How might we change the way we rehabilitate knowing that the men and women will return to our own communities?

Echo Yard is breaking a mentality of what prison “should” be, and instead, challenges the men to adjust to an entirely diverse environment.

July 3, 2018 – Given that at least 95% of all men and women serving time in state prisons will be released at some point, how might the criminal justice system transform if we maintain a mentality that they could one day be our neighbors?

At California’s Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, 780 men recently transitioned to an experimental prison yard that lacks “normal” prison rules, and instead, aims to prepare the men in adjusting to any diverse community to which they will return. By banning racial segregation, gang affiliation, and transgender and sex offender segregation, Echo Yard confronts the assumptions of prison functioning. An inhabitant of Echo Yard, Mike Briggs, admits that “there’s so much diversity here, it’s a shock to the system…I am adjusting but it’s rough.” Rehabilitation is intended to be uncomfortable and difficult.

In addition to introducing diversity and challenging the stereotypes of prison functioning, Echo Yard also offers courses designed to rehabilitate and prepare for re-entry. Such courses include anger management, victim awareness, job hunting and money management preparation, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous. Many convicts react really well to this kind of help, with some even choosing to become a sponsor for AA and other communities in order to help others who are in the same position they were in, but drug addiction will always be a huge issue among offenders. It’s unfortunate that treatment is rarely a fast process either – drug withdrawal side effects such as nausea, vomiting, mood swings, and depression or anxiety can cause long term issues even after release. Those who continue to be affected by their dependency on certain substances may want to consider reaching out for assistance in treating their condition to help them recover a sense of normalcy in their lives – outpatient addiction treatment like that offered by Enterhealth is one such solution. In addition, inhabitants of Echo Yard participate in art and music groups, contribute to a newspaper, train service dogs, and enroll in academic courses. Men gain access to Echo Yard through good behavior, counselor recommendations, and a commitment to classes and jobs.

Spending time in prison puts one at a disadvantage with respect to finances, careers, relationships, and community involvement. A large lack of community support combined with a lack of preparation and rehabilitation within traditional prisons leaves those released from incarceration to bear the burden of reentry largely by themselves. Exorbitant recidivism rates reveal the daunting task of reentering a community once a person has been incarcerated. If those imprisoned are so quickly returning, then prisons are not adequately repairing the harm caused by crime. If this traditional system has proved its deficiencies, why not rethink our approach? Why not invest in our neighbors’ reentry now?

Though Echo Yard has not existed long enough to conclude its recidivism outcomes compared to traditional prisons, its emphasis on preparing for life on the outside is fundamentally unlike traditional prisons. By focusing on the humanity of its inhabitants, Echo Yard contributes to breaking the mentality of what prison has to look like, and instead proposes a “new normal” designed to prepare the people who are incarcerated for what lies ahead. We must embrace this opportunity to question, to rethink, to experiment with a “new normal”, and to encounter our neighbors.

Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, a prison in San Diego’s community, is releasing men that will return as our neighbors. Echo Yard, home to a fraction of these men, hopes that the neighbors it releases are better equipped to call our communities home.

Written by Megan Davey, a student from University of Notre Dame who interned in at California Innocence Project during the summer of 2018. Opinions belong to the intern and do not reflect the organization.