Thursday, July 31, 2008
Charlie Russell knows the revolving door of California prisons well. Russell, who grew up in Los Angeles, has served time on four different occasions for everything from stealing cars to dealing crack cocaine. Whenever he was paroled, Russell says, he fell right back into criminal life. “I always came out with no job skills, no place to live, no support,” he says.
A move to Seaside in 1987 didn’t break the cycle: Russell says he was sent back to prison for assault with a deadly weapon. But while inside a Lake County jail cell, a pastor introduced him to God.
Russell went on to apprentice as a meat cutter at California Correctional Center outside Susanville. With the support of his wife and family, Russell knew he wasn’t ever going back to prison when got out in 1994.
Russell has been a meat cutter at SuperMax about 10 years. He owns a home in Greenfield, just miles from Soledad Correctional Training Facility, where he spent a portion of his 17-year prison stint. Russell also is director of the prison ministry at Seaside’s Seventh-Day Adventist Church. “What happened to me could happen to hundreds or thousands of men if they had a chance,” he says.
Russell is part of a coalition of pastors and church members pushing for approval of a state reentry facility in Salinas, one of 12 rehabilitation centers proposed across the state. The Coalition of Churches for Reentry and Restoration is made up of about a dozen pastors from different churches.
Bill Ziering, a Carmel Presbyterian Church parishioner, represents the coalition and prison ministry For the Least of Us. “We have a passion for those who have completed their sentence,” Ziering says. “All people should have an opportunity for restoration and to be given another chance.”
The reentry facility, estimated to cost $164 million, would have up to 500 beds and provide counseling and vocational training for inmates during the last year of their sentence. Monterey County Sheriff Mike Kanalakis wants to put the mini-prison next to the old Natividad Hospital in Salinas. If the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and Salinas City Council agree on a site, the state also will award the county $80 million to expand the overcrowded jail.
The catch is, elected officials want to see public buy-in before they vote. The first community meeting will be held Aug. 7; Kanalakis needs city and county resolutions by Sept. 15 to meet a state deadline.
Margaret Serna-Bonetti has been the reentry facility’s most vocal opponent. She lives near the proposed site and is a Salinas Union High School District board member. “Basically I am opposed to putting a prison in the middle of Salinas. It’s residential. We’ve got schools there. [The reentry facility] is not gated.”
Serna-Bonnetti also doesn’t support Assembly Bill 900, the funding mechanism for reentry facilities and prison expansion statewide. AB 900 issues $7.4 billion in bonds to finance 53,000 new prison and jail beds.
Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition that wants to reduce spending on inmates and prisons, is suing the state for not putting the bond before voters. The state argues that bonds don’t require voter approval and are needed to fix the overloaded prison system. The reentry model represents a shift from delivering parolees to a bus stop with $200, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials say.
The state predicts about 1,000 inmates will be paroled and re-paroled in Monterey County this year. About two-thirds return to prison within three years of getting out, state officials report. “Rehabilitation until now has been an idle word rather than an action plan,” Ziering says.
At the same time, questions remain about the specifics of the state’s plans for the facility. Since it will be run by state corrections, county and city officials want some guarantee that the state won’t change its mind and house maximum-security prisoners there. State officials assured supervisors on July 22 that the facility’s design would limit it to rehabilitation uses. The county needs to come up with $50 million for the jail expansion and more than $11 million a year for staffing.
The current system is set up to fail, Russell says. “A lot of them guys don’t even know how to apply for a job,” Russell says. “As soon as they get out, it’s, ‘Let me get me a sack so I can sell some drugs.’ ”
Russell says a reentry program would help parolees learn job skills receive substance-abuse treatment. It also might stop inmates’ children from following their parents’ path. Russell says his 30-year-old son is finishing up a 15-year sentence at Soledad for assault with a deadly weapon. While Russell is working with his son to transition back into society, he says his three younger children won’t have to worry about seeing their dad behind bars again.
“I changed my life so I could be a man and raise my family,” he says. “My kids don’t deserve to go through what I went through.”
A community meeting on the proposed reentry facility will be held at 6pm Thursday, Aug. 7, at Sherwood Hall, 940 North Main St., Salinas.