Four Corners and Nowhere to Turn
Ex-offender programs and substance-abuse treatment faccilities — halfway houses — help provide the transition into society that keeps recently released prisoners from reverting to previous criminal behavior. But state budget cuts threaten their continued existence.
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Late on a Friday afternoon in June, Laura Ybarra, a 37-year-old single mother from San Diego, was released from her home of nearly two decades, the Central California Woman’s Facility at Chowchilla. “Forced out” might be a better description. Ybarra didn’t want to leave. A potential third-striker who had stared down the double barrels of a possible life sentence and beat the rap, she was afraid of the new freedom granted her by the courts. After 18 years behind bars, the world outside of jail was a strange and foreign place, not to mention one in which she was now broke and homeless.
“Ten hours from home,” she says, “and I didn’t know anybody.” She had an old phone number she thought might belong to one of her cousins. Otherwise, Ybarra had no place to stay, no identification and very little money. Eating would be a whole other problem.
In possession of the borrowed clothes on her back and the remnants of a jailhouse heroin habit, Ybarra got herself onto a bus headed south. The poverty that kept any of her relatives from traveling to central California to pick her up at the prison gates on that Friday had also kept her apart from her son. Ybarra hadn’t laid eyes on him since being sent up on a drug charge. All these years later, and now the boy was a young man with a toddler of his own. Ybarra was grandmother to a child she’d never met.
On the following Tuesday, she was admitted to a live-in substance abuse treatment program called Project Star, administered by the National Crossroads organization on Imperial Avenue in southeastern San Diego. Ybarra was assigned a bed and started a treatment regimen. She was reunited with her son. She played with her granddaughter. For one small glimmer in time, she believed her luck was changing.
But only 10 days after she’d settled in, she was told that the entire program would be shutting down and that she would likely have to leave.
Dr. Gwendolyn Taylor, a soft-spoken psychiatrist who’s the program pirector at Project Star, a 20-bed residential drug and alcohol for female ex-offenders, got news of the closure in a form letter issued by the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR).
“Our current contract will expire on June 30, 2010,” the memo reads, “and the state will not be renewing its Residential Substance Abuse services in San Diego due to budget shortfall.”
State budget problems had already shuttered a number of inmate reentry, drug treatment and sober living programs, many of them in the surrounding southeast San Diego neighborhood. The short list of closures included the long-running San Diego Community Treatment Center, Serenity House and the Euclid Avenue CRASH storefront, the only outpatient drug and alcohol treatment facility in the area.
For nearly three decades, says program coordinator Celina Brown, CRASH hosted a regular Narcotics Anonymous meeting. “Crime is gonna rise,” Brown said in June, her voice dulled by the fatigue of packing up the office. “Seventy-five percent of inmates are on drugs.”
With no other parole-sanctioned programs left to take her in, by the end of June Laura Ybarra and her Project Star dorm mates would be back out on the streets, this time facing a very different crossroads: the intersection of Euclid and Imperial avenues, otherwise known to addicts as the four corners of death.
One in every 100 adults is behind bars in the United States, the highest imprisonment rate in the world, according to a Pew Research Center report. And California’s correctional system has been characterized by a series of budgetary crises in the last decade. In 2007, the Little Hoover Commission stated that the Department of Corrections was the largest and most immediate crisis facing policy makers. With the highest rate of recidivism in the nation — seven of every 10 inmates will return to California jails within three years of release — the report went on to deem California’s parole system a billion-dollar failure.
By 2009, the state prison system in California was running at 200 percent of capacity. Overcrowding was then ruled a violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights, and a federal court told the CDCR to reduce the number of inmates by 40 percent, which would’ve led to the release of upward of 60,000 inmates. But a citizens’ group fought back, citing Marcy’s Law, a victims’ bill of rights that prevents the early release of prisoners for reasons of prison overcrowding.
Governor Schwarzenegger promised to appeal the court’s ruling as well. But Sacramento’s overall response to the corrections conundrum has been ineffectual at best. SB 1453 was passed into law, allowing the CDCR to discharge nonviolent offenders from parole early, following 90 days of prison drug treatment and another 150 days of drug treatment in the community. Unfortunately, there was a catch. California’s burgeoning economic recession dealt at least $250 million in legislative cuts that either gutted prison treatment programs or closed them altogether. Now, only 11 percent of the nation’s inmates with alcohol and drug abuse problems get treatment during their incarceration, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Toni Benitez, 47, was a career drug user from Southeast San Diego before being sent to Chowchilla. Most would call her a recovery program success, but she knows she is only a step away from the life that lurks outside the doors of a center like Crossroads. “They don’t call this the four corners of death for nothin’,” she says. Now a drug and alcohol counselor, Benitez is disturbed by the steady elimination of the neighborhood’s recovery programs.
“All I knew was usin’ drugs,” she says. “Was I gonna go back to the life?” Most likely, she answers. “You go back to what you know. If you don’t get treatment, you won’t make it. You will end up back in prison.”
And prison, says San Diego Deputy District Attorney Lisa Rodriguez, is where the vicious cycle renews itself. She points out that there are only 12 in-prison drug treatment programs remaining among all of the state’s prisons. “A lot of programs statewide,” she says, “are getting cut.”
Nearly $1 billion in cuts to the CDCR over the past two years (with an $8.8 billion operating budget in 2010, CDCR remains the largest resource allocation in the state) means there is no end in sight to the belt-tightening or outright termination of treatment and reentry programs at the community level.
“The studies are very clear,” Rodriguez says. “The best way to cure recidivism is through treatment, education and vocation. They cut all these programs, and they’re trying to cut down the prison population, but they’re sending people out who are completely unprepared to return to the community.”
“It’s a sign of the times,” says Pastor Art Lyons of the Re-Entry Prison and Jail Ministry in Chula Vista. “If your [program] is funded by the government or the county, as soon as that money runs out, your program goes away, and the church will be left doing it, as it has for hundreds of years.”
Jailhouse tattoos are the only visible links to Laura Ybarra’s past. She favors monkeys, hand-drawn renderings of which ascend her forearms. FTL (for “F**k This Life”) is inked just below the knuckles of her right hand. With her straight black hair pulled into a braid and her cherubic features, she looks like a grandmother, not an ex-felon.
“I had a dime of coke,” Ybarra says, “and it got me a two-year sentence.” But more years were piled on after she was accused of battery on a corrections officer. “I didn’t realize how angry I was,” she says through a glaze of tears. “I’m one of those who hide behind a smile.”
When she learned that Project Star was closing, Ybarra began to read the Psalms and pray to a God who hadn’t, in her lifetime, cut her much slack. She could not afford a bus pass or an I.D. “I don’t even have a birth certificate,” she says. “All I have is this program, and it’s slipping away.”