By Nancy Price
Record Staff Writer
Published Monday, February 10, 2003
Families of California prison inmates now have a louder voice in talking to the Department of Corrections about collect phone-call charges, medical care and the nutritional value of prison meals.
Corrections Director Edward Alameida Jr. has directed the state's prisons to start Family Councils that will serve as a liaison between inmate family members and the prison.
Department officials have been meeting since 1999 with a statewide Family Council that was established by then-Director C.A. "Cal" Terhune after hearing from state legislators with concerns about the impact of prison policies on inmates' families.
Stockton resident Margie Palermo, whose son is serving a life sentence at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, was one of the founding members of the Family Council.
Council members have included a city manager, a mayor and a federal defense attorney, Palermo said, adding with a laugh, "It's a distinguished group -- I feel kind of like Orphan Annie."
While victims' advocacy organizations have attained a more-prominent role in recent years, inmates' relatives were largely ignored by the department until the Family Council was established, she said.
"I think our voices have been more effective. I think they really do listen," she said. "This is unique. This is new territory for all of us."
Initially, Corrections Department officials seemed less than receptive to the issues raised by the Family Council members, but after several years of frank discussions, the council and the department have achieved a measure of mutual trust and respect, Palermo said.
"It's a proud feeling knowing we can communicate in such depth with the administration," she said. "No topic is off-limits."
The Family Council has discussed the nutritional value of inmate meals, advocating for "heart healthy" servings, and also has lobbied for improvements in family notification when an inmate is stricken ill and hospitalized, Palermo said.
Alameida decided to expand the concept of Family Councils when it became apparent that some issues raised in the quarterly meetings with Corrections administrators were specific to a single prison and might be addressed at the local level, Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.
Last year the department established pilot Family Councils at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla and California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in Lancaster, Thornton said.
The success of the pilot Family Councils encouraged the department to expand the program statewide, she said.
Palermo was one of the first appointments made by Deuel Warden Claude Finn to the prison's Inmate Family Council, which will hold its first meeting Feb. 27.
Deuel's Inmate Family Council will consist of five family members of inmates, four alternates who are also family members of inmates and Tom Vander Wal, chairman of the Deuel Citizens Advisory Committee and an ex officio member of the Family Council.
Establishing and improving communications between the public -- in this case, inmate family members -- and the prison is the goal of Deuel's Family Council, Finn said.
"All we're doing is communicating, not kowtowing," he said. "We're sharing information about what we do and why we do it."
Finn noted that he previously recognized the importance of giving family members a voice by appointing Palermo to the Citizens Advisory Committee.
Giving family members a means to weigh in on prison policies and proposals may not only ease tensions within prisons, but help inmates maintain close family ties that can give them a better chance for a successful parole, the warden said.
"Incarceration costs lots of money, and we don't want more victims of crime," he said.
* To reach reporter Nancy Price, phone 546-8276 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org