CA: Red Bluff mom wearied by son’s prison ins and outs

Red Bluff mom wearied by son’s prison ins and outs

By Andy Furillo –
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, September 14, 2008

RED BLUFF – On the days when her son Thomas gets out of prison, Nikki Pittman follows the same routine.

“I lock my husband’s office,” Pittman said, seated in a chair inside the spotless residence on her 18-acre walnut ranch. “I lock my other son’s bedroom. I lock my bedroom. I take my laptop and lock it. I put all checkbooks in a safe for fear that he can break open an office door.”

Then she drives to the prison, picks Thomas up at the gate, brings him home – and waits for corrections officials to revoke his parole and return him to custody.

It’s a cycle that has repeated itself 10 times in seven years, according to parole and probation records – a testament, Nikki Pittman says, to California’s parole system that sends seven of every 10 offenders back to prison within three years of their release.

She’d like to see the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation place her boy in an in-prison drug program with the aftercare follow-up on parole. But that won’t happen as long as he goes back only on short-stay parole violations instead of new prison terms.

It’s a system that Nikki Pittman says is driving her nuts.

“I love my son very much,” Nikki Pittman said. “But the only time I’m relaxed and at peace is when he’s locked up in prison. I look forward to the parole date because I love him and I can only visit him behind glass when he’s in prison. But I know I’m going to be scared to death when he gets out.”

As of Sept. 3, there were 171,790 inmates in California prisons, fire camps and the like. An untold number of families share Nikki Pittman’s fear of and love for society’s outcasts who hold entree into their homes and hearts.

According to one expert on prison families, it’s the parents of the convicts – as much as the kids or spouses – who shoulder the burden of prison time bestowed upon their incarcerated loved ones.

“When somebody in your family goes to prison, it implies some kind of failure on your part,” said Gretchen Newby, statewide executive director of Friends Outside, a state-financed organization that helps relatives of inmates. “With parents, it’s a shame and stigma that is with them forever. What could they have done differently? What did they do wrong?

“Often, their support services have disappeared,” Newby said. “We tend to back away from them and they tend to pull away from us into social and emotional isolation. They have this enormous cloud hanging over them, and they can’t deal with it and they can’t share with others.”

Efforts this week to contact Thomas James Pittman, through prison officials and the parolees’ legal defense program, were fruitless. He is locked up at High Desert State Prison in Susanville and is awaiting a parole revocation hearing.

The supervising parole agent of the Red Bluff office knows Thomas and Nikki Pittman well enough to express major sympathy for her.

“She’s regular Americana,” David Nichols said. “She’s a legitimate, hard-working individual who has this one son who is running amok, and it’s frustrated her over and over. She’s at the end of her rope with it.”

A 71-year-old widow whose husband died in February, Nikki Pittman knew from the beginning Thomas would be a load. She adopted him when he was 4 from her trouble-bound oldest daughter, herself adopted and fighting a drug addiction problem, according to their mother. Both have been diagnosed as bipolar, Pittman said. (Pittman said she has three other grown adopted children who lead normal, productive lives.)

One day when Thomas was 14, Nikki Pittman looked out her back window and saw him beating her husband across the back with a two-by-four.

Police arrested him and he was later convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.

His probation records show other juvenile convictions for car theft (twice), giving false identification to a police officer and battery.

As an adult, Thomas Pittman picked up his first prison term in 1999 for stealing a neighbor’s car, trying to cash a stolen check belonging to his father and possessing a checkbook stolen from his parents.

He was sentenced to 40 months in prison.

Six times over the four years starting in January 2002, prison officials let Pittman out on parole. Six times, he came back. On the sixth return, Pittman – a validated member of the Nazi Lowriders prison gang – yanked his hands away from a correctional officer who was trying to handcuff him. He scratched the officer, and authorities charged him with battery.

He got probation on the May 2006 case, but violated it and was sent to prison in February 2007. He’s been released and returned four times since.

His mom thought she glimpsed a miracle when she went to High Desert to pick him up in June.

“He was wonderful,” Nikki Pittman said, of her son’s countenance at the prison gate. “He was happy. He had plans. He wanted to look for work.”

That night, she said, Thomas “started to get restless.”

Her mother’s instinct told her the next day he was using drugs again.

She kicked him out of the house.

A month and a half later, he got picked up in a sweep by the Tehama Interagency Drug Enforcement Team.

Authorities found him a slot in a drug rehab program, his mother said. But Pittman split from the unlocked facility an hour after he arrived. The Tehama drug team caught him again in late August and by Sept. 2 he was back in High Desert.

Nikki Pittman wishes they would keep her son in prison longer than the average six-week stays he’s received, so he can maybe get his general education degree or land in another drug program.

She wants local law enforcement to file a new case on her son rather than turn him over to parole for the micro-terms. That way, he’d have to do at least eight months of the prison-minimum 16-month term.

“He must have rehab,” Pittman said. “He can’t sit in a cell and do nothing. It’s the same person they let out, every time.

“You’re hardly clean and sober in three months.”

Eric Maher, the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement supervisor for the Tehama street drug team, said that on the last two cases, anyway, his officers did not catch Pittman in possession of drugs or observe him selling them.

“All he had was parole violations,” Maher said.

From her house next to the walnut orchard, Nikki Pittman pounds her computer keyboard and fires off e-mails to parole agents, parole commissioners, professors, corrections experts of every stripe, rehabilitation coordinators, addiction counselors, even the governor of California.

If the past predicts the future, Nikki Pittman will run through her routine sometime in the middle of next month and head over the mountains to High Desert to pick up her son again.

She dreads the thought.

“Each trip back to prison,” she said of her son, “makes him less capable to function.”

Thomas James Pittman’s personal belongings the last time he was released from prison are held by his mother: a key, a wristwatch and a spoon for heating drugs. PAUL KITAGAKI JR. /

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