California Budget Juvenile Justice Prison Prison Policy

Dreams From the Monster Factory: Hope for America’s Prisons


The California budget cuts seem to get more draconian hourly.
(Do we really think it’s a good idea to slash nearly all of LAUSD’s summer school programs? Really? I mean, really???)

And on Wednesday, after spending the morning observing a case that was unfolding at Eastlake Juvenile Court, I began to wonder, not so briefly, if a good portion of those working in LA County’s juvenile justice system were actively psychotic. (It’s a story that will have to wait until later.)

But last night, all at once, a moment of blessed sanity
broke through the bad, sad, cloudy thinking that too often these days seem to dictate public policy. It came in the form of a review in the June 11 issue of the New York Review of Books.

The book in question is titled Dreams from the Monster Factory: A Tale of Prison, Redemption and One Woman’s Fight to Restore Justice to All. Its author is Sunny Schwartz. The reviewer’s name is Helen Epstein.

(Prior to reading the piece, I had never heard of either of these women
, but now I may have to find a way to be friends with both of them.)

The review opens as follows:

America’s prison system is in a dire state.
Some 2.3 million people in this country are now behind bars, five times more than in 1978. Our incarceration rate is now higher than that of any other country in the world. Many, if not most, inmates probably should not be there. Sixteen percent of the adult prison population suffers from mental illness and should be in treatment; a similar fraction is made up of children under eighteen. Although there is little evidence that blacks are more likely to use drugs than whites, they are six times more likely to be imprisoned on drug-related charges. Of those, most have no history of violence or drug dealing, and were arrested mainly for possession of drugs.

Sexual and other forms of abuse in prison are common, reported by some 20 percent of inmates. These “monster factories,” as the lawyer and author Sunny Schwartz calls them, do little to break the cycle of violence in society and may even accelerate it. Roughly two thirds of those released from US jails and prisons end up back inside within three years. Some studies suggest that the experience of imprisonment can be so brutal and humiliating that it actually makes men, in particular, harder and meaner, so that the crimes they commit the next time around are even worse than what got them incarcerated in the first place.

Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is currently sponsoring a bill that would create a commission to review America’s entire criminal justice system and make recommendations for reform. If the bill passes, its commissioners should bear in mind a small experiment that took place in the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, California, some years ago. This project, the subject of Sunny Schwartz’s brief, absorbing memoir Dreams from the Monster Factory, is important not just because it dramatically reduced recidivism, but also because it could help break the tired stalemate between liberals and conservatives over punishment versus rehabilitation.

Schwartz’s program at San Bruno came to be called the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project, or RSVP. In addition to providing eduction and other programs, the heart of RSVP was rooted in the the idea of “restorative justice.”

Contemporary justice in the United States is largely based on the idea of retribution, and relies primarily on punishment. Restorative justice, as Schwartz explains it, is based on the concept prevalent in more traditional societies that offenders must also try to repair, as far as possible, the harm they have caused others. In order to do this, offenders must first confront what they have done, and then make amends to their families, their communities, and, if possible, their victims as well. Schwartz writes that she very soon came to believe that restorative justice could be a means of transforming these men from chronic offenders into productive members of their communities.

The first step, persuading the San Bruno inmates to face up to their own violent behavior, would be the most difficult….

Epstein writes much, much more--both about Schwartz’s program and the issue in general, including things like the work of Harvard’s James Gilligan, who in the 1980’s was in charge of mental health services in the Massachusetts prisons, where he theorized (with remarkable results) that much of the violence perpetrated by the inmates he studied was “shame-based.”

Anyway, just read it.
It’s smart, wise, true. —and information that is in desperate need of being taken seriously, in California and nationwide—but particularly in our fair state as Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his haze of fury and frustration, pushes for all rehabilitative programs to be dropped from California prisons altogether—a move that, no matter how tight our purse strings must now be tied, is a short-sighted and reckless way to build a future.


  • Thanks for putting this together.
    The review by Epstein was fabulous.
    Looking forward to reading the book.

  • J.Edgar Hoover Says:
    May 30th, 2009 at 8:35 am
    “Justice is incedental to law and order”

    “But a straight hemline is crucial”.

  • As a young teenager, I would steal my mothers panties and nylons out of the laundry hamper. This was quite normal and is not a sickness. Many young boys and men have the same fascination with female scent and underclothes. It is part of our primal programming. Many powerful men in history have had a fascination with womens clothing. We are not gay. It is our balance point for our strong male energy. Myself, Dick Morris, Manuel Noriega, Kenneth Hagin, Jimmy Swaggert, and John (SHO’ ME THE MENU) Hagee are a small example.

  • Don’t get me started on the Juvenile justice system.

    I worked at Eastlake for a year. ‘Success’ there is measured in single digit percentages of ‘minors’ who actually are rehabilitated. The vast majority are, sadly, already hopelessly entrenched into a world of gangs and drugs long before their first appearance in Juvi Court.

    I can say, however, that Eastlake is to the Juvi system, what the central criminal court building is to the adult system – the worst of the worst. Other Juvi courts are not quite as bad. Overall, however, it seems to me that the Juvi system kicks in way too late in the decline of a kid.

    Schools ignore red flags and a financially disinclined to remove troublemakers who then become empowered and eventually do something bad enough to warrant removal to another school, where it only gets worse.

    The vast majority of the parents of these kids haven’t a clue about raising kids, and are all too often embroiled in criminal activity themselves. The number of kids who have a parent or parents involved themselves in the criminal justice system is very telling.

    If the people you saw working in the system appeared to be “actively psychotic,” I’m not altogether surprised. Most start there in the hope that they can make a difference and save ‘at risk’ kids. The reality, however, is that whatever the Juvi system does, it’s generally too late. This becomes very disheartening.

    I am curious about one thing, though, juvenile proceedings are generally not open to the public, so I look forward to hearing about the rest of the story…

  • Jeebus, Celeste. I don’t know whether this belongs on this thread, or the previous one… except, by eliminating all of these programs, you’re bound to need more jails.

    If shuttering state parks was the only thing we in California had to worry about, it would be bad enough. But that really only scratches the surface. Among the measures Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed, with little resistance from Democrats, include:

    • Eliminating the entire welfare-to-work program, CalWorks
    • Eliminating the entire Healthy Families program, which is California’s version of SCHIP. So the whole program that the Congress expanded early this year would be dismantled. California would be the only state in the nation without an SCHIP program.
    • Eliminating the entire higher education aid grants program, Cal Grants.
    • A 5% reduction in salary on top of previous 10% reductions for every single state employee.
    • Eliminating funding for prescription drug help for AIDS patients.
    • Education cuts that will lead to canceling all summer school programs in Los Angeles County, for example.

    And that’s just a portion. As the California Budget Project explains, 1.9 million Californians could lose their health care coverage as a result of these cuts….

    California has now redefined the concept of draconian.

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