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Budget Cuts Dismantle Donovan State Prison’s Rehab Programs

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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.

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