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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.

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.
Adult Probation Chief Wendy Still — a three-decade veteran of California’s corrections system — says she sees realignment as an “opportunity” to finally stop the revolving door to prison.
Jamie Soja
Adult Probation Chief Wendy Still — a three-decade veteran of California’s corrections system — says she sees realignment as an “opportunity” to finally stop the revolving door to prison.

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.

"We are getting some very serious individuals, and we are seriously supervising them," Chief Still says.

Probation officers overseeing the high-risk realignment group will be armed, and the caseloads will be kept to 50 clients per officer, instead of the 150 to 200 on regular roster. As of press time, 14 of the 177 released to this county have been arrested for new offenses — mostly property and drug crime charges, with one violent crime, according to department statistics. That puts San Francisco at an 8 percent re-arrest rate, which is greater than three other Bay Area counties and Los Angeles, where the rates have been around 2 to 3 percent.

Chief Still reports that the number of clients with active warrants — either for a new crime or for absconding, corrections-speak for breaking contact with their probation officer — has hovered below 10 percent. Yet the absconders have been returning or getting arrested quickly by police, and as of press time, one had disappeared. "So we're already achieving great results," Still says.

The doesn't mean officers aren't cautious.

On compliance checks last month, Henzi and Calvillo carry pistols and extra ammo on their belts, hidden under their baggy shirts.

Once inside the dreary Lawrence Hotel, Calvillo creeps up to a door.

He listens and then knocks.

"Who is it?"

Calvillo barks, "It's probation, Mr. Hill! Open up!"

A couple seconds pass, and the door opens. Calvillo immediately switches his persona from tough cop to gregarious social worker: "Wazzup, man! How ya' doing? Sleeping?"

Hill, a despondent black man pushing past middle age, sits on the single bed, wearing a Nike jacket. His head bobs, and his mouth twitches. Calvillo and Henzi scan the tiny room: white walls, one dresser, TV, clothes tossed on a chair, a sheet tacked over the window. Empty Olde English 800 and Steel Reserve cans have been tossed in the garbage basket.

Calvillo inspects some burnt nubs on the dresser. "Are you smoking?"

"No," Hill answers. "I have a friend that was."That is enough for Calvillo to whip out his handcuffs and secure Hill — always an option during a compliance check as a precaution — even as he assures Hill that he's not necessarily in trouble. He pats down Hill's pant legs, but also gives a more comforting pat on the shoulder. Henzi goes through the clothes on the chair. Calvillo warns Hill to fess up if he's got any drugs in the room. "If you tell me, we can work with you, but if we find it —"

Before Hill admits to anything, Henzi pulls a glass crack pipe out of a tan parka. Hill interjects, "If you notice, it's a girl coat. That my coat right there," he says, motioning to a leather jacket. Henzi then rifles through that one and pulls a crack pipe from the pocket.

"When's the last time you smoked?" Calvillo asks.

"About like three days ago."

Despite his earlier warning, Calvillo doesn't make an arrest. Instead, he instructs Hill to follow up about rehab, and Henzi hauls off the pipes.

"You can't keep putting people in county jail for having a crack pipe," Calvillo explains. "There's just not the capacity."

Hill wasn't the only realignment client behaving badly that day. At the Potter Hotel at Eighth and Mission, the desk attendant told the Calvillo and Henzi that their client had moved out of his room a week prior. "That's a no-no," Calvillo says: All clients are required to report a change of address immediately. The officers say they'll issue a warrant and maybe mete out a sanction, yet, in the end, they just admonished him, says Henzi. Under the realignment law, probation officers can deal violators a 10-day "flash incarceration" or put them on an ankle GPS monitor. The realignment clients can serve up to six months in county jail on a violation, while regular probationers serve up to a year.

Later, Calvillo cruises down Eddy Street through the Tenderloin, an easy way to spot many clients at once. He soon sees one he recognized holding what looked to be a beer can in a plastic bag. Calvillo stops in the middle of the lane and makes an ominous "come here" motion with his finger. The man, wearing a grass-green running suit and an aluminum eye patch, approaches and leans over to look into the car.

"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.

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.

So when Still was recruited to San Francisco two years ago, she seized the chance to stop offenders from entering prison in the first place. She lobbied the city supervisors for money to hire more agents and decrease case loads. "Probationers" became "clients," and the staff was trained in risk-assessment and referral so that they could guide those clients to community services for help getting GEDs, housing, drug rehab, clothes, and money.

Already Still has seen dramatic results. Under her watch, the rate of probationers going to prison dropped 22 percent from 2009 to 2010, which qualified the department for $834,000 in state funds through S.B. 678. The changes are also cheaper: Recidivism experts say housing someone in prison for a year costs $50,000. The most expensive re-entry programs cost around $15,000.

Because of the reforms, Still says her department was prepared for realignment. Officers visit prisoners at least 60 days before their release to assess needs and design a plan of re-entry services. On the day the inmates are finally released, probation agents pick up high-risk, mentally ill, or handicapped prisoners at the prison's gate.

Then the real work starts.

On a Thursday morning in December, Bracy slumps into a chair next to the desk of Sarah Wanser, a baby-faced probation officer who seems more like a friendly school counselor than a law enforcement agent with handcuffs at the ready. Posters of waterfalls and lighthouses with inspirational sayings are intended to cheer up the otherwise bare-bones, windowless Hall of Justice office.

It has been two weeks since Wanser gave Bracy a chance to return to his drug-free housing and rehab classes at Walden House. Today Bracy is clad in the Red Sox jacket he bought with his gate money from prison, with blood on his face from where he says he nicked himself shaving. He seems tired and more pessimistic than the previous week, when he had flashed a thumbs-up at the end of the appointment.

According to U.C. Berkeley's Barry Krisberg, a lion in the field of recidivism who trains probation officers, "a person to talk to" numbers among the three key ingredients to a successful rehabilitation.

Bracy will talk. But that doesn't mean he'll tell the whole truth.

Wanser launches into "motivational interviewing," a method first used in the treatment of alcoholics. Open-ended questions are meant to lead clients to define their goals and reasons they want to change.

Wanser asks Bracy how it's going with his housemates, and whether he has applied for welfare yet.

"I think I go Monday," he says.

"So it sounds like you're being really proactive in getting things accomplished. That's great." (Her training: compliment clients on making progress on short-term goals, and repeat what he says he's doing to meet his goals.)

Wanser asks if he has been thinking about the question she had asked at his last visit: what he wants his relationship with his kids to be like in a year, when he's sober. (That's the "miracle question," to get people to envision what their ideal life would look like. The previous week, he had paused and said, "I can't even answer that.")

"I know I don't want my kids to be nothin' like me," he says.

"That's an important statement. So what are the things you're going to want to teach or role model for them so they won't go down the path that you did?" (Plant the seed for a client to start thinking about a solution.)

"I have to start being available," he answers.

"That will come. Like you say, the most important thing right now is yourself and your health." She suggests he think about role-playing a conversation he'll have with his kids someday to explain his absences, and ends on a positive note. "You are a strong person — that's something I wanted to say as well."

"Thank you," Bracy murmurs.

Wanser leads him out to the hallway, and talks to him about going to a city service that can hook him up with more clothes.

"Aren't you tired of seeing me in this jacket?" Bracy jokes.

"Well, I don't like the Red Sox," she answers, and Bracy laughs. "If it was the Niners, there would be no problem."

Bracy says he thinks Wanser is "cool." "They seem like they want to help more than send a motherfucker away. With probation you can talk about options, instead of one option: jail."

But when it comes to drug rehab, Bracy is undecided about what type of counseling reaches him better. He sometimes thinks old-school programs that use confrontational tactics work better than touchy-feely ones. "I can't hear kind, soft, and gentle. I need to really hear you — like, 'Sit your punk ass down, shut the fuck up, and do the fuck what we're gonna say.'" In softer-type group sessions, he's learned how to put drug usage in code: "I say, 'I'm taking it one day at a time.' It's hard to be abstinent after a relapse."

Indeed, there had been some glaring omissions in the update he provided Wanser. He called her a couple hours after the appointment to tell her the real reason he seemed so tired and disheveled: He'd tested dirty for meth in a random drug test at his drug-free transitional housing provided by the city. He'd been kicked out that very morning, and was currently homeless.

While Bracy was surfing coaches in the final days of 2011, California met its first realignment benchmark, cutting the prison population down by 11,000 inmates since the Supreme Court ruling in June.

Just 23,000 more inmates to go.

Some jurisdictions are already groaning with the burden: Los Angeles County officials are struggling to meet the mental health demands of released prisoners, and Riverside County released 57 inmates early after maxing out its jails' capacity with realignment inmates. In comparison, just 38 inmates have been sentenced to the San Francisco Sheriff's Department custody from state court so far, 20 of whom have since been released to community supervision. "We have bed space," says Undersheriff Jan Dempsey. City health officials say they are meeting the released inmates' need for medical, mental, and substance abuse programs.

San Francisco's probation department is expanding with the caseload. With the state realignment money, Chief Still will be hiring more than a dozen new officers in the next month, in order to staff a 17-person realignment team. Both Still and city health officials will look to increase the available housing they have to offer clients. (So far, about six released prisoners with no homes have turned down probation for housing, preferring to live homeless. The rest are staying in city-provided housing, with family, in residential hotels, or crashing with whoever will have them.)

Calvillo says it's still too early to say whether the department's new techniques are paying off. The city controller will collect data this year on the effects of realignment on the city, including how many clients have re-offended. That's the only agency that will be checking up. The state realignment law — crafted by law enforcement community and the Brown administration — has no mandate to measure the various counties' outcomes. "The stunning lack of accountability in realignment is a problem," says U.C. Berkeley's Krisberg. "There's no one in charge of monitoring what results we're getting."

For now, the early results are mostly anecdotal. As of press time, Maua was still in her hotel room and hooked up with a bevy of city services to help her out. Bracy's regular probation officer, Adela Martinez, was encouraging him to go to a residential Walden House program for rehab.

Bracy says he's been in five residential programs — four of which he ran away from after being mandated to go by a parole officer. He compares them to being locked up in jail. He checked into Walden House in Hayes Valley earlier this month, and lasted a week before clashing with another client and fleeing.

His probation officer sent him back to the DPH's rehab referral service, which mandated that he attend a group treatment session three times a week for an hour. He was back to sleeping on a friend's couch — but seemed in good spirits. He said he'd been sober for eight days.

Probation may have made him get serious about staying clean, but he knows, to really change, it's on him. "I've been through so many programs, I already know the steps of what I need to do. I just need to apply them."

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Flemingrandolph
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