Study casts doubt on
prison drug treatment
by Bruce Tomaso
Staff Writer, The Dallas Morning News

April 30, 1999

Austin — Texas inmates who enroll in drug treatment programs behind bars are no more likely to stay out of trouble after their release from prison than the average drug-abusing ex-convict, a new state study reveals.

The study found that after three years, the rate of recidivism — being sent back to prison — was at least as high among those who enrolled in the drug programs as among those who did not.

The study examined four groups of inmates, about 2,800 men and women, who went through treatment. In two of those groups, the recidivism rate among those enrolled in the programs was the same as that for comparable prisoners who were not treated. In the other two groups, the recidivism rate was higher among those in treatment.

“Obviously, these results were disappointing. You want to see a more positive long-term effect,” said Tony Fabelo, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Council, which produced the study this month. The council is a state agency that studies criminal justice issues and advises policy-makers.

Prison officials attributed the programs’ lackluster performance in the study to “growing pains” in the early years of the drug programs, which were established in 1991.

“It takes years for counseling and treatment programs of this type to mature,” said Debbie Roberts, an assistant director of programs and services for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“This report measures the progress of some of the first groups that went through the program,” she said. “I think we’ve gotten better and more effective over time.”

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Two largest programs

The study examined the two largest prison drug treatment initiatives in the state: the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment program, most of whose participants are sentenced to undergo drug treatment behind bars as a condition of probation; and the In-Prison Therapeutic Community, whose participants are selected by the prison system.

The former program has a capacity to treat 4,500 inmates at a time; the latter, 800. Their combined budget is about $39 million a year, Ms. Roberts said.

In all, Texas houses roughly 144,000 inmates, perhaps half of whom, by some estimates, have histories of drug or alcohol abuse.

The new study painted a less rosy picture than earlier reports, both from Texas and elsewhere, which suggest that treating drug abusers behind bars is an almost sure-fire way to reduce crime.

A 1996 report by the Criminal Justice Planning Council found that 7 percent of graduates of the Texas drug programs were back in prison within a year of their release, compared with 19 percent among those who did not take part in the programs.

Similarly, a 1998 study by the U.S. Justice Department found that among federal inmates who completed drug treatment, 3.3 percent were rearrested within six months of their release, compared with 12.1 percent among those who did not seek treatment.

“Treatment works,” Attorney General Janet Reno said at the time. “It helps break the cycle of addiction and crime.”

The new Texas study doesn’t necessarily show otherwise, Dr. Fabelo said.

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Troubled start

The ex-convicts whose recidivism rates are now being studied actually began treatment as long ago as 1992 and 1993, when the prison drug programs were in their infancy, he said.

And a troubled infancy it was.

The programs, created by the 1991 Legislature, were among the most ambitious in the nation to treat drug abusers behind bars. Initially, 14,000 beds were allocated to the two programs. They were filled in a hurry.

“The size and rapid expansion of the Texas program caused a number of problems,” the study said.

The state had a hard time hiring enough qualified counselors and adequate support staff. Inmates were admitted without proper screening. After-care programs were poorly administered.

The widely publicized problems led lawmakers in 1995 to scale the programs back to their present 5,300 beds.

“These programs went through a traumatic birth,” said Dr. Fabelo. “We have since worked a lot of the kinks out. Things have been stabilized. I would hope that those inmates coming out now would do better in terms of recidivism down the road.”

He said the Criminal Justice Policy Council would re-examine recidivism among program participants in two years.

“Those will be more meaningful numbers,” he said. “In 2001 we will have almost 10 years’ history since the start of these programs. And the Legislature will be able to look at results that cannot be blamed on the programs’ early difficulties.”

According to the study, those who completed the prison drug programs didn’t fare badly: In one study group, those graduates had a 34 percent recidivism rate, vs. 42 percent for comparable inmates in the general population.

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But many drug and alcohol abusers dropped out of the programs — almost 6 in 10 in one study group. Because those dropouts were exceptionally good candidates to be sent back to prison, the gains among successful graduates were diluted to the point of statistical insignificance, the study concluded.

“For all groups, the three-year recidivism rate of program participants was not significantly different than the recidivism rates of the comparison groups,” it concluded.

Glen Castlebury, a prison system spokesman, said officials were trying to better screen candidates for the In-Prison Therapeutic Community program, the one in which TDCJ gets to pick the participants.

“The number who enroll but do not finish the program should diminish, “ he said.

The prison agency has begun working with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles so drug treatment can be timed to coincide with an inmate’ s projected release date.

“The goal is to get them clean and sober right before they’re set to go out into the free world,” Mr. Castlebury said. “That’s when our treatment efforts will have the biggest impact.”

Ms. Roberts said that getting felons off drugs has benefits to society that are not reflected in recidivism statistics.

“Many of these are people who have never been sober for six months in their entire adult lives,” she said. “Now they tell us stories about how much their lives have changed. We get letters from their family members saying we saved their lives.”

© Copyright 1999 The Dallas Morning News

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