Courts & Crime

Reality of behavior units at California prisons at odds with their purpose

Standing over a small metal sink, a prisoner pours water over his head and face. It's usually the only way to bathe, and offers a brief respite from staring at barren, pockmarked walls in a tiny cell.

Such is daily life inside the behavior unit at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran, said Tally Molina, an inmate allowed out of his cell once every third day for a quick shower.

Asked how he occupies his time, Molina spoke of meals and some reading, but added: "Nothing really breaks the monotony."

Behavior units were created in six California prisons as a middle ground between the general prison population and security housing that inmates call "the hole." The behavior units were designed for troublemakers or those who reject cellmates. Since their inception in 2005, well over 1,500 inmates have passed through behavior units, where reduced privileges are supposed to be combined with "life skills" classes.

A Bee investigation found that the units are marked by extreme isolation and deprivation. Most of the classes were halted by budget cuts. Some inmates endure lives devoid of exercise, social interaction, even time outside of the cell — for months on end. In interviews, many seemed confused about the purpose of the units and desperate about their future.

Scott Kernan, undersecretary for operations in the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, conceded that an absence of classes "leads to increased inmate idleness and might ultimately have the opposite effect of what … was intended" — that is, the units might provoke the disruptive behavior they were designed to curb.

Inside the activity room in the behavior unit in Corcoran, Capt. Felix Vasquez proudly pointed out pristine educational materials carefully arranged on a table.

Titles such as "Cage Your Rage" and "Beat the Street" are designed to help recalcitrant inmates turn a corner on violence. They are the active ingredient in what officials described as a program with excellent results: About 80 percent of its participants eventually return to the general prison population.

Yet, in interviews with Corcoran prisoners it gradually became clear that not one had taken so much as a single class. None had seen, let alone cracked open, a single book.

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