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New book, state audit scrutinize contracted correctional programs in MT

Are 20-year contracts appropriate?
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Posted at 5:52 PM, Dec 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-23 19:52:16-05

BOULDER — Editor’s note: This story is the second of a two-part series on a new book critiquing the Montana Department of Corrections’ management of treatment programs for criminal offenders.

When the state Corrections Department shut down a successful treatment program at a state-run facility in Boulder two years ago, it moved program residents to other treatment sites – run by private contractors.

In fact, the department told MTN News that one reason for shutting down the Riverside Recovery and Re-Entry Program in 2018 was a shortage of female inmates to fill all the treatment beds available – and the department was paying contractors for empty beds, per their contract.

In their just-published book, “Correcting Treatment in Corrections,” two former employees at Riverside take aim at these lengthy contracts, arguing they have locked the Corrections Department into favoring programs that may not be delivering the most effective treatment for criminal offenders.

“When you have a 20-year contract, where is the room to change, when you learn some new information?” said Rhonda Champagne, a former lead counselor at Riverside and co-author of the book.

A legislative audit this year also criticized the 20-year contracts, saying they’re unusual for a state contract and difficult to amend for updated services. The audit also dinged DOC for having no real standards for evaluating outcomes of the contracted programs.

DOC officials, who declined to be interviewed for this story and would answer questions only in writing, said in response to the audit, they won’t be signing any more 20-year contracts.

They also said they’re working with the University of Cincinnati on developing standards to measure the effectiveness of inmate programs overseen by the department, contracted or otherwise.

Still, Corrections officials defended the contracts as a necessary component of what they offer criminal offenders. They also said they’re sometimes able to renegotiate parts of a 20-year contract to adapt the services.

The state has about a dozen contracts with several nonprofit corporations that run treatment programs, pre-release centers and assessment or “sanction” centers, all of which house female and male criminal offenders, at various stages of their incarceration.

Most contracts are for 20-year terms, signed 10 to 15 years ago.

“It ties the hands of up to three governors, it ties the hands of every director coming through the department,” said Michael Johnson, the other co-author of the book and a former head of security at Riverside. “It just locks them in.”

One of those 20-year contracts is with the Elkhorn Treatment Center, which offers a nine-month drug-treatment program for women inmates. It is directly across the road from Riverside, on the south edge of Boulder.

Shortly before DOC decided to close Riverside, officials at Elkhorn said its population had dropped to almost half its capacity. But, according to its contract, the state still had to pay Elkhorn for 75 percent of its beds, regardless of whether they were being used.

Corrections officials said the empty-beds payments to Elkhorn were a factor in deciding to close Riverside’s program for women inmates. Some of the Riverside inmates were transferred to Elkhorn.

Amy Tenney, the CEO of Boyd Andrew Community Services, which owns Elkhorn, said the 20-year contracts are a product of the state wanting to expand local non-prison programs for inmates, such as prerelease centers or treatment programs.

Nonprofits planning to run the programs couldn’t get financing to build the facilities without a long-term contract, she said – and the provision to guarantee payment for at least 75 percent of the beds is not unusual.

She also said that Elkhorn has an excellent record, with only 2 percent of its graduates from 2014 to 2017 returning to prison within three years of being released.

Elkhorn’s contract with the state requires it to track and report the rate at which its graduates return to prison – as do contracts with other nonprofit correctional providers.

MTN News asked the state for copies of these reports, and how the records of these contractors compared to the program that was closed at Riverside in 2018.

DOC officials said the reports could be obtained from the individual contractors, but that the information “hasn’t been specifically collected by the DOC.”

They also said it “has not made this particular data comparison” between the results at Riverside and other programs – and, even if it had, it wouldn’t be an “apples to apples comparison” to match Riverside’s results with a program like Elkhorn, because they serve different risk levels of offenders.

Champagne and Johnson, the authors of the book, said they had data showing that about two-thirds of the graduates of the Riverside program had stayed clean within a year of their release.

Champagne and Johnson also said they believe most of the contracted programs are using policies designed for a prison atmosphere, rather than therapeutic treatment.

Johnson, who spent 12 years with the Corrections Department, said at Riverside, he set aside much of his DOC training on policing inmates, as he learned more about treatment approaches that would help inmates overcome past trauma.

“These people that we’re treating, they’ve served their time, their punishment, and now they’re arriving for treatment,” he said. “As we move into that treatment, I think it’s time for us to question some of the guidelines that we’re using from the punishment side of incarceration, versus the treatment side.”

“There’s a human element of treatment that DOC policy doesn’t allow for,” Champagne added. “If we’re taught to see them as dangerous, manipulative people, how ever are you going to build a relationship with them?”

DOC officials said in their written response that correctional treatment facilities “are not the same as other treatment facilities,” and that criminal offenders have “different, unique characteristics.”

Johnson said he’s not criticizing all programs within the system, but that he thinks the state needs to re-evaluate whether harsh, security-oriented policies are appropriate in treatment.

“There are great programs and great people working at these programs, and at the DOC,” he said. “But sometimes these barriers of policies and procedures can restrict any growth, any ability to evolve into a more productive direction.”