Making positive changes to the criminal justice system is difficult. It’s not for a lack of good ideas; it’s the systemic failure to implement good ideas and I believe most of this is due to culture.
Case and point: I’m going to give you a summary of the policies, personnel and processes in place designed to correct and rehabilitate prisoners. And then, I’m going to let you in on the reality of how it works or how it does not work.
OK, so when you first get to prison, you are “mapped” into a Case Action Plan (CAP). This is a prioritized report of the areas you need to work on as well as a roadmap to do so. Here’s an example: If your number one CAP priority is drugs and alcohol, then you must attend a yearlong drug and alcohol treatment program. Your next might be education, and, in that case, you are required to get your high school diploma as well as be able to test at a basic adult level.
You are assigned a caseworker, based on your housing unit, whose job it is to work with you and monitor your progress and to, most importantly, give feedback to the Board of Pardons (BOP) so that they may make an informed decision when it comes to your release.
This all sounds reasonable. It makes sense given the philosophy behind Utah’s indeterminate sentencing, which is to have flexibility on release dates based on productivity, good behavior, remorse, restitution and all that good stuff.
Here’s how it works in reality. On your first day, as you are processed in, you sit down with some guy who is supposed to interview you to determine your CAP. The guy barely spoke to me as I sat in front of him for all of a minute while he typed on his computer. He had my charges pulled up to assist him, but other than that, I know he just made stuff up. I’m not going to go into the details, but my CAP had stuff on there that in no way applied to me -- and yet it governed how I would spend the next few years.
Now let me tell you my experience with caseworkers.
My first caseworker in Gunnison was the one who had to generate a report about me to the Board of Pardons. She simply wrote, “Mr. Wood is attending classes and is CAP compliant.” It’s the same thing she wrote for every other prisoner who was doing what they were forced to. That is the extent of the report the BOP receives to help with their decision on how much time to give an individual.
There is a huge opportunity being wasted, and I promise the subpar report has nothing to do with caseworkers being too busy -- they just don’t do any more than they have to.
I don’t have to assume this because the caseworker I had during the drug program articulated exactly that to me. I went into his office and asked him if he would look something up on my plan for me. His answer surprised me in that he actually said it to me, but not in the message, because I had come to expect this level of hospitality. He said, “Let me tell you how this works. I will not lift a single finger to even type in your offender number into my computer until you go over my head and get my boss to make me do something. Until then, you’ve got nothing coming from me. Good luck.” And with that, I left his office.
I respected that guy more than the next caseworker I had to try and work with. I had just finished Snow College’s culinary arts school, which qualified me for a time cut. One of the few responsibilities a caseworker has is to notify the board when a prisoner completes a qualifying program – it takes all of 5 minutes. Of course, upon completion, I notified her. She seemed quite nice. She told me she saw that I had completed it and said she was forwarding the information along to the BOP.
I checked back with her about a week later and she said the decision had not yet been made. Two days after that, she called me into her office and told me the BOP secretary had called her and told her that I had been denied. I was skeptical because this was not normal operating procedure. Normally when there is a “special attention hearing” the BOP sends you a letter with their decision. I waited for that letter and it never came. I had another caseworker look to see if anything had ever been sent to the BOP and it had not.
The concerning part was that my caseworker had gone out of her way to lie to me. It would have been easier for her to just forward the info to the BOP than to go through the charade and call me back in and tell me sorry about my luck.
With that in mind, I waited seven months until I moved housing units to have a new caseworker submit it. That caseworker did and I received a time cut.
That other caseworker said he would love to see her get in trouble, but he said that would end poorly for me. He then made a joke about how an inmate who had pissed him off earlier in the week was waking up in Davis County Jail that morning. He was insinuating that he had him moved to the place that is recognized as the worst place to be as a state inmate. He was a decent guy, but as far as I could tell he was an outlier when it came to caseworkers.
My experience with caseworkers was not unique.
I don’t know why that caseworker lied to me and obviously didn’t want me to get out earlier. I do know she did the same thing to my cellie and he didn’t figure it out until he only had a week left and it was too late. We’re dealing with more than apathy here. Until there is a culture change and the people in place are on board with the idea of helping prisoners, the system will remain broken.