out of prison, his jobs skills are limited to what vocational programs were available-prisoners have access only to the vocational programs offered by the prison yard they're assigned to.

He's taken graphic-art and printing classes and refrigeration and air-conditioning repair, though he'll need additional community college credits before he can get the certification necessary to work in the latter field. He started a brick and masonry program, but it was cut before he could finish.

As Chris talks, Malone interrupts periodically to comment. 'If we promoted higher ed directly out of high school, that's one of the things that would keep these prison numbers from growing-if we started instilling in the younger folks that you need a higher education so that by the time you graduate from college, you've got your mind set on some positive goals.

'What happened with me is that during those trying years, the college option wasn't really an option,' he said. 'It wasn't on the radar. What was on the radar was selling drugs, fast money.'

In California, there are more African American males in prison in than in college, Malone points out, and the state's prison spending is edging closer to what it spends on the UC and CSU systems combined. The amount it costs to keep a person in prison, $32,000 a year, rivals tuition at private universities.

A limited number of GED prep classes and vocational training comprise CDCR's adult educational programming despite the fact that a number of studies have found that recidivism rates shrink as a person's education level rises. In 1993, then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill that cut off state funding for higher ed in prisons. The following year, President Bill Clinton signed the Omnibus Crime Bill, a provision of which barred anyone convicted of a felony from receiving a federal Pell Grant, previously the funding sources for partnerships between colleges and prisons. Currently, in California prisons, college-level classes are taught by volunteers or paid for with private dollars. The Prison University Project at San Quentin, for instance, offers the only on-site higher-ed courses in the state's prison system. The program can accommodate only 200 students, who are taught by volunteer instructors from Patten University, a Christian college in Oakland. Private donations cover the costs of textbooks and materials.


In federal prison, Malone studied to get his state minister's license, and at Donovan he headed a chapter of Convicts for Christ-he'd actually been ordained in the Baptist church when he was younger, long before he fell in with gangs, though he says he stopped going to church when he started selling drugs.

He earned the nickname 'Preacher.' He remembers a speech he gave to a group of inmates just before he was paroled, prompted by the 'you'll be back' comment that guards and other inmates tell someone who's about to be paroled.

'I told them that the only way I was coming back here was in a position to help.'

Six years after he left Donovan, he came back as a counselor, working in the same pre-release program that he'd participated in.

'Oh, man, it was a trip,' he said. 'I almost didn't walk in.... It was like reliving a nightmare, but I'd made a promise.

'It took me six years to do it, but they were all still there-the guys he gave the speech to-and they were all still in the yard. Gave a lot of credibility to what I was saying.'


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