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March 22, 2011

Is it really surprising that some prison treatment programs are now run poorly?

The question in the title of this post is inspired by this editorial in today's New York Times, which is headlined "New York’s Prisons Fall Short, Again" and goes like this:

Perhaps as many as three-quarters of New York State’s 57,000 prison inmates need drug counseling or treatment to have a chance at productive, crime-free lives once they are released.  A three-year study of drug and alcohol abuse programs in the New York State Department of Corrections suggests that prisons are failing to provide adequate treatment programs for the tens of thousands of inmates who need them.

The study by the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit group, examined drug treatment programs at 23 of the state’s nearly 68 facilities.  It found that the programs varied wildly in effectiveness and that most departed significantly from best practices laid out by the addiction research division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The New York prison programs have several deficiencies in common.  They fail to screen candidates based on the severity of their problems, which means they wastefully enroll large numbers of people in intensive programs they don’t need.  They also routinely enroll poorly motivated inmates, which limits effectiveness.  In a particularly glaring oversight, they fail to coordinate prison treatment programs with those offered in the communities to which the inmates will return.

The correctional association’s researchers found model treatment programs in at least four state prisons, including Hale Creek in upstate Fulton County.  According to the report, these prisons use a three-phase system that begins with a six-month residential treatment program, in which the targeted inmates live in a separate prison dorm.  This is followed by an integration component, under which people typically receive treatment during work release.  Finally, newly released men and women are formally enrolled in community programs.

According to the study, the Department of Corrections could improve drug treatment without spending any more than the estimated $19 million it currently devotes to this problem by deploying the existing staff in better designed programs.  The result would be better drug treatment, safer communities and less recidivism.

Though it is discouraging to hear about poorly run prison treatment programs, I find heartening the news that some prison are already running model programs.  Modern prisons have not generally been designed nor incentivized to develop and run effective treatment programs, and thus I find it more surprising that some prison treatment programs are already running so well than that some are running so poorly. 

I fear it is inevitable that prison treatment programs will face various difficulties unless and until legislators and other policy-makers make clear that they will consistently fund and reward those facilities that provide the most effective treatment programming.  Tight budgets and overcrowded prisons seem to be leading more and more folks to talk a good game about the importance of development effective rehabilitative programs, but all the "smart on crime" rhetoric has to become real reform and funding priorities before anyone should hope that all prison treatment programs will be following modern best practices.

March 22, 2011 at 08:06 AM | Permalink


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Did anyone really think that the push to reduce prison spending was going to lead ONLY to decreasing the inmate population?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 22, 2011 10:10:02 PM

Anyone that has been to jail or prison for an extended time already knows what the study has indicated: The explosion of inmates that we have seen the last couple of decades is directly attributed to serious drug abuse and the crimes committed related to it. More effort needs to be implemented at the state and local levels to help these people while they are a captive audience... not going through the motions, but rehab that works, including housing and job placement upon their release.

Posted by: Johnny Exchange | Mar 24, 2011 9:09:27 AM

With the wealth of information and research available to criminal justice agencies, I am surprised to hear that State officials have not incorporated the following evidence based practices:

1. Risk and needs assessment
2. Focused Treatment Plans designed to address the inmates criminogenic needs.
3. Established collaborations with volunteer organizations to provide needed services within the walls of the institutions in an effort which will lower the cost of service delivery

Their are numerous local faith based, and community based organizations who have federal dollars to provide these services. Some jurisdictions have begun soliciting the services of these organizations to augment their services.

Posted by: Frances at ReentryConsultantOnline.com | Mar 24, 2011 12:33:24 PM

I like what you have said,it is really helpful to me,thanks!

Posted by: Big pony | Apr 11, 2011 6:18:31 AM

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