A Prison is a Prison…

Thinking about prison, the public at large has two thoughts; the first being once a convicted person is sentenced, they’re tossed in a cell forever, and second, every prison is the same.

—not so much.

Correctional systems have evolved since the time of the dungeon in the underground crypt of the palace, or the Black Hole of Calcutta. In these predecessors of the modern prison system, the sentence meant a long and agonizing death. The offense was often something minor. Public perception hasn’t moved on from the belief that once arrested, tried, and convicted, the criminal will forever be banished from society.

Ninety percent of the prison population will return to the very communities they came from. Often, these convicts are no better prepared for living in society than when they left it the last time. Prisons can’t rehabilitate people who don’t want to change. We’re left with a revolving door of crime, new victims, and for some convicts, they’re back in prison where they’re used to the daily structure, told when to get up, when to eat, and when to go to work. They’ve become institutionalized and take themselves out of society because they’re more comfortable inside.

The biggest misconception is the idea that every prison is the same and everyone sits in a cell all day, every day. For some, that might well be the case, but it’s not a one size fits all solution. Using California as an example, everyone sentenced to state prison is processed through a reception center. In California, there are ten reception centers for male inmates and two for women. It’s a bit like an air traffic controller, making sure there are available reception center slots for the hundreds of new commitments landing into the system each week. It demands a classification process to identify where each offender can be safely housed and what programs are needed to address medical and mental health deficits.

That’s where the complications start. Based on the security risk an inmate poses to the public, staff, and other prisoners, they are given a classification score. In California, it’s Level I, II, III, or IV. Level IV is the highest risk and these prisons designated for Level IV housing are smaller cell blocks, have internal gun coverage, lethal electric fencing between double concertina topped barriers, limited movement, and are staffed accordingly. These Level IV inmates are assaultive, have long sentences ahead of them, and are often involved in gang activity. Level I, at the other end of the correctional spectrum, are inmates who pose the least risk with less time to do before their parole. Level I facilities may look like fire camps, dormitory housing, and may have a single perimeter fence.

As an example, let’s follow an imaginary convict through the reception center process and evaluate where they can safely program within the system. This is a simplified description of some issues which must be addressed. For our purposes, Bruce is sentenced to prison for twenty-five to life for a gang related murder. To avoid the death penalty, Bruce rolled over on his two crime partners. Bruce has diabetes and lost a foot from the disease. Besides his medical concerns, Bruce has untreated mental health and substance abuse issues. He’s been in the system since he was a youthful offender and has yet to complete his high school education because he’s constantly assaulting staff.

Bruce has a lot going on, doesn’t he? The problem is, Bruce is typical. Prisons have become the social service safety net for people who fall through the community medical and mental health system. They end up in prisons. So, with his complex case factors, where can Bruce go to serve out his term?

From the time he must serve (twenty-five-to-life) and his assaultive history, Bruce will be classified as a Level IV inmate. Using California as a guide, that means there are only ten of thirty prisons he can be transferred to—those with the most restrictive housing and design. Depending on the severity of his mental health issue, and let’s suppose it’s at the upper end, with paranoid delusional episodes, that narrows down the potential prisons to five which provide that high level of mental health treatment. But two of those programs are closed to intake because they have no available beds in the treatment unit. So that leaves us with three prisons left. But the crime partners he testified against are housed in two of those institutions, leaving only one placement left and luckily, it’s also a prison approved for disabled inmates.

If any of these points failed to fall into place, Bruce could sit in the reception center until an appropriate bed opens. It may take weeks for inmates with complex case dynamics to arrive at that destination.

One the proper facility is identified, Bruce is transferred where all his needs are addressed consistent with his public safety need, mental and medical health. When his mental health stabilizes, he can take part in educational, vocational, and substance abuse programming.


Over time and with consistent good behavior, Bruce could reduce his classification level to Level III prison, or he could decompensate and earn a placement in a specialized mental health unit within a Security Housing Unit, reserved for the most violent inmates with serious mental disorders.

Now imagine managing this process for an entire system where it’s not only Bruce, but 175,000 inmates competing for placement and getting the right inmate in the right bed. Not every prison and prison bed are the same.

James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his written work. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a national expert witness on prison and jail operations. He has been awarded the Silver Falchion for his novels, and The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His published novels include Dead Drop, Black Label, At What Cost, Bury the Past, and Little River -The Other Side of Paradise. Look for The Devil Within and Face of Greed, both releasing in 2023. You can find out more at www.jamesletoile.com 

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