by Don Queen, OLLI member

No doubt you have heard or read about California’s costly, overcrowded and inhumane prison system. It is in the news almost every day. While California once led the nation in prison reform with indeterminate sentencing, diminished capacity and rehabilitative services, the courts, the voters, and the legislature have substituted fixed sentencing, outlawed diminished capacity as a defense, and initiated the controversial Three Strikes law.

For a better understanding of these issues, OLLI is offering a class this winter called “Punishment and Crime: The California Prison System” with Claudia Belshaw, B.A., and M.P.A. in Justice Administration.

She has taught classes for OLLI at SFSU and Dominican University.

As a retired associate warden at San Quentin State Prison with over thirty years experience, she has an insider knowledge and understanding of the situation.

When asked how she got into the corrections field, she said that on the advice of a friend, she applied for a job in corrections and she was hired as a correctional officer at Soledad Prison in 1978. However, it proved to be a greater challenge than she had anticipated. As it happened, Soledad, a men’s institution, had just begun to introduce women into its staff as part of a systemwide gender integration of employees. "I was one of three or four females who worked inside Soledad." Neither the inmates, staff, or administration were used to seeing women on the premises. "The harassment was huge" and it was a harrowing time especially as "I was born and raised in Berkeley and a UC Berkeley graduate who had studied Women’s Studies." I dealt with it the best I could. She transferred to San Quentin in 1981 working as a corrections officer, followed by a variety of positions in several institutions and eventually as manager of the San Quentin Reception Center. She says that it still was twenty years before women were accepted into management positions.

Claudia Belshaw’s insider’s background will provide the class with the opportunity to examine the historic and philosophic as well as demographic background behind punishment and crime in California. She will visit its hidden financial and social costs utilizing little known, financial and statistical documents of the Department of Corrections. The class will review the impact of the courts, voter initiative, the legislature, and the Correctional Peace Officers Association on the day-to-day operations of a prison, sentencing, overcrowding, and health care. California's death penalty dilemma will be presented by the former warden of San Quentin, Jeanne Woodford, who is current Director of Death Penalty Focus.

The segment on prison culture on the inside and out--the link between prison and street crime--will examine some of the controversies from George Jackson to the super-max prison at Pelican Bay.

Finally, a section entitled "Prison Realignment the Ins and Outs of SB 109, Public Safety Nightmare or Restoration of Justice" will be a discussion of a new law which shifts non-violent inmates of state prisons to the counties. A possible solution? Come join us on Thursday afternoons and make up your own mind.