Hayley was a happy, 17-year-old high school senior before she became a convicted felon. “I was the Homecoming Queen,” she said, reflecting back on her life before making terrible, life-altering decisions. “As a kid I had a good group of friends. And as an only child I was, and still am, very close to my parents.”
Midway through her senior year, Hayley’s mom decided to move to Southern California. A move, Hayley said, that signaled the collapse of her parents’ marriage. “Within a few months I went from a happy life, living in a stable family, to uprooting to a new state and having my family broken. I was miserable,” she said.
Hayley didn’t just transfer to any new school, either. She went to the same high school in Laguna Beach where the hit reality show about rich, fast-living teens called “The Hills” was filmed in the early 2000s. “I went from popular to a nobody,” she described.
There, Hayley, now 29, smoked pot for the first time. When an acquaintance introduced her to methamphetamine Hayley was instantly hooked. “Drugs do not discriminate,” she warned. Before long, she and a new boyfriend were robbing others to support their habit, which is how she eventually ended up sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary.
I met Hayley while covering Folsom State Prison’s new female inmate facility, but I left thinking the real news story is that good things actually happen in prison.
Unlike what we see in movies, most inmates aren’t like Hannibal Lector. Only 7 percent are in for violent crimes like murder. The majority of inmates are like Hayley, serving time for one or more non-violent crimes and great efforts are in place to help them reenter society as productive citizens.
During my two-day tour of the prison I expected to see animalistic behavior. Instead, I witnessed respect everywhere I turned. Heads nodded in passing, eye contact was made. Everyone was addressed as “Ms.” and “Mr.” There were smiles, even.
There are many programs in place to help rehabilitate prisoners, but the best practice I saw was the risk and reward model of offering low-paying jobs to non-violent inmates. This helps them earn a little money, but more importantly it is an incentive to practice self-control. Some jobs, like making license plates, are sought after and can be taken away at any time for less-than-stellar behavior. (Folsom is the only prison in California where license plates are still made, churning out more than 8 million a year). One male inmate told me having a job means “less time to get in trouble.” Good conduct reports can also go a long way toward other freedoms.
The way the prisoners acted so respectfully, “walking the line” for perhaps the first time in their lives, reminded me of the “teen boot camp” episodes often shown on daytime talk shows. Out-of-control kids fight the military school interventions at first, while their parents seem at wits’ end. Often, bad behavior masks something dysfunctional going on at home, and if a talk show host gets it right these issues are unveiled before the hour is up. Most likely the teens get yelled at by the studio audience, told things like, “You should be respecting your mother!” Their instructors then show tough love and, with proper rules and attention, the teens come back better for it.
The adult inmates in prison act much the same way. Several times I heard, “Prison saved my life.” What’s sad, though, is that in adulthood being out-of-control carries felony records that can’t be erased. This is a message for today’s at-risk youth to be sure.
Prison is the last stop for many people masking a plethora of problems, and that number is soaring. There are 2 ½ million state and federal inmates housed today; 20 years ago there were 500,000.
Like most people, I’d much rather see funds go toward schools instead of prisons. Yet if money has to be spent to incarcerate society’s offenders, my eyes have been opened to the good efforts in place to actually help them rehabilitate.
Julie Samrick is the mother of four children and a resident of El Dorado Hills. She is also the founder of Kid Focused, a site devoted to current children’s issues.