Words Fail

Euphemisms abound in the prison system


When the State of California held me prisoner 2002 to 2003, the name of the agency was the California Department of Corrections, or the CDC. Since then, for reasons unclear to me, the word “rehabilitation” has been added to create a new acronym, CDCR. Neither euphemism has any basis in reality.

Having had an inside view of San Quentin, Old Folsom and the adjacent Level 4 facility, New Folsom, I did not see any programs to correct what caused inmates to be sent to prison. Nor did I see any rehabilitation going on that would help the convicts gain legal employment once they were released.

We were told the guards were to be referred to as correctional officers, or COs. When I asked one of the guards about this months later, he gave me an honest answer, “Mariani, what about you being sent here would you like me to correct? They don’t train me to correct anything about you. I’m paid to guard you to make sure you don’t hurt someone or escape—the end. It says ‘CO’ on my shirt, but I’m paid to guard you, not to correct you.”

Another word that took on new meaning for me in prison was “absconding.” It was not a word that I had run into often until I was incarcerated. Most of the inmates were back in for their second, third or more time without committing a new crime. They had been out on parole and failed to show up for a scheduled visit to their parole office to pee in a cup for a drug test that they knew they would fail. That act of “absconding” would generate a warrant for their arrest. At state expense, whenever and wherever they were located, they were returned to prison.

A recent famous example of absconding is Sara Jane Olson, aka Soliah. She was part of the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s and indicted in February 1976 for planting bombs under police cars and for a bank holdup in Sacramento where a female customer was shot and killed. After she was found guilty, Sara absconded and was not located, rearrested and extradited to California until 23 years later in June of 1999.

She was recently released after serving her time. Yes, she was punished for what she admittedly did, and was guarded while in custody, but what was done to “correct” what she had done? When she was in custody, what was done to “rehabilitate” her?

Another CDCR euphemism is the “literacy program” at Old Folsom. The work assignment I obtained that earned my day-for-day halftime was as a literacy clerk. With a civilian credentialed teacher as my supervisor, I tested all new inmates to determine their grade-level reading ability. I trained volunteer inmate tutors and tutored inmates myself. While being held at Folsom, I read in the Sacramento Bee that the warden had bragged to her Rotary Club about how this program was helping to prepare inmates to find jobs when they were released so that they would not return to prison. However, out of the entire inmate population, there was only a budget for—and room in the Folsom library for—25 inmates. That number also included all one-on-one tutors. “Correction” and “rehabilitation” was being provided to 26 inmates, including myself.

I was released in 2003. Even with written recommendations from my civilian supervisor, I have not been able to get a job tutoring. “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” and “We will do a background check and require fingerprints” is as far as any of my applications have gone.


The CDCR does not train inmates how to be electricians, plumbers or painters. Inmates who already have these skills try to get work assignments to earn halftime and less than $1 an hour. To let you know how the CDCR values education, my literacy clerk job was an unpaid work assignment. It did however, earn me my halftime, which cut my two years sentence to 13 months served. There is something correct in that.  

Tom J. Mariani, a Santa Rosa resident and published freelance writer, has just completed 25 chapters of  ‘Impugn? What About Reasonable Doubt?’ which covers his 18-year career in bank management and 11 years in corporate risk-management, to a falsely accused two-strike felon.

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