College Behind Bars, the Problem With the CalGang Database, and Traumatized Compton Kids Train Shelter Dogs


A total of $5.9 million in funding will be used to launch seven pilot college programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Californians through the Opportunity Institute’s Renewing Communities Initiative. People who take college classes in prison have a 51% lower recidivism rate than those inmates who don’t participate, according to a RAND study. And when former offenders return to their communities after their release, if they have participated in an education program behind bars, their chances of finding employment increases considerably.

“Getting a college education turned my life around,” said Jared Walker, a participant in Project Rebound who spent three years behind bars. “People think I’m an exception, but I’m not. There are lots of guys just like me who are thirsty for education and would jump at the chance to do something to change their lives.”

One of the grant recipients, Bakersfield College will bring in-person college courses to inmates in two state prisons located in rural Kern County, the local jail, and a reentry center to create a pathway from incarceration to college graduation.

Through one of the other seven pilot programs, Cal State University Los Angeles will offer the first in-person Bachelor’s degree program to adults locked up in a California prison.

A pilot program in Shasta County will take people exiting the local jail and enroll them directly at Shasta College.

“This is an unprecedented coming together of private foundations, our public higher education institutions, and our criminal justice agencies to make communities across California stronger and safer by investing in student success,” said Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School, pointing out that other states may benefit from taking advantage of similar public-private partnerships.

The nine contributing organizations are the California Endowment, the California Wellness Foundation, Roy & Patricia Disney Family Foundation, ECMC Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Rosenberg Foundation.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that UCLA was offering the Bachelor’s degree program. The Bachelor’s program will, in fact, be piloted by CSU LA.


CalGang, California’s gang-involvement tracking database, includes information on more than 150,000 people. Cops say it’s critical to reducing gang-related violence and other crimes, but critics say that because the data is so carefully guarded, too many innocent people may be on the list without even knowing.

People who admit to law enforcement officers that they are gang members or who have gang-related tattoos are added to the database, but associating with known gang members and wearing clothing that might be gang-related also sends people into the CalGang database.

The full criteria for designating someone as a gang member on CalGang is outlined in the 1988 STEP Act (California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act), which created sentencing “enhancements” for crimes committed “for the benefit” of a gang. These enhancements were increased in 2000 by CA’s Proposition 21. (Include how long some of the enhancements are) Thousands of Californians are currently serving longer sentences because of gang enhancements.

Advocates say the vague criteria often have the effect of penalizing people of color for living in the wrong neighborhood. In response to widespread criticism, the state has launched an audit of the system which is scheduled to be completed this fall.

In 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed an important bill that requires local law enforcement to notify kids under 18 and their parents in if they are added to the gang database, and give parents the opportunity to contest the designation. For adults it’s impossible to be removed from the database. That may change if the state legislature passes a 2016 bill by CA Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) to require notification for adults listed in CalGang—although a similar bill failed last year.

Ali Winston, who rode along with Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies assigned to the Operation Safe Streets Bureau, has an excellent longread for the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal News, which tells the history of CalGang and the STEP Act, and of efforts to bring sunshine to the mysterious gang database. Here’s a clip:

Aaron Harvey learned the hard way what it can mean to be documented as a gang member. He was a 26-year-old seeking his fortune in the Las Vegas real estate industry when he stepped out of his apartment to get some lunch on July 18, 2014. The San Diego native had moved there a year earlier to get away from the tumult of the hardscrabble Lincoln Park neighborhood where he grew up and where his family has lived for decades.

Suddenly, nearly a dozen plainclothes U.S. marshals swarmed around Harvey with their guns drawn. He was arrested, booked at the Clark County jail and flown back to San Diego on a warrant in connection with nine shootings back home – shootings that had taken place after Harvey left for Nevada.

The shooters in these incidents never were identified. Instead, several men recorded on a wiretap discussing how to obtain a gun were charged with offenses ranging from attempted murder to assault. Harvey was not among them.

Even after the San Diego County district attorney’s office acknowledged that Harvey was not present for the shootings, he was charged with nine counts of criminal street gang conspiracy to commit a felony – one for each shooting. Prosecutors claimed that Harvey was a participant in the conspiracy because he was, they alleged, a member of the Lincoln Park Bloods and stood to benefit because the shootings would increase his notoriety. The gang conspiracy charge is relatively new, created in 2000 when California’s Proposition 21 increased penalties for gang offenses.

To establish Harvey’s gang ties, prosecutors introduced photos from his Facebook account that showed him with other men from his neighborhood, wearing green clothing and making hand signs that prosecutors said were gang related.

They also cited evidence gathered from more than a dozen contacts Harvey had with San Diego gang police over the years – evidence that prosecutors suggested established his involvement with the Lincoln Park Bloods. Many of the contacts dated back to his teenage years, and none had resulted in a criminal charge.

Harvey ended up being held without bail for eight months. Last March, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Louis Hanoian threw out the case against Harvey and several of the other men, finding insufficient evidence to charge them.

“How can you attach a conspiracy,” the judge asked, “to a crime that doesn’t have a defendant?”

But release offered little relief. While he was in jail, Harvey lost his apartment and job as a club promoter. He moved back in with his parents in Lincoln Park. Motivated by what he sees as his own unfair targeting by law enforcement, he is now taking prelaw classes and organizing for criminal justice reform.

“I tell people that it might be a black and brown issue now, but it is going to be yours later,” Harvey said.

The case was a dark revelation for him. During an interview last spring at his parents’ home, Harvey vividly recalled those police stops, but it was only after prosecutors filed documents that he realized that police had documented each stop and taken detailed notes – about his tattoos, the colors he was wearing, where he was and the people he was with.

Each time, Harvey insisted that he was not affiliated with a gang. Still, he said, “you knew what the police considered you.”

Harvey now knows that information like that gathered about him routinely is fed into CalGang. That data – according to documents and interviews with law enforcement officials, attorneys and academics – frequently plays a role in arrests, inclusion in civil gang injunctions, deportations and criminal investigations.

The secrecy around CalGang and the loose criteria for inclusion in the database terrifies Harvey.

“It’s like a virus that you have, that you don’t know you have, and you’re spreading it to other people,” he said of gang classification. “(Someone) infected me with this disease; now I have it, and there’s no telling how many other people I have infected.”

Keep reading.


Humane Education, a trauma-informed elective class and an after school program at Bunche Middle School in Compton, puts kids in charge of training rescue dogs to boost their likelihood of finding permanent homes. The program run by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA) aims to heal kids’ trauma and help them get the most out of their time at school. Students use positive reinforcement obedience training to make dogs more adoptable, and learn empathy, conflict resolution, and other social skills along the way.

But advocates say kids in Compton need more programs and support to help address trauma and toxic stress that disrupts learning and comes from living in violence-plagued neighborhoods.

A lawsuit filed in last year alleges that Compton schools, instead of treating trauma as a disability, respond to traumatized kids by suspending, expelling, and sending them to different schools. The lawsuit on behalf of eight Compton students alleges these practices are in violation of federal law. If the lawsuit prevails, the school district would have to provide training for teachers, mental health services for students, and employ conflict-resolution as a first line of action before considering suspension.

Compton school officials argue that offering more trauma-informed services to students is impossible without more money.

KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has more on the program and the issue of trauma in schools. Here’s a clip:

“[The students are] able to come and work with their partner and their dog in a very non-judgmental environment and they’re able to kind of relax,” said Bunche teacher (and part-time dog trainer) Rachel Worthington. “It just helps remove all the other chaos that’s going on. When they’re here and working with their dog and they get to see the progress their dog is making, it really makes them feel successful.”

Worthington partnered with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA) to bring this afterschool program, called Teaching Love and Compassion, to Bunche in 2010. And this year, for the first time, spcaLA partnered with the school to expand the program into the school day through a new one-semester elective class at Bunche called “Humane Education.”

These kinds of grassroots efforts in Compton to help students learn social and emotional skills are springing up in the absence of what advocates say are badly-needed, much more widespread changes to school curriculum to help counterbalance the effects of trauma on learning.

Last year, public interest lawyers sued Compton Unified School District on behalf of students there, arguing that the district is not doing enough to counteract complex trauma among students. Unaddressed, they said, the trauma is preventing students from receiving a quality education.

The lawsuit cites studies that demonstrate that the “alarms” that trauma triggers in the body induces a fight or flight reaction that floods the body with adrenaline, expecting other threats. The alarm could also cause a freeze and surrender reaction that leads the body to tune out and disconnect. Both types of reactions undermine the memorization, comprehension and organizational skills necessary for effective learning.

Research shows that multiple three or more traumatic experiences lead some children to repeat a grade, miss school, have behavioral problems and be suspended — all of which in turn contribute to higher dropout rates.

In Compton, where the poverty rate is twice the national average and the murder rate is five times the national average, lawyers argue that trauma has caused an educational crisis.

At Bunche, Worthington said, those statistics mean that the pre-teens and teenagers at the school have seen “a lot of gang-related traumas, death of family members, shootings, loss of family members from shootings, a lot of divorce, a lot of abuse.”

Worthington reached out to spcaLA to start the program at Bunche after a sad incident prompted her and other teachers to ask what they could do to counter students’ aggressive behavior that they believed was rooted in the violence they’ve witnessed at home and in their neighborhoods.

A sick, stray dog had wandered onto the campus, Worthington said, so she put out a blanket outside her class for the dog to lay on. Students then told her that a group of kids had been kicking the dog and when she went outside the dog was dead.

spcaLA’s after-school program was founded two decades ago, initially as an attempt to stop that kind of cruelty to animals, but organizers say they noticed benefits for the students too.

Many of the teens said they enrolled because they like dogs.

“It’s really sad for me to see dogs in the shelter, so I just want to see them adopted,” said seventh-grader Adriana Ruiz as she rewarded the dog Gracie with a treat for sitting when commanded to do so.

But Ruiz also said that she’s working on raising two C grades, a task that she said is complicated by her surroundings.

“Gangs… don’t help me concentrate on my work because I’m always thinking about the stuff that happens to people, drive-bys, a lot of killing, that type of stuff, it puts me down,” she said.


  • You wrote “For adults it’s impossible to be removed from the database.” Please tell me where you got that information from because it is not correct…

  • I think it’s a shame that these losers get money for training so they can get jobs. What a waste of money. Those gangsters don’t want to do what’s right. A bunch of low lifes.

  • In response to “IntheKnow”, you can come to a public platform and make such allegations hiding behind a screen name that clearly doesn’t apply to you. If you had any semblance of knowledge, experience, and/or empathy for this marginalized group, you wouldn’t make such general statements about a group of people you probably don’t know much about. It’s quite comical, your ignorance and bigotry is clearly conveyed in a few written words. Continue to hide behind your little screen because you’re NOT in the know! Anyone can talk. What have you lived?

  • The response of 2.Intheknow is typical of suburbanites who know only textbook scenarios and right wing political agendas.

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