A CDCR badge on the uniform of a corrections officer
Photo courtesy of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

Former California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Ralph Diaz helped changed state's rehabilitation process.

One of California’s biggest justice reform rulings took place in 2004, when the state legislature reorganized its Department of Corrections to include rehabilitation as part of its mission. Reversing decades of policy, the decision intended to foster a better balance between public safety and restorative justice. And it created a new name for the agency — the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

One of the figures involved in that change was Ralph Diaz, who served as CDCR secretary from 2018 until his retirement Oct. 1, 2020. The Solano Chronicle, a prison publication at California State Prison Solano, had an opportunity to talk with Diaz about those changes, the department’s evolution and his long-time career with the CDCR. 

Diaz told the Chronicle that, initially, he had no aspirations to become secretary. “I started working for the department when I was 21 years old,” he said. “Even then I was just glad to make it out of the academy.”

Then a significant turning point came in the mid-1990’s, when Diaz worked as a correctional officer at Tehachapi State Prison. It challenged him as an individual and required him to think about his job security, faith and choice of career. One day, he believed one of his inmate porters had a medical need, so Diaz made a call.

“After I did that, I was made to feel like I had done something wrong,” he said.

That feeling, Diaz said, stemmed from tension between the need for personal intervention and the department’s policy of over-familiarity. Diaz said the us-versus-them dynamic between correctional staff and the incarcerated is “partly due to the inability of staff not being able to be who they are.”

From that experience, Diaz felt that the department had an opportunity to refocus a person’s path. “There’s a distinct line between caring and being compromised,”he said. “We have to understand we’re in this together, we’re all citizens of California.” 

Diaz said that people needed to be ready for parole but that the work doesn’t end there. The goal is to transition back into society.

While the department responds to COVID-19, there is a limit on what can currently be provided. But Diaz believes the top CDCR programs will provide the necessary tools and support for people incarcerated in California to become better educated, more productive and self-reliant. 

“We’ll be recruiting the best offenders to give back as role models to work in campus-like settings,” said Diaz.

After almost 30 years in his profession, three beliefs have guided him — act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with his God. These have been just as guiding as his belief in the department’s new rehabilitation process.

“It’s easy to find the negatives as secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” Diaz said. “I don’t get out much to the facilities, but when I do, seeing people do the right thing invigorates me.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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R.J. Murphy

R.J. Murphy is the editor-in-chief of "The Solano Chronicle" at California State Prison Solano. He is involved in his community as a playwright addressing PTSD in veterans, breaking down racial divides and supporting those who lose loved ones.