Pubdate: Sat, 19 Mar 2016
Source: Kansas City Star (MO)
Copyright: 2016 The Kansas City Star
Author: Mary Sanchez


Prison Reform Measures Have Helped Lower Rates of Incarceration

Half of the Nation's Prison Population Has Mental Health and 
Substance Abuse Disorders

For-Profit Companies Are Maneuvering for Contracts With Cash-Strapped States

Nancy Reagan's recent death was a reminder of the shallow moralizing 
of the Just Say No anti-drug campaign she once championed.

Thankfully, attitudes have changed. We're more attuned to the fact 
that untreated mental health issues are often a precursor to drug 
use. Nancy's slogan to fight peer pressure won't help much there.

Most people realize that the War on Drugs, begun under Nixon, has failed.

And there's growing public awareness that we've let our jails and 
prisons become warehouses for people who need treatment - and needed 
it long before they took a criminal turn.

Mandatory sentencing guidelines have been changed, and the days of 
presidential administrations following the whims of a drug czar are over.

Incarceration rates are dropping. To most, this is good news. But 
it's not if your business model revolves around keeping people locked up.

The for-profit prison industry has stayed one step ahead of the 
trend. They got wise quick, sensing the winds shifting away from mass 
incarceration and toward the need to address mental health issues 
within the nation's prisons and jails.

For those familiar with the term "prison industrial complex," meet 
its offspring - the "treatment industrial complex."

A report released in February by Grassroots Leadership, a civil and 
human rights organization, rings some warning bells. The report, 
"Incorrect Care: A Prison Profiteer Turns Care into Confinement," is 
part of a series of reports that has focused on reducing the nation's 
reliance on criminalization.

This latest installment takes an in-depth look at privatization 
efforts in Texas, Florida and South Carolina. In particular, it goes 
after the shifting business models of for-profit prison operators 
Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, as well as 
spinoff rehabilitation companies like Correct Care Solutions.

The charge is that just as prisons are often not about 
rehabilitation, these new for-profit treatment places are not about 
helping people regain their mental stability and, therefore, their 
release. The report also challenges the quality of care being 
offered, citing cases of violence and patient deaths.

One startling figure from the report: 50 percent of people in 
correctional facilities have mental health and substance abuse 
disorders. This compares with rates of only 1 percent to 3 percent 
within the U.S. population. Prisoners represent a huge market for 
mental health care. If the prison operator also has a side business 
in mental health care, a conflict of interest presents itself.

Under normal circumstances, a person can get out of prison after 
serving his sentence. In fact, 90 percent of people who are sentenced 
do just that. But inmates can be placed by a judge into a for-profit 
mental health program in a prison - say, under civil commitment laws 
now on the books in about 20 states - and be detained there past the 
end of the sentence. The operator has a clear incentive to keep a 
person there indefinitely, to increase the return on its investment.

The Grassroots Leadership report points out that these private 
operators offer cost savings to a state when the facility is full: 
Thus the cost per head goes down. Assigning inmates to these 
facilities can be very appealing to lawmakers trying to balance tight 
budgets. Potentially, it becomes even more alluring when a lobbyist 
with the industry is making a hefty donation to a re-election campaign.

A basic set of circumstances and decisions has set the stage in many 
states. Legislatures have cut public mental health budgets, resulting 
in understaffing and poor conditions in state-run facilities. 
Community-based mental health programs are also being shorted. That 
leads to more untreated people who act out, and then find themselves 
in a criminal justice system that now recognizes the complexity of 
mental health, addiction and crime.

By virtue of their mental state, many of these people are not in a 
position to self-advocate for better care. Locked up, they are easily 
forgotten. One question must continuously be asked by legislators, 
advocates and the taxpayers whose dollars are being spent: In a 
for-profit model - in which more inmates equals more revenue - what 
possible incentive does a rehabilitation company have to help people 
regain stability and rejoin society? If such an incentive doesn't 
exist and outweigh the profit motive, it's hard to see how 
private-sector rehab programs won't make matters worse.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom