A product of a dysfunctional family, Dolores Canales started cycling in and out of jail as a teenager, her demons leading to drug abuse and petty crimes.
Each time she was released in that more than 20-year chapter of her life, she recalls receiving little or no support, prompting repeated relapses once she was on the street.
But the 56-year-old Fullerton resident has been clean for 14 years and is now part of a statewide grassroots movement to not only provide more support for those who are in prison or just getting out, but also to put an end to a decades-long jail and prison building boom.
She is an organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget [CURB], a non-profit advocacy group with offices in Inglewood and Oakland, which is seeking to redirect state funding away from jails and toward rehabilitation and educational facilities for former inmates.
Recently,Canales completed an 18-month fellowship funded by financier George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. As part of her work, she created a database of about 500 contacts for a Family Unity Network [FUN] of those with incarcerated relatives.
Through outreach at jails or prisons, they offer education and advocacy to families to challenge “mass incarceration and extreme punishment.”
“We are trying to organize a framework for a larger organization to grow in Orange County and beyond,” said Canales — who has a personal stake in the issue with her son serving a 25 years-to-life sentence at Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California.
Last month, a coalition of CURB and associated advocates achieved their most significant victory to date when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to reject $80 million in state funds to rebuild a municipal jail.
A Street Battle
The group is active in Orange County and holds meetings at Cal State Fullerton, pizza parlors or religious organizations, like the Well of Life Church in Placentia.
But Canales acknowledges that CURB still has a relatively low profile locally and has not gained traction with the county’s political establishment, which, in some respects, befuddles her given its ideological aversion to government spending.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “I tell people about the Family Unity Network, and my friends — many of whom are conservative — support me.”
While Californians voters in 2014 approved Proposition 47, which reduced prison sentences for minor drug offenses and other non-violent crimes, advocates like those at CURB have found turning the political tide like a street battle from one region to another.
In San Francisco, officials had applied for and been granted the funds in November by the California Board of State and Community Corrections in Sacramento. But the votes changed quickly in the face of the coalition’s campaign.
David Campos, a San Francisco supervisor for seven years, called the vote “an historic moment” — adding that bringing the jail proposal “to a dead stop seemed far fetched when they first started.”
Countering Long-Held Beliefs
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department sought $36 million in the same round of state funding, but its application to rebuild part of the county’s jail Intake Release Center in Santa Ana came in last, killing any chance of funding for that project in the near future.
The pitch was a $40 million project to upgrade two floors of health and mental facilities, portraying it as an enhancement of services for the incarcerated.
San Francisco couched its jail project in the same terms, as they sought the state funds, officials say.
But CURB officials say this is the opposite of what counties should be doing.
“One of the most alarming features of these jail expansion projects is they are being promoted as ways to improve conditions for incarcerated people,” said Lizzie Buchen, a San Francisco activist who works with CURB. “But no matter how they advertised, jails harm people, tear apart families and weaken communities.
She added that jail projects also eat up money that could be spent on education, housing and health care.
But CURB and their coalition of local groups face a significant task to get Orange County government officials to reconsider their views.
When Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens was asked about CURB’s goal, she responded through a spokesman that inmates have told them they want to be jailed.
“Many of the inmates we have spoken to have indicated the importance and necessity to be locked up as a means of stabilization and beginning the transition process to rehabilitation,” a statement read. “We are advocates for transition and an overlap of incarceration and rehabilitation.”
This response stunned supporters of Prop. 47.
“That’s seems very strange to me, as I’ve never met anyone who wanted to be incarcerated,” said Mario J. Novoa, a video documentarian who is fighting the burgeoning prison industry in Adelanto, a high desert community in San Bernardino County.
Raised in the area, the 40-year-old returned several years ago to be close to his family, then became involved in what he calls “squashing apathy” among those who often have difficulty making time for civic involvement between jobs and family.
“We have developed a strong alliance here now,” Novoa said, adding it has attracted activists and students from as far as UC Irvine to join demonstrations.
“We are all for civic engagement. We are hoping more residents will be involved. We want them to have a voice before it is too late, and the prison industrial complex keeps growing.”
In Orange County, even having a dialogue on CURB concepts is difficult. Outgoing supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer did not return a reporters’ calls for comment.
In his proposed budget, Gov. Jerry Brown has included another $250 million allotment for new jail projects.
San Bernardino County is seen as a continuing battleground over such construction.
“It is clear the best treatment and education cannot happen in jail,” said Rosie Flores of the California Partnership and the Riverside Alternatives to Jail Expansion Coalition, which work with CURB.
“Our hope is that Prop. 47 savings…will go to the out-of-custody services that are a vital step toward building healthy communities.”
Diana Zuniga, CURB’s co-coordinator in the Inglewood office, said they are a grass roots organization that serves as a resource for such local groups.
“We help local advocates find resources to fight jail expansions,” she said. “We know how to lead coalitions to stronger and healthier communities. There are so many other things to do other than funnel money into jail blooms sheriffs are promoting.”
Although her Soros fellowship expired in December, Canales said she will continue organizing thanks to a grant she received from a local organization. Her work will include fighting gang injunctions imposed by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
Rex Dalton can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.