Politically Correct Punishment

San Francisco County Jails No. 7 and No. 8 — where top administrators are ex-cons and the prisoners are referred to as ‘clients’ — is turning the common wisdom about punishment and crime on its head.


The man in charge of two of San Francisco County’s jails is a convicted murderer.

In 1966, when he was 18, Michael Marcum shot his abusive father to death. Nearly seven years in maximum-security prison taught him the violence and intolerance of prison culture first hand — and after his release, he learned how terrifying freedom can be for someone set adrift, after years behind bars, with no job skills.

Deeply affected by his experience and determined to help others avoid repeating it, Marcum took a job as a counselor at the San Francisco County Jail. He made such an impression on his boss, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey, that in 1993 Hennessey overruled the objections of his own deputies and promoted Marcum to a top job. Now, the two men are overseeing one of the nation’s most ambitious and innovative efforts at jailhouse reform.

The revolution is taking place inside Jail No. 7, an unimposing two-story building in the coastal hills south of San Francisco, and Jail No. 8, a sleek concatentation of curves and glass tucked up against Highway 101 known as the “glamor slammer.” To the staff, however, they are “program facilities,” and the 700-odd cons inside, who are doing time for everything from drug possession to armed robbery, are “clients.” Instead of passing their time staring at their cell walls, the inmates mostly stay in open dormitories and spend up to 12 hours each day in some of over 50 separate treatment, counseling, training, and education programs.

Prisoners can join such counseling groups as Tools for Healing, Drama Therapy, and Gay Life Skills. The jail’s education center offers courses in ethnic studies, women’s cultural studies, and film theory, as well as basic skills. Prisoners can take a yoga and meditation class twice a week. Those in violence- or drug-treatment programs receive acupuncture to reduce their cravings for drugs or their violent impulses four days a week.

“Considering I have to be in jail, it’s all right,” says Bratt Woods, currently a Jail No. 7 “client” thanks to a parole violation. As a member of the Roads to Recovery drug treatment program, Woods has a busy schedule. His day starts at 8:15 a.m. with acupuncture treatment. At 9:30 a.m., it’s time for literacy skills. After lunch he has computer class in the 20-terminal computer lab, followed by a meeting of his substance abuse treatment group and an “academic skills class.” After dinner, it’s on to a “community meeting” where inmates discuss “dorm issues.” He finally gets some free time from 8 p.m. until lights-out at 10:45 p.m.

“I’ve been changing my life through these classes,” says Woods, a father of three. He plans to participate in a post-release work program when he gets out.

The philosophy behind the program facilities is to break the cycle of violence by transforming the typical jailhouse culture of humiliation and violence into one of dignity and healing. Hennessey and Marcum say their approach is not only more humane, but also contributes more to public safety. “Tough prisons turn out tough criminals,” says Hennessey. Still, even he has his limits: “I drew the line at aromatherapy,” says Hennessey, with a good-natured wink.

“We need to be able to cry.”
Their morning acupuncture finished, a group of inmates in orange sweats and plastic flip-flop sandals are seated calmly in a circle. Without prompting from the group facilitator, each in turn rattles off a list of agenda items listed on a portable bulletin board: their name, their “hit man” name (a nickname for the violent side of their personality they must learn to control), how they feel, and what they need from the group.

“My-name-is-Paul-and-I-am-a-violent-man,” recites a 30ish man with a trim goatee. “My hitman is ‘premeditating-quick-reacting-bastard.'” With the formalities out of the way, Paul moves on to his feelings. “I need people to recognize what’s going on inside of me. We need as men to be able to talk to one another more often. We need to be able to cry.” Heads nod around the circle as a few tears slide down Paul’s cheeks.

It’s all part of the Resolve to Stop the Violence Program (RSVP), which aims at getting prisoners to look at themselves and what they have done, explains sheriff’s program administrator Sunny Schwartz. It makes a lot more sense, she maintains, than warehousing inmates in what she calls “monster factories.” On Wednesdays, RSVP participants, many of whom are charged with domestic abuse, hear female victims of violence talk about the devastation they have suffered at the hands of men like themselves. After release, the offenders are required to do something positive in the community, such as giving anti-violence talks at local schools.

The prisoners may like their yoga classes and group-therapy sessions, but the key question, of course, is this: Does it work? Do all these programs actually help reform criminals? The short answer, even according to the jail’s administrators, is that the jury is still out.

A 1996 study by the University of California at San Francisco did find that the jail’s flagship intensive drug-therapy program for women yielded a drop in repeat offenses from 55 to 40 percent. More encouragingly, a limited internal review of the latest version of the program, which has been running since 1997, found that recidivism among graduates had dropped to just 15 percent.

But in the seven years since Jail No. 7’s programming began, a comprehensive study of the overall strategy on recidivism has yet to be conducted. The Sheriff’s department recently commissioned Harvard psychiatry professor James Gilligan to conduct a thoroughgoing study of the program’s effectiveness at keeping violent offenders out of trouble after their release.

If nothing else, some of the programs seem to offer pragmatic advantages. Despite dire predictions of mayhem that accompanied the launch of RSVP, putting 60 violent offenders together in one dorm room with a rigorous schedule and constant supervision has been remarkably successful in reducing jailhouse violence. According to Sunny Schwartz, while the San Francisco jail system as a whole averages 6 fights a week, the RSVP dorm has had only 3 minor incidents in three years. Impressed, the notorious California state prison at Corcoran has just launched a pilot program based partly on Roads to Recovery.

In theory at least, educational and rehabilitative programs like those in Jails No. 7 and No. 8 have surprisingly wide support among corrections officials, particularly in the case of jails, where inmates are held mostly for short periods, unlike state and federal prisons. Ken Kerle, managing editor of American Jails magazine, has visited more than 700 jails around the country. Most jail administrators, he says, understand the value of drug and violence prevention programs like San Francisco’s — but have a hard time convincing the public of their value.

Even Arizona’s notorious Joe Arpaio, nicknamed “America’s toughest sheriff” for such heavy-handed measures as housing prisoners in sweltering tents, putting them to work on chain gangs and forcing them to wear pink underwear, doesn’t think San Francisco’s approach is so off the mark. “The purpose of the jail is punishment,” says Arpaio. “On the other hand, they should be given the opportunity to learn.”

Ultimately, the survival of programs like San Francisco’s may depend on the bottom line. The acupuncture alone costs $125,000 a year, with hundreds of thousands more going to other programs. The RSVP course is in the last year of a three-year, $600,000 grant from the Open Society Institute. If studies like Gilligan’s show a dramatic drop in recidivism, the programs will pay for themselves or even save money by reducing crime, their proponents argue. But if the numbers aren’t there, even in liberal San Francisco the public funds may run dry.

Whether the statistics eventually support them or not, the programs can at least boast a few individual success stories. Marvin Trust, 30, describes himself as a “career criminal.” In and out of jails all over the Bay Area for years, he had never heard of any drug treatment or rehabilitation programs until he was locked up in San Francisco for burglary. He says he used to have a tough-guy mentality, especially in jail, but that this facility has allowed him to let his guard down and deal with his problems.

“It has helped me in personal ways, good ways. I’ve been talking things out with my girlfriend,” he says. The Roads to Recovery program, where he’s been since November, has required some attitude adjustment. “The intimacy between men was weird,” he says. “At first I thought they had flowers in their pants. Then I started to think it was kind of beautiful.”

Some of the program facililities’ most impressive success stories are now on the staff. RSVP offender restoration coordinator Lazanius Johnson served 18 months in Jail No. 7 in the early ’80s. Now he has left drugs behind. Besides working for RSVP for the past year, he is an ordained minister at the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco. “A large number of [program graduates] end up working in the treatment industry,” says Roads program director Sara Kammerzell. “By teaching recovery to other people, they are able to recover themselves.”