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Budget Cuts Dismantle Donovan State Prison’s Rehab Programs

Audio

Aired 10/8/09

The California Department of Corrections is being forced to dismantle its prison rehabilitation programs as a result of deep budget cuts this year. Donovan State Prison in South San Diego County has been especially hard hit. Its nationally recognized drug rehab program will shut-down in about a week. KPBS Reporter Ana Tintocalis explains how the loss will affect the lives of inmates there.

— The California Department of Corrections is being forced to dismantle its prison rehabilitation programs as a result of deep budget cuts this year. Donovan State Prison in south San Diego County has been especially hard hit. Its nationally recognized drug rehab program will shut down in about a week. KPBS Reporter Ana Tintocalis explains how the loss will affect the lives of inmates there.

Donovan State Prison is located along a dusty dirt road next to the U.S.-Mexico border. The massive concrete complex has two sets of barbed wire fences lining the inside and outside perimeters. More than 4,700 inmates live here.

Mike Stout has worked at the prison for 20 years. He says inmates are doing time for all sorts of criminal activity, but what most of them have in common is alcohol or drug abuse. Fifty-year-old inmate Oscar Mayorca is serving a 15 year prison sentence for killing someone while he was high on PCP.

“I was at a party where drugs were readily available and there was some PCP there that I thought were marijuana cigarettes. I began smoking them,” Mayorca recalled. “PCP had some hallucinogenic effects and what happened afterward was someone's life was taken. Afterward I didn't even know. I didn't know until someone came and told me, ‘Hey the police are looking for you.'"

Mayorca now accepts responsibility for his actions. He's clean and sober thanks to a special drug rehab program that Donovan State Prison helped pioneer 20 years ago. Substance abuse counselor Thomas Alexander says it's more than just a 12-step program. He says it's a curriculum-based approach to cognitive behavioral therapy.

“Guys who get out, for the first 24 hours, what they want to do is take their money, get high, get a woman and they're back in jail in no time,” Alexander said. “So getting prison out of the mind is getting to a place where you know what you need to do, the types of steps you need to do to be like us.”

Alexander says veteran inmates who master the three-year program serve as mentors to help newcomers deal with their emotions. Those who do get out receive post-prison support so they continue treatment.

But the program that once put Donovan on the map in California's prison system is going away. It is one of the casualties as the department of corrections slashes $280 million in rehab programs.

Inmate Oscar Mayorca says these programs are the only things making a difference in the lives of prisoners.

“Sometimes they just need a little support. Sometimes they need to know that somebody cares about them,” Mayorca said. “This is the craziest place to find out that someone cares about you yet they are learning that in here. It empowers them and gives them the courage to go forth and to engage.”

Advocates criticize the deep cuts to prison rehab programs, saying they will only lead to more crime as more inmates are released without the help they need. But Donovan's associate warden Elias Contreras says while the prison's longtime substance program is going away, it's being replaced with a 90-day detox program. Veteran inmates will be trained as substance abuse counselors for newcomers. The prison will also rely on community volunteers.

“At one point on our registry we had up to 1,400 volunteers coming into this prison,” Contreras said. “That is what we're going to be requesting from the community again. (We need) help in these different areas of substance abuse and education.”

But critics point out that if there are no volunteers, there will be no services. They're also skeptical about the effectiveness of volunteer programs. Counselor Thomas Alexander says Donovan's program was a model for prisons throughout California because it worked.

“If (inmates) go through a program like the one at Donovan, the recidivism rate is reduced from 71 percent to 21 percent,” Alexander said. “That’s fact. That is no secret. That is evidence-based. So these are the type of programs we're losing.”

Alexander and his entire staff must pack up and leave the prison in about a week. A group of veteran inmates who have internalized the rehab program are now trying to salvage what they've learned and share it when they can.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Pray4Peace'

Pray4Peace | October 9, 2009 at 8:11 a.m. ― 4 years, 6 months ago

"“If (inmates) go through a program like the one at Donovan, the recidivism rate is reduced from 71 percent to 21 percent.....”

We should track the results of the programs and fund only those that work. And, the programs should be easily available to almost all inmates.

Cutting the rehab, training, and drug programs is false economy. If one inmate is returned to prison for as few as three years it will cost us $148,000 ($49K x 3). I admit to not knowing what rehab programs cost, but it cannot be that expensive for each individual, especially since the cost of a program is spread among many inmates.

There are many hidden dollar cost to cutting rehab, such as lost wages for those who would have turned their lives around and paid taxes instead of using up our tax dollars.

The non-dollar cost of cutting these programs is enormous. Salvageable lives will be ruined and those released will be far more likely to re-offend. Who among us will that hurt?

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Avatar for user 'southernbabe'

southernbabe | January 2, 2010 at 6:31 a.m. ― 4 years, 3 months ago

On December 31, 2009 contractors throughout the state were notified programs were terminated indefinately in all prisons in California. With no advance warning or preparations our students have been left hanging without any services or contact with program staff. Those that were in treatment last week will have nothing this week. Those that wanted to change their lives and were learning how to do that now have noone to show them how to be successful. Those that believed in a program that promised to help them change their old habits are going to feel betrayed because there will be noone there to encourage them. We don't know how long this will go on but isn't it time State government officials stop playing with the lives, families and futures of inmates. January 1, 2010 was suppose to be the first day under a new law signed by Schwarzenegger in October giving inmates up to 6 weeks off their sentences for successfully participating in programs. December 31, 2009 they pulled the plug on those programs. How upset do you think those inmates who were looking forward to earning time off are going to be when they find out the programs are not going to be there next week. How many fights, riots, assaults are going to be related to taking away their opportunity? How are prison staff going to react to the heightened level of anxiety, tension, frustration, anger that will be left in the wake? If we are not allowed to go back to work for 4 to 6 weeks or longer are there going to be lawsuits filed by the inmates who are being denied early release due to the new law. Whatever the reason for pulling these programs those who are responsible need to look into the residual effects of their actions and how they are going to deal with these questions. I hope they have better answers to the new problems caused by cutting programs. I don't think cutting programs was the answer to anything.

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Avatar for user 'ladybike99'

ladybike99 | January 4, 2010 at 8:55 p.m. ― 4 years, 3 months ago

I worked in a SAP program for 3 years as a substance abuse counselor. Due to budget cuts in 2007 I went to work as a counselor for a community based Drug Court/Prop 36 program. The client's who fail out of the Drug Court program usually end up in prison where they can either learn how to become a better criminal or learn how to become a productive member of society. It has been my experience, that after working with inmates in a SAP program and then they transfer to a community based program, they become productive members of society. I see men who after 20 years of incarceration, become respectable members of society that make this world a better place to live. I was one of those lost souls addicted to drugs. I went from being a single mom who raised her son with out the help of welfare of child support to a homeless drug addict just wanting to die. I was blessed to enter into a 90 day residential program and then into sober living for 6 months and today I am a college graduate working with others to help them change how they think, to help them change how they act. I see men who were once in the SAP working in the community and giving back helping others, who were once a danger to society. Prison based treatment programs work, even for those who are mandated into program. If punishment worked then we would not have prison overcrowding.

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