Gazette opinion: Leadership needed to reduce returns to prison

2014-07-15T00:00:00Z 2014-07-18T15:32:04Z Gazette opinion: Leadership needed to reduce returns to prison The Billings Gazette
July 15, 2014 12:00 am

About 75 percent of inmates at Montana Women’s Prison arrive addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Drug abuse is at the root of most of their crimes – illegal possession or stealing to support their habits.

In a facility with about 150 chemically dependent inmates, there is one licensed addiction counselor. Most of these inmates will be released within 17 months.

Warden Joan Daly wants to add another full-time counselor, ideally a person licensed in both addiction and mental health counseling. So far, the warden has identified resources for adding a half-time position.

Among 196 inmates, 127 are on psychiatric medications, mostly for bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety, Daly said in a recent interview. The latter two diagnoses tend to be related to trauma the women have suffered before coming to prison. Most female inmates have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused as children and adults.

Health care gap

But when they are released, these women have zero health coverage, so they may not be able to continue the medication that was helping to manage their illnesses. Also, addicted women absolutely need treatment and after care to stay in recovery.

State Rep. Margie MacDonald of Billings has a solution for the health care gap:

“Expanding Medicaid to this population would help people survive, get the help they need and not recidivate.”

MacDonald, who chairs the Law and Justice Interim Committee, sponsored a bill last session requiring a statewide re-entry task force to report on such efforts and make recommendations to the Legislature annually.

The task force, led by Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista, delivered its report at the committee’s June meeting. The law stipulated that the governor had to appoint some task force members from multiple state departments and some from outside state government.

Influx of offenders

There must be a sense of urgency in addressing recidivism. The DOC has seen a sharp spike in the number of offenders coming into the system – an increase of 2,000 offenders over the past year, Batista reported in April. The department is working with the Pew Charitable Trusts to research the causes of this sudden offender influx.

As of June 30, DOC was supervising 6,594 men and 1,966 women on probation or parole. In addition to nearly 200 women in Montana Women’s Prison, there were 349 in alternative programs, including pre-release, drug/DUI treatment, and Passages Assessment, Sanction and Revocation Center. Additionally, 119 women under DOC supervision were incarcerated in county jails.

The Law and Justice Interim Committee directed its staff to draft bills to implement task force recommendations on increasing housing availability and preparing prison workers to be successful upon release. Those drafts will be considered at the committee’s Sept. 3 meeting in Helena.

Pam Bunke, who oversees community corrections statewide, said the department is looking at best practices, but isn’t even close to having all its programs meet that standard.

In Billings, just one parole officer is assigned as a re-entry officer. The department tries to keep the re-entry officer’s caseload to 50 or fewer people, Bunke said. Traditional parole officers are supposed to have caseloads that don’t exceed 75, but Bunke acknowledged that some Billings parole officers now supervise as many as 87 offenders.

The influx of offenders has stretched probation and parole staff thin, making it harder for officers to do their best work.

“We’re spending money on incarceration that is wasted,” MacDonald said, noting how many inmates return to prison because they weren’t prepared to live in the community.

As stated in House Bill 68: “An effective re-entry program targeting inmates at greatest risk of recidivism would not only save the state money but would enhance public safety.”

Lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock must provide the resources for effective inmate re-entry. They must hold the DOC accountable for using those resources to reduce recidivism.

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

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