Gazette opinion: Focus on life outside — Prison must reduce recidivism

2013-06-26T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Focus on life outside — Prison must reduce recidivism The Billings Gazette
June 26, 2013 12:10 am

Too many of the women sent to the Montana Women’s Prison return. In recent years, between a quarter and a third of all inmates released, came back — most of them for violating conditions of their parole. Less than 4 percent were convicted of new crimes.

The Montana Department of Corrections is working on new strategies to help more inmates be successful upon returning to their community.

The department’s biennial report summarizes goals of the re-entry program: “Success for offenders means stable housing and employment, effective treatment, positive personal relationships, family support and appropriate supervision. Success means fewer future victims, less crime and a safe Montana.”

Need for treatment

The need for effective chemical dependency treatment is obvious from the list of the top 10 offenses that put women in the Corrections system:

1. Possession of drugs.

2. Theft.

3. Criminal endangerment.

4. Issuing a bad check.

5. Distributions of drugs.

6. Felony DUI.

7. Forgery.

8. Fraudulently obtaining dangerous drugs.

9. Theft by embezzlement

10. Burglary.

Four of the offenses directly have illegal involvement with drugs. Criminal endangerment can include DUI and the property crimes often involve drug seeking or attempts to get money to acquire drugs.

The Women’s Prison on South 27th Street is always at capacity with 194 inmates.

“We are at capacity and we always have women waiting,” said Joan Daly, who started her new job as warden this week. Some inmates wait in county jails, which also have overcrowding issues, including the Yellowstone County detention facility.

Ninety-five percent of the women inmates report chemical addictions when admitted. Most also have mental illnesses and many have been battered as adults and abused as children.

“Many come back because it’s the safest place they have been,” Daly said. In prison, there’s food, shelter and health care.

“Almost all are in therapy groups,” Daly said. “They have complex issues.”

A dozen corrections officers volunteered for new positions as re-entry officers. Their jobs changed, but no additional staff was hired. Daly said the prison is ready to ask for inmate volunteers to pilot the re-entry program.

Like discharge planning

Daly, a counselor whose career included working in administration at Billings Clinic and Montana State Hospital, likened the prison re-entry program to hospital discharge planning. Ideally, the planning for leaving the hospital starts at the time of admission. The average Women’s Prison inmate is released after just 18 months, so planning for a successful return to law-abiding life in the community is essential. These women are getting out of prison; the state needs to make sure they have the skills to stay out of trouble.

The re-entry and recovery initiative recognizes what local judges have found in starting treatment courts. When the root causes of criminal behavior include addictions or mental illnesses, that must be addressed to prevent recidivism.

The new warden has excellent credentials for tackling these challenges. Montana cannot afford to build more and bigger prisons. We must build up more inmates to be productive citizens. The prison re-entry program can be a foundation for that successful strategy.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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