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March 11, 2019

New indictment exposes underbelly of federal RDAP program ... and provides still more reason to be thankful for passage of FIRST STEP Act

This interesting new AP piece, headlined "Show up drunk: Indictments spotlight prison rehab scams," reports on indictments surrounding efforts to defraud the only long-standing federal prison program thathas  allowed prisoners to earn reductions in their rehabilitative efforts.  Here are the details:

It's a tip that has been passed onto convicts for years: On your way to federal prison, say you have a substance abuse problem, and you could qualify for a treatment program that knocks up to a year off your sentence.

Federal prosecutors have long suspected abuses in the program, which has enrolled a deep list of high-profile convicts.  Recently, a grand jury in Connecticut indicted three people accused of coaching ineligible convicts on how to get into the Residential Drug Abuse Program, or RDAP, by telling them to show up to prison intoxicated and fake withdrawal symptoms. The charges are among the first filed against prison consultants involving the program.

The case has put a spotlight on the unregulated world of prison consulting, in which some ex-convicts and former prison employees charge thousands of dollars for their inside knowledge to help people prepare for life behind bars. Some consultants say there has been wrongdoing in the industry for decades, including encouraging clients to scam their way into the rehab program.

The small industry now is "totally the Wild West," said Jack Donson, president of New York-based My Federal Prison Consultant and a retired federal Bureau of Prisons employee. "I hope it brings light to things," he said, referring to the Connecticut case.  "I hope it gives people ... pause to not cross that line to illegality and unethical conduct."

Completing the nine-month, 500-hour treatment program for nonviolent offenders is one of only a few ways inmates can get their sentences reduced. About 15,600 inmates — nearly 10 percent of the current federal prison population — participated in the program last year, and thousands more are on waiting lists. To get in, convicts must present evidence they had substance abuse or addiction problems during the year prior to their arrest. Upon completion, their sentences can be reduced and they can spend the last six months of their sentences in a halfway house.

Christopher Mattei, a former federal prosecutor in Connecticut, said the U.S. attorney's office increasingly saw white-collar convicts make use of the program. "It undermines the public's confidence that all people when they go before a court for sentencing will be treated fairly.  People who know how to game the system know how to get the benefits, whereas people who are struggling with addiction don't know all the angles to play," said Mattei, former chief of the financial fraud and public corruption unit in the Connecticut U.S. attorney's office....

The criminal indictments in Connecticut are believed to be among the first criminal charges filed against prison consultants in connection with the treatment program. Arrested were Michigan residents Tony Pham, 49, and Samuel Copenhaver, 47, both of Grand Rapids; and Constance Moerland, 33, of Hudsonville.  The three were managing partners in RDAP Law Consultants, authorities said.

Prosecutors said the three told clients over the past six years to falsely inform Bureau of Prisons officials that they had drug and alcohol problems, taught them how to fake withdrawal symptoms and how to fraudulently obtain medication to treat withdrawal symptoms, so they could show prescriptions to qualify for the program. The partners also told their clients to begin drinking alcohol daily before going to prison and to show up drunk, the indictments said....

Last year in New York City, a lawyer and three other people were charged with defrauding the government and making false statements. They allegedly submitted bogus information to prison officials, claiming that a convicted drug dealer had a history of addiction, in an effort to get the client into the drug treatment program so he could be released early. The case remains pending.

Other consultants coach people on how to lie to get into the program, according to Donson, who said some also claim they can get convicts sent to prisons that have the RDAP program when only federal prison officials have that authority. He said he sees potential for fraud also as consultants rush to offer help related to a new law that allows federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before late 2010 the opportunity to petition for a lighter penalty.

Donson and other consultants say more monitoring of the industry and prosecutions would help deter misconduct. "It's an unregulated industry, so something like this hopefully brings some attention to it," said Dan Wise, an ex-con who completed the RDAP program and now runs a prison consultant business based in Spokane, Washington.

I think it important for the feds to appropriately police the RDAP program to ensure defendants who are truly struggling with addiction are able to access a program with finite resources. But this article fails to highlight that defendants' efforts to sneak into the RDAP program was a symptom of a broader disease, namely that federal prisoners have historically had precious few means to seek to earn reductions in their sentences. Thankfully, the FIRST STEP Act is a significant step toward treating this disease, as it provides an elaborate set of mechanisms for allow some prisoners to earn reductions through other rehabilitative efforts. But, critically, the FIRST STEP Act has a number of problematic exclusions and restrictions on which prisoners can earn reductions AND there is reason to worry that poor implementation of the FIRST STEP could lead to privileged prisoners again being better able to access programming and reduction that should be made properly available to as many prisoners as possible.

Without know more about the indictments and underlying facts referenced in this AP article, I am disinclined to comment directly on whether federal prosecution of prison consultants may be the most efficient and effective way to police the administration of prison programming. But I am eager to encourage everyone involved in counseling defendant and prisoners to be honest and straight-forward in their dealing or else prisoners and their families are likely to be the ultimate victims.

March 11, 2019 at 10:40 PM | Permalink

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