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Prison anti-drug programs criticized

The state overseer of the corrections department says the $1billion spent since 1989 was wasted.

February 22, 2007|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — California's $1-billion investment in drug treatment for prisoners since 1989 has been "a complete waste of money," the state's inspector general said Wednesday, and has done nothing to reduce the number of inmates cycling in and out of custody.

One study of the two largest in-prison programs found that recidivism rates for inmates who participated were actually a bit higher than those of a group of convicts who did not receive treatment, Inspector General Matt Cate said.

He said corrections officials were told in more than 20 reports since 1997 that the programs were failing but did nothing to fix them, choosing instead to expand them and fund more studies of their results.

Successful treatment programs could increase public safety, "change lives and help relieve the state's prison overcrowding crisis," Cate said in releasing the 50-page special review. "But so far the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has squandered that opportunity."

The Office of the Inspector General is an independent state agency that oversees the corrections department.

In anticipation of the scathing report, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday ordered a shake-up of the department's drug treatment operation and put someone new in charge.

Kathryn Jett, director of the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs since 2000, will lead the reorganized division within corrections. The governor called Jett, 53, "the right person at the right time to take on this critical responsibility."

Cate applauded Jett's appointment and the governor's "willingness to address this problem at its very foundation. What I didn't want was a patch job, because this is such a total failure," he said.

Jett said she welcomed the challenge of improving outcomes for drug-addicted inmates -- and for taxpayers.

In an interview, she called the inspector general's report "an excellent blueprint for change" and said she took the job because of the governor's "strong commitment to reform."

One in five inmates in California is serving time for a drug offense, and an even larger proportion -- more than half of the 172,000 men and women behind bars -- need drug treatment, the inspector general said.

California's recidivism rate, meanwhile, remains among the highest in the country, with about 70% of inmates returning to prison within several years of their release.

Cate said treatment for substance abuse "offers one of the state's best hopes of reducing the number of inmates who repeatedly cycle in and out of prisons."

Breaking that cycle could alleviate the severe overcrowding that grips the correctional system. The state is under federal court pressure to ease the jam-packed conditions by June or face a possible limit on new prison admissions.

The state spends $143 million a year on substance abuse treatment for inmates and parolees, in part through 38 privately operated programs at 22 prisons. About 78,000 prisoners have been treated behind bars since the programs began in 1989.

The programs' ineffectiveness, Cate said, boils down to poor management by the department, which often houses them in prison settings where they are doomed to fail. Among the problems:

* The state's "therapeutic community" treatment model calls for participants to be separated from other inmates, but such separation rarely occurs. Instead, participants share yards and other prison facilities with general population inmates, and security procedures routinely disrupt treatment.

* Some treatment programs are at prisons that are subjected to frequent lockdowns, meaning that inmates are confined to their cells around the clock. When that occurs, treatment for them essentially stops until the lockdown is lifted.

* Recognizing the importance of intensive group counseling, the contracts with program providers require enough counselors for an 18 to 1 ratio of inmates to counselors. About two-thirds of the programs do not meet that standard.

Cate said one egregious example of the department's mismanagement was its willingness to pay for extensive studies that evaluate the treatment programs without then correcting problems those studies identified.

Over a nine-year period that ended last year, the state paid $8.2 million for such studies by UCLA and San Diego State University. The research identified weaknesses and recommended fixes, but the department failed to act.

Meanwhile, the Legislature twice funded an expansion of the programs without evidence that they were delivering positive results, the report said.

"The litany of problems adds up to a $1-billion failure," the report said, including ''most tragically, failure to help California inmates change their lives and, in so doing, make our streets safer."

Rod Mullen, who runs an organization that has operated drug treatment programs in the state prisons since 1990, called the report "a mixed bag."

"Saying it's a billion-dollar failure is really a mischaracterization of what's happened, because there have been some very successful programs that have delivered amazing reductions in recidivism," said Mullen, chief executive officer of Amity Foundation.

Mullen agreed, however, with Cate's suggestion that it was a waste of money to provide in-prison treatment without follow-up care in the community.

"That's the key, and we've known that for 10 or 15 years," Mullen said. "What's been missing is a commitment by the department, the Legislature and the governor to make sure it happens."

The inspector general's report can be viewed at

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