"You're bullshitting me, man," Calvillo says, out the window. "You said, 'I gotta get out of the Ls,'" the street shorthand for the T.L.s, the Tenderloin. "Where are we?" Calvillo swivels his head theatrically, as if checking street signs. Henzi answers for him: "In the Ls!" Henzi takes the man's beer can.

They make no arrest.

No one said reforming this crowd was going to be easy.

Henzi reviews the Tenderloin hotel room of Kheali Maua, a 27-year-old recently released inmate.
Jamie Soja
Henzi reviews the Tenderloin hotel room of Kheali Maua, a 27-year-old recently released inmate.
Henzi and probation supervisor Gabe Calvillo say that finding a crack pipe likely will not make them send someone to county jail.
Jamie Soja
Henzi and probation supervisor Gabe Calvillo say that finding a crack pipe likely will not make them send someone to county jail.

Fresh out of jail on a December afternoon, Kheali Maua — a charismatic 6-foot-4, Samoan transgender woman — strode through the same T.L.s, where she's been arrested so many times she's lost count. Six years ago, Maua, now 27, got pulled into what she calls "the life," a nonstop cycle of smoking meth, hooking around Diva's transgender night club, and getting arrested for both. After several probation stints and small time in county jail, she was sent to San Quentin for four months on a probation revocation after using a stolen credit card.

Now, she is back. She hopes to become a hairdresser, yet making a change is not going to be easy. Maua says a prostitute friend picked her up from the jail, and then went to solicit johns in Oakland while Maua waited to head home. Earlier that day, the Department of Public Health had set Maua up with a residential hotel room in the heart of her old scene.

While Maua walks to the hotel — upset that her only clothes are an oversized T-shirt and swishy pants her friend brought her last night — she runs into three sexworker acquaintances. "When did you get out?" calls one from across the street.

"I don't know how I'm going to do this," Maua says afterwards. "After being in prison, you feel like you have to learn to walk again. The only way I know how to get [money] is to put on a dress and two heels and go to the track."

The question of whether released inmates like Maua and Bracy succeed comes largely down to the leadership of Adult Probation Chief Wendy Still, a stylish, level-headed prison system lifer. The probation department received 87 percent of the $5.8 million in state realignment money allocated to San Francisco for the first year.

Despite being in charge of some 700 offenders who will be released over the next two years, Still seems calm in her Hall of Justice office on a recent morning. Her tone clashes with that of her counterparts across the state who have been warning of a potential public safety meltdown. "No, the sky is not falling," Still says. "This is an opportunity."

Still is a 30-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, including time as a chief deputy warden, a regional administrator for 10 prisons, and a chief financial officer. She breaks state prisoners into two camps: the tough offenders who need to serve hard time, and those cycling in and out of prison on less serious offenses stemming mostly from addiction.

In fact, of the 65 percent of California prisoners who returned to prison within three years of release — one of the highest rates in the country — more than half are guilty only of parole violations, not new crimes, according to corrections statistics. The revolving-door crew "are the ones we need to focus our resources on to change lives," Still says. Over her career she has witnessed the opposite: Those inmates would often be released before they became eligible for limited prison programs. Even if they stayed long enough, they often couldn't get into the programs due to overcrowding.

So how did the jails grow so obscenely overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional? Not because of the state's crime rate, which has been steadily falling since the '90s, but because of a series of tough-on-crime policy decisions. "Where criminal justice is concerned, California definitely does not look like a liberal state," says U.C. Hastings associate law professor Hadar Aviram, who pens the blog California Correctional Crisis. "We have a very Alabama-like prison system."

Aviram explains: During the Jerry Brown administration in the late '70s, California became the first state to take sentencing discretion away from judges. The judges' role was reduced to imposing one of three felony sentences set by legislators answering to constituents, not a sentencing commission of criminal justice experts like in many other states. Starting in the '80s, Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs filled cells with addicts and dealers. The '90s ushered in the Three Strikes law, sending offenders to prison for 25 years to life on a third felony. Such legislation often came as a result of voter initiatives, supported by victims' organizations and the powerful prison guard union.

The population ballooned to the point that a panel of three federal judges determined in 2009 that the prisons could not provide adequate medical or psychiatric care. Some suicidal prisoners were held in telephone-booth-sized cages while awaiting a psychiatric bed. In 2006, the suicide rate was 80 percent above the national average. Backlogs of 700 prisoners waited to see a doctor, who often held appointments in converted bathrooms, showers, and closets. One prisoner died of testicular cancer after having complained of pain in his testicles for 17 months without a diagnosis.

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