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Prison Break: Realignment Inmates Enter Rehabilitation in S.F. 

Wednesday, Feb 1 2012
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Illustration by Ellen Weinstein.

Until a massive change in California's prisons three months ago, these were the odds that Nate Bracy would be locked up again within three years:

For having being released in California: 57 percent.

For his latest offense having been possession of meth for sale: 46 percent.

For being released to his hometown of San Francisco: 68 percent.

For being 35 years old: 55 percent.

For being black: 65 percent.

For the last 17 years, Bracy — Lincoln High School grad, meth addict, dope dealer, lover of James Patterson mysteries — fell on the wrong side of those statistics. For him, the revolving door of the state's corrections system has been more like a depressing merry-go-round. For drug dealing in the Tenderloin, for a robbery, for probation and parole violations, he estimates the longest he's been out of custody since he was 18 years old was 13 months.

Yet during this last round in San Quentin, Bracy started thinking about change. The first wrinkles were starting to line his handsome face. He has two sons, and "I know I don't want my kids to be nothin' like me." Ironically, he figured the only way to make sure of that is to hang around them more often.

For the first time, Bracy says he took every rehab class the prison offered, and planned to enter a rehab program as soon as he was released. "I'm 35," he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "I don't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out. And if I don't do something, I'm gonna die alone."

Bracy's change of heart coincides with the state's court-mandated reform on how it runs its prisons. Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a three-judge ruling that California must reduce its overcrowded prisons to 137.5 percent of capacity by mid-2013, down from a peak of 202 percent capacity in 2006. That meant siphoning out about 34,000 prisoners, enough inmates to nearly fill the Oakland A's stadium.

The state came up with a plan: Nobody gets out of prison early, but less-serious offenders would be sentenced to county jail, and the supervision of certain criminals released from prison would be moved from state parole agents to county probation officers. That means that if these ex-cons violate the terms of their release, they will be booked into county jail, not prison.

Voilà: Prisoner numbers are down for the state. The prisons are currently on track to meet the deadline, at 164 percent capacity and descending.

So San Francisco will now attempt what the state corrections system failed at: rehabbing Nate Bracy. It will try to override 17 years of criminal behavior and to get him — and the 700 others who will arrive in San Francisco over the next two years — to live like your average Joe Citizen.

Critics across the state are predicting an apocalypse. L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley calls it a "public safety nightmare." Tough-on-crime Republican state Sen. Sharon Runner said, "Tell your constituents to get a dog, buy a gun, and install an alarm system." Many counties are using the bulk of the state realignment money to build more jails, and pundits are predicting skyrocketing crime rates and warning that hardcore felons might escape from county jails not built to house long-term inmates.

Yet San Francisco is betting on rehabilitation. Here, the lion's share of the funding has gone to the county's adult probation department, where two years ago Chief Wendy Still swooped in with massive reforms. Out with overburdened officers who merely surveil 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em; in with social work-minded counselors who refer clients to housing and rehab services and emphasize alternatives to jail, meaning some offenses that used to be grounds to return a probationer to jail may now be let slide.

Bracy is already experiencing this more lenient system. Despite his plans to change, a couple weeks after he walked out of prison in November he got high on meth and missed his probation appointment. Under parole, he probably would have been headed to prison. Yet probation officers struck a deal: If he would return to the drug treatment the city had hooked him up with, they would recall the warrant for his arrest and give him a second chance. The next time he failed to report, the officers would likely give him a sanction, such as sending him to jail for up to 10 days. If he could stay out of custody for six months, he would be eligible to get off supervision altogether.

It saved the county the money for a jail bed and meals, and it gave Bracy, who says he's competitive, a challenge to prove himself.

"This demographic is not afraid of doing time," says probation supervisor Gabe Calvillo. "They can do 30 days standing on their heads. You have to find other options."

Calvillo rolled up in an unmarked Crown Victoria to the Lawrence Hotel on Sixth Street's skid row one January morning. He has a jock's looks and a social worker's gift of gab ("Or the gift of Gabe — I can talk anyone into anything") combined with a 17-year law enforcement veteran's skepticism about the government's ability to fix human frailty. "How are you gonna change a 65-year-old dope fiend?" he asks.

He was doing compliance checks with his patrol partner and co-supervisor Christy Henzi. A cautious former credit union manager with a butch hair cut, Henzi uses a softer touch with clients — a sign over her desk reads "Do No Harm" — yet she also acknowledges the limitations of extending help. "You can only tap into what they want to do. They're the driver."

At an average 39.6 years old and with 7.4 prior convictions, members of the realignment group are generally older than other probationers, and saddled with more offenses. Though state officials have dubbed them "non, non, nons" — meaning their convictions are for non-violent, non-sex related, non-serious crimes — probation isn't getting too comfortable: That designation only applies to the latest conviction. They could, and often do, have heavy crimes in their pasts.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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