Prison to parole: A push for alternatives in California
Providing access to web-based services can give parolees more freedom, and increase the effectiveness of their supervision and rehabilitation
This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.
The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.
By Karen Arcenas Reed
The diversion of newly sentenced lower-level felons and parole violators to county jail helped to alleviate prison overcrowding,  but increased the numbers of felons in local jails. Efforts to reduce sentencing, shorten parole terms and the closure of a California prison in 2021 punctuate the demands for the need for change within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Demands for justice reform have also ignited public support for alternatives to incarceration.
However these issues are resolved, the integration of support services and anticipated expansion of social media and social prescriptions will significantly influence community corrections. As former state prisoners transition to local jails and end their sentences earlier, though, there is also an opportunity to change what we do to enhance the success of parole – employ web-based services to give the parolee more freedom, and also increase the effectiveness of their supervision and rehabilitation.
An antiquated supervision model
The continuum of care from prison to parole is at a disconnect. CDCR houses more than 99,000 adult inmates at any given time.  California spends roughly $13.4 billion annually on its prison system  to service offenders with drug and mental health treatment, housing, education and equip them with tools to be drug-free, employable members of society. Yet, the recidivism rate suggests rehabilitation falls short.
Offenders released from state prison to parole supervision are issued a 30-day supply of their medication, receive $200 cash as “gate money” and a copy of their parole plan that contains the name of their assigned parole agent, an office address and instructions to report to that office within 48 hours. Parolees who have been incarcerated for long periods of time, displaced from any viable source of familial support, are often required to travel great distances and are expected to navigate a one-way bus fare, budget meals and find lodging before ever setting foot in a parole office. Between February 28, 2020, and October 31, 2020, the state parolee population increased from about 52,400 to 56,500 parolees, exacerbating the management of the prison and parole system. 
California United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) is one of many organizations supporting the closure of state prisons. This coalition of 70 activist groups that advocate for cutting prison funding believes the state can close five prisons in the next five years, noting that 20% of prisoners are over the age of 50 and cost the prison system $60,000-$70,000 annually per elderly prisoner as one area where the state can net significant savings.  A recent poll also showed that 67% of Americans favor rehabilitation over incarceration.  As long as the incarceration system remains in a “business as usual” process, though, those who commit crimes will be arrested and punished at lessening rates, and recidivists will commit new crimes with increasing frequency. The truth is we need to explore a new model to punish and also rehabilitate. The system should keep those who are a danger to others in custody but release others into a system that facilitates their success.
Custody to community connected
In the post-pandemic world, where much of business has transitioned to remote or blended work via the internet, there is an opportunity for CDCR to provide Wi-Fi access to parolees to streamline mental health services; strengthen family systems, employment and education; and create a pathway for remote work both while incarcerated and when on parole.
Pro-social behavior and constructive relationships are essential for effective reintegration into society. Many offenders have broken relationships caused by the harm they have done to their community and loved ones. Web-based connection, though, can bring together licensed facilitators to guide restoration, rebuild damaged relationships, and can contribute to the development of personal responsibility and self-reliance.  Advances in telemedicine are an example of possible pathways for CDCR and others to consider.
Telemedicine is the delivery of healthcare services using information and communication technologies for the exchange of information to diagnose, treat and prevent illness and injuries, and for the purposes of health research and health education.  Web-based companies like BetterHelp employ licensed and accredited mental health professionals and services over 2.8 million people in a safe and online environment. Affordable rates and convenience appeal to those with lower income and the formerly incarcerated. Individuals using BetterHelp can communicate with their therapist as often and whenever they feel it is needed through text, video, and chat. 
There are examples in non-carceral settings where these approaches are seeing success. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a rise in mental illness and was also central to corporations contributing billions of dollars to address mental health care inequities.  CVS is one of many stores to offer in-store mental health counseling.  Amazon launched a program to help with physical and mental health activities for its employees.  The expansion of social medicine programs and social prescribing for people with mental health needs has also grown exponentially.
In 2017, a U.K. study found that these “social prescriptions” improved the health and well-being of people with long-term conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety.  Rather than prescribing medication to patients with these diseases, patients received personalized recommendations for community-based activities such as a walk in the park, or a dance class to either replace or complement pharmaceutical prescriptions.  In 2020, the V.A. started “a new social prescription program,” called Compassionate Contact Corps.  Originally a home visitation program, it was restarted as a teleservice for veterans experiencing loneliness and social isolation when the pandemic hit. Prince Taylor, deputy director for the V.A.’s Center for Development and Civic Engagement stated, “Overwhelmingly, the veterans who have participated in this program tell us it is helping them.” Some doctors say that social prescribing may become the norm in the United States sooner than later. “I think the pandemic has really opened up the door for this kind of thing,” said Dr. Malissa J. Wood, co-director of the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center. 
Dr. Wood uses structured support groups as part of community programs she designed to improve the cardiovascular health of low-income, high-risk women.  Similarly, medical professionals in Montreal are prescribing patients museum visits for wellness, with an option to see a full-time therapist on staff.  Mental health professionals, including therapists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists have also flocked to social media platforms such as TikTok to increase awareness and provide tips to help the public with their mental health. Some of these professionals have garnered a following in the millions.  These findings have implications for people with substance use disorders (SUDs) because it suggests that social interaction can change the activity of specific neuronal circuits that control drug craving and relapse.  These programs have groundbreaking implications on how CDCR can and should respond to reform that push for prison alternatives.
Remote access to care and services
About 12% of people in jails and prisons have diagnoses of major depression, and the prevalence of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and personality disorders is higher than that of the general population of similar ages.  Remote mental health access already exists to some degree in prisons and community corrections and telemedicine has become increasingly used by prison mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using remote systems may signal a future for parole that has yet to be developed. There are, though, early signs of its potential for success.
A group of incarcerated coders in the Missouri Department of Corrections has developed an offline learning management system for prisons that is now expanding throughout the state. Washington University in St. Louis’ Prison Education Project won a two-year, $980,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to build out its program. Washington University sought to improve its digital offerings by working with LaunchCode, a coding education nonprofit. 
A useful way to envision change is to imagine a future where the change has taken place. This can help planners “see” where decisions today could go, and the outcomes they could experience. It is not intended to predict what will happen. Rather, it illustrates a plausible future world aimed to guide public safety organizations like CDCR to make better and future informed decisions today.
“The R in rehabilitation”
The year is 2030. Five California prisons have closed over the past decade and the inmate population has dropped 30% to a record low. Inmates and parolees have access to mobile applications equipped with social networking tools, encouraging them to stay in recovery. Closed prisons have been retrofitted as smart facilities to become a national model for integrated services from custody to community. Smart sensors operate lighting, temperature, gate control and sally ports. Social and emotional learning is standardized through virtual reality and simulation training for inmates and parolees. Video conferencing allows parole agents and offenders to build rapport, being virtually present in classification and parole placement planning. As a result of these advances, CDCR has become a model of corrections and rehabilitation for the future. They continue to gain public support as their endeavors reduce recidivism, boost the state economy, and become a model for community supervision, reimagined.
From today to 2030
Using our story of the future, we can consider ways to start now to make it happen.
First, CDCR should reach out to potential allies within prison, parole and community stakeholders. Second, CDCR should establish a clear plan for implementation. Identify ambassadors for the future and seek the movers and doers to create an honest environment to welcome fresh perspectives. Next, select a facility to pilot a transitional prison model where inmates go through a screening process, Parole agents monitor movement, and GPS sensors and drones assist with security measures. The transitional model should allow inmates to wear their own clothes, hold employment off grounds, and develop pro-social competencies through family reunification, restorative justice, and social prescriptions. Finally, link the Board of Parole Hearings, classification staff, parole agent and inmate in pre-parole planning and placement through video conferencing.
CDCR must consider ways to implement online platforms to address employment, education, housing, health and re-socialization needs for current and future prison populations. Reframing mental health as a public health concern, and prioritizing research, policy and laws to support newer technology will promote efficiency within the correctional system. A push for prison alternatives will advance criminal justice policies and foster sustainable impact. It will also garner substantial public support as Californians see prisons as a place where offenders stop committing crimes and return to communities as productive members of society. Fewer prisoners, less recidivism and lower costs are only a starting point for ways the internet can be used for the public’s safety.
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18 National Library of Medicine. (June 1, 2017). Outcomes of Psychological Therapies for Prisoners with Mental Health Problems: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
19. Nelson. Missouri Inmates Gain Computer Programming Skills to be Successful Upon Release.
National Health Service, UK. (December 19, 2020.) Green Social Prescribing.
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About the author
Karen Arcenas Reed is a parole administrator with the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation assigned to the Division of Adult Parole Operations, Southern Region. She is an engaged leader in community re-entry and people relations. She is a graduate of California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, Command College, a current member of the California Probation, Parole, and Correctional Association (CPPCA), and a graduate student at the University of San Diego (USD), M.S. in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership program. Karen previously served as an advisor to the Chief of Southern Region, Parole Division on matters regarding employee misconduct and performance. She is the founder of Southern Region’s Parole Community Clean Team, an integrated team of parole agents and parolees working together to keep city streets, parks, and beaches clean from debris and trash.