Answering the eyeglass critics

March 13, 2012

Robert Thomas


Upon reviewing the responses to my editorial regarding the lack of optometric treatment provided to prisoners at the California Men’s Colony (CMC), I feel  compelled to make a few comments and provide some facts.

First, I admit that the way I chose to donate eyeglasses to the students I teach in my GED Test preparation program at CMC West was wrong.

Even though my only reason for doing so was to enable my students to complete their academic work, I circumvented the appropriate procedures for donating materials to the institution and should have gone through the proper channels to do so.  But I have tried for years to bring attention to the needs of inmates with vision impairments who are assigned to education programs.

The optometrist at CMC West, as was mentioned in the article, is only available four hours per week during which time he treats an average of 32 inmates for approximately 7.5 minutes each. As a result, inmates spend as many as nine months sitting in a classroom unable to do their schoolwork due to their inability to gain access to optometric services, a circumstance which would be considered intolerable by an average public citizen.

Secondly, if the concern is that the eyeglasses should be viewed as “weapon stock,” then the CMC administration is guilty of knowingly allowing eyeglasses to be sold through the inmate commissary for approximately twelve dollars a pair and to be distributed by the prison medical department. In fact, eye wear is not considered to be contraband inside the prison, nor have I ever heard of a pair of eyeglasses being used to manufacture a lethal weapon. But, even though corrective eye wear can be purchased by inmates, many have no financial support from friends and family members and have no means of earning money while in prison.

In addition, I fully understand the resentment felt by average public citizens who must pay for their own health care while inmates are provided medical services free of charge.  Nonetheless, once a prisoner is incarcerated in one of California’s state prisons, he or she becomes a ward of the state and the state assumes a legal obligation to maintain the physical well-being of the inmate and provide health services when required.
Failure of the California Department of Corrections in the past to provide adequate medical care for inmates has resulted in the expenditure of thousands of tax dollars for lawsuits brought by prison inmates against the state of California, which has resulted in federal court-ordered improvements in the medical treatment of prisoners and ultimately, the placement of the CDCR medical system under federal receivership. Two of the most notable examples are Coleman vs. Wilson (1992) and Armstrong vs. Davis (2001).

Members of the public may not realize that most convicts have not committed violent crimes that warrant long prison terms. To emphasize this point, of a total of 11,200,000 crimes that were prosecuted in the United States during 2008, approximately 87.5% were property crimes that did not involve acts of violence; whereas, 12. 5% were listed as aggravated assaults, robberies, forcible rapes, or murders (Federal Bureau of Investigations, September 2009).

In addition, the U.S. Sentencing Commission surveyed 77,000 U.S. prisoners in 2008 and determined that their average period of incarceration was approximately 50 months (Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, 2008). Consequently, most prisoners return to the communities in which they were arrested after serving only a few years of incarceration, making the problem of how to prevent them from re-offending and returning to prison of paramount concern.

The current annual cost to house prisoners in a California state prison is more than $50,000 per inmate. Therefore, the most obvious direct benefit the taxpayer can receive by funding education programs is realized through the cost savings  generated by the kinds of early release incentive laws  that have been passed by the Indiana and California legislatures. The California prison system permits inmates to earn as much as six weeks off of their prison sentence per year by making gains in education.

In terms of prisoner recidivism, a study conducted by the Indiana Department of Corrections determined that prisoners who completed education courses in the 2008-2009 school year reduced their sentences by a total of 1.3 million days, resulting in a savings of $68 million (Steurer, Linton, Nally, & Lockwood, 2010). The Three State Recidivism Study– carried out in the states of Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio in 1997–revealed that every dollar spent on prison education programs resulted in a cost savings of two tax dollars (Steurer, Smith, & Tracy, 2001).

Furthermore, the study tracked more than 3600 former prisoners for up to three years following their incarceration. Among the findings was that those who participated in an education program while in prison were up to 29 percent less likely to return to prison.

Research that was conducted in 1994 by the state of Texas penal system revealed the following concerning inmates who went to school while in prison: Those who graduated from a GED program or finished a vocational training program were 20 percent less likely to re-offend; only 13.7 percent of those who achieved an associates of arts degree returned to prison; just 5.6 percent of prisoners who earned a baccalaureate were rearrested; as few as .1 percent of those who attained a master’s degree ended up back in jail (Epowiki, 2008).

There is no guarantee that any individual prisoner will automatically transform into a law-abiding citizen simply by becoming better educated academically or by learning a vocational trade.

However, without the opportunity and means for change, no improvement can be expected of those who want to leave their criminal lifestyles behind and become constructive members of mainstream society, instead of outcasts who continually return to prison as a perpetual financial burden for law-abiding tax-payers. Otherwise, prisons represent nothing more than human warehouses that cost as much as $60 billion a year to operate in the United States and schools of crime in which those who are incarcerated for non-violent felonies become heavily influenced by hardened career criminals.

To complicate the issue, 67 percent of prisoners are rearrested and 52 percent return to jail within three years after being paroled from a U.S. penal institution (Gibbons & Katzenbach, 2010). Hence, the purpose of correctional education is to provide learning experiences designed not only to address academic and vocational competency, but that also promote changes in mentality, leading to subsequent alterations in behavior. To this end, the prison classroom offers the best opportunity to achieve the overall goal.

However, if they can’t read, prisoners are essentially prevented from learning, teachers can’t do the job they are hired to do, and tax payers are forced to bear a greater burden than necessary.

Robert Thomas is a teacher at the California Men’s Colony.

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Here’s how it generally goes….

Inmate A asks staff to bring in eyeglasses. The staff member, seeing no harm in this, brings in the glasses. Inmate B notices this and asks staff to bring in a cell phone. Staff refuses. Inmate B threatens to rat out staff on the glasses if he doesn’t bring in the cell phone. Staff relents. Then Inmate C gets involved.

I’ve literally seen this happen dozens of times. It always ends the same… with staff getting fired and the inmate getting locked up.

Lasik surgery in Templeton, really! So now eyeglasses are not good enough, they want the Lasik surgery which the average citizen paying taxes, which pays for law enforcement, courts, judges, prisons, cannot even think about financially. Yes, this is a heart warming story! Costco has glasses, 3 to a pack and these should be dispensed until these newly “educated” folks can get out and get a job since they won’t be re-entering the “system”.

So you knowingly circumvented prison security because you felt that the rules were silly and you were looking after the best interest of the inmates. Fair enough.

Using this school of thought, I’m sure you have inmates complain about the high cost of collect phone calls home. I’m sure the calls are a huge financial burden on the inmates family. What harm could come of bringing in a cell phone for them to call Grandma? It’s for the betterment of the inmates well being. Yeah… the prison has rules about this, but what harm could it do? Especially if you disagree…

What about tobacco? Tobacco is legal and many inmates go through withdrawals while incarcerated. Hey.. it’s legal on the streets….. bring it in! What if an inmate needs a medication that isn’t available at CMC? It’s for his benefit…. What the heck.

Hasn’t the “Nothing in…. Nothing out” rule been hammered into you since you first started? Don’t you go to annual training where they again remind you that you will be fired if you bring anything in to give to inmates? How do you still have a job? People have been walked off grounds for far less.

The inmates have you targeted as “weak” and know that you will circumvent the safety and security of the institution if you don’t agree with the rules.

A slippery slope, indeed.


Our world is full of slippery places. But that doesn’t mean everyone is constantly falling down them. Slippery slopes are usually quite easy to avoid or even traverse safely is one has any sense of balance.

Secondly, unless you are presently incarcerated, I don’t think you can rightly speak for the inmates and tell us what they are thinking or what regard they have for Mr. Thomas.

Get real, please.

No, Wiseguy… I’m not presently incarcerated.

However, I am retired after spending 30 years working at CMC. I saw very nice people get walked off grounds in tears for what you might consider the most minor infractions. I’ve seen people lose their livelihood after being set up by inmates. It always starts with something small.

I have no doubt that Mr. Thomas is a fine man and a good teacher. I’m just shocked at his hubris for attempting to justify knowingly circumventing prison rules. Trust me… he was fortunate to keep his job. If I was him, I would be quietly counting my blessings.

OK, Pizmo, rules are there for a purpose.

But, respecting your years employed at CMC, do you think there is a chance that some inmates might now respect Mr. Thomas MORE, now that he has risked his job and challenged a rule for the sake of the inmates?

ANY possibility? I just happen to think that things are not always so simple or black and white as others make them to be.

There is such a thing as civil disobedience and many fine American’s have made a strong case for it. But it is a complex issue as to where to draw the line at right or wrong.

Hey Wiseguy;

Trust me… I’m all for civil disobedience. I protested against Diablo in 79(?), I marched for the release of Nelson Mandela in the 80’s… Things are not black and white…. Until you get to something like a prison. In prison, everything is black and white… sadly, it has to be.

I saw someone lose their job for bring in a baseball schedule. When you agree to work at CMC, you sign documents stating you will never give anything to an inmate. Once a year, you go to classes where they brainwash you on one thing. If you bring in anything to give to inmates, you will be fired. Right or wrong, that’s what you signed on for.

OK, Pizmo, fair enough. But if you understand the prison system so well, instead of denigrating this gentleman and his good intentions, perhaps you could help, or give tips on how we get the prison to provide decent eye care, which includes reading glasses, for the prisoners.

I realize that you have worked where the solution to so many problems is punishment and chastisement, but there may be other, more effective courses of action, to deal with this situation.

What do YOU suggest? Anything helpful? Or just more of the same?

Geez, Wiseguy….. You seem to assume a lot about me. You’re pretty far off. I could just as easily assume the hostility in your post and your past anti law enforcement posts point to the fact that you’ve more then likely had a little trouble with the law. Of course, such assumptions would be silly.

I’m still trying to find the part of my posts where I was “denigrating” Mr. Thomas. I called him a good man and a fine teacher. It’s obvious he has passion for his profession.

I’m not going to rehash my previous posts. Actually, you’ve got to kind of have a begrudging respect for someone that commits a fireable offense and then posts two articles trashing the employer that gave him a slap on the wrist and let him keep his job. At least the guy is standing by his convictions.

I didn’t mean to upset you, PIzmo. And I’m not sure what “assumptions” on my part you are referring to. What is it that I’ve gotten incorrect?

And what is this “hostility” you speak of?

I do stand by my statement that your postings have denigrated Mr. Thomas. You were certainly talking down to him in your initial posting. Among other things, you said Mr. Thomas is not considered “weak’ by inmates. I suggest that may not be true.

I am suggesting that you offer something constructive to the discussion by telling us, based on your experience at CMC, how best for citizens to encourage CMC to provide adequate eye care, including reading glasses, to inmates. But perhaps you don’t have any solutions.

Perhaps it is unresponsiveness among some CMC employees that left Mr. Thomas feeling it was necessary to circumvent rules, something that i agree with you is problematic.

But certainly there should be some legal way of getting reading glasses to needy inmates.

I never claimed to have all the answers… I do know that the way Mr Thomas is going about it (bringing in glasses despite the rules. writing articles against CMC on CCN) is not the right way.As others have stated, there is a procedure to go through. If I was him, I’d go through the chain of command. Start at the bottom and if you don’t like the answer, work your way up. Sure, you step on a few toes but you also get results.

My statement about Mr Thomas being perceived as weak by some inmates for his actions is not a judgement by me but merely fact. This is not to say that all inmates are “bad” or looking to “get over”. Most just want to do their time and get out. But it only takes a few to jeopardize the career of a well meaning, yet naive, employee.

Last week I was over a that Deli across from Twin Cities Hospital enjoying a cup. Two state vans pulled up with CMC guards escorting prisoners into the LASIC eye Doctors offfice. WTF?? Why? Why North County? Why off prison grounds? If they are getting free LASIC, I will consider going to prision. What a waste!!!

At no time do you mention two people whose jobs cover these very problems.Those being the Chief Medical Officer and ( Thanks to the Medical Receiver) the Associate/Warden over Health Care.There was/is the Men’s advisory council formed by the Inmates themselves not to mention the grievance process availed to them.You had plenty to work with within the confines of the prison.What gives?

The problem as I see it is the complete incapability of our society to determine what punishment is. If we as a society wish to punish people that break the laws then there needs to be an agreement of what that punishment actually is. If we on the other hand wish to reeducate and redirect criminals away from their behavior then we need to agree on what that means. What we have now is a big lie, Judges imposing sentences that mean nothing, incarceration that by itself does not dissuade criminals from recidivism and reeducation that is ineffective and too limited.

What would happen if all sentences were cut in half but spent entirely at hard labor with no comforts for the first half, then rigorous education for the second with mandatory probation at an assigned/ supervised employment? There must be some better ideas out there besides the out of sight out of mind menality we have now that only benefits the prison factories.

There has been far more punishment then there has been crime.

Excellent post!

“Among the findings was that those who participated in an education program while in prison were up to 29% less likely to return to prison.” So 69% are LIKELY to return to prison, be a ward of the State, and have the taxpayer fully fund their incarceration?

Oops, my math was slower than my typing. I meant 61%. Sorry!

What it means Danika, is that providing education is one of the best ways to lessen the amount of crime and the number of people incarcerated.

Education saves lives, saves communities and saves money in the long run.

Providing decent eye care and eye glasses is not terribly expensive and well-worth it for numerous reasons, not the least of all because it is simply “the right thing to do.”

As a person who must wear glasses to read and work on the computer, I certainly appreciate the need for eyeglasses. My comment was not directed to the need for glasses. Thank you for the insight though.

Thank you Mr. Thomas. You are a very wise and compassionate man whose efforts ARE certainly appreciated by those inside AND outside CMC.

Too many of our citizens seem to confuse incarceration with torture and abuse and wish to combine all three, having the absurdly false notion that will bring greater peace and safety to our community. Please do not let those perverse notions dissuade you from your good and wise work.

“Too many of our citizens seem to confuse incarceration with torture and abuse and wish to combine all three, having the absurdly false notion that will bring greater peace and safety to our community”.

Well said!