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Budget cuts raise concern for inmate drug program
Associated Press
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Published: 10/24/2009 12:01 AM

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SPRINGFIELD -- More than 300 general population inmates sent to a LaSalle County prison set up exclusively for intensive drug treatment are intermingling, and some experts fear that could jeopardize the program.

Gov. Pat Quinn's administration promised that inmates transferred to Sheridan Correctional Center in August to ease the state budget crisis would have no contact with those in the substance-abuse recovery program.

Now Department of Corrections officials acknowledge the two groups have some contact, but say the situation is temporary.

Corrections spokeswoman Januari Smith -- who said in August the two groups would be completely separated -- says they share religious services sometimes and the visitation room on weekends, with no adverse effects.

But Rob Fanti, a Sheridan counselor and local union president, counters that aside from living in different housing units, the two groups have plenty of contact.

"They're in the chow hall at the same time, they're in the school at the same time, they're in the medical unit at the same time," Fanti said. They work side by side and sit together while awaiting disciplinary hearings, he said.

Drug treatment advocates worry the interlopers could derail Sheridan's breakthrough drug-treatment program, which relies on inmates helping -- and intervening with -- one another to change behaviors and lifestyles.

The program, called a "therapeutic community," takes drug-addicted cons out of the potentially poisonous general prison environment "to change the entire person," said Patrick McGrain, a criminal justice professor at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.

Mix in inmates who are not part of the program and recovering addicts might be lured off course, he said.

"Prison environments can be brutal," McGrain said. "It takes very little to knock a drug-addicted guy back into the life."

The inmates were transferred so other prisons could cope with fewer staff members after layoffs forced by the state budget crisis; some staff from those prisons were to be transferred, as well.

But a judge has blocked layoffs in a lawsuit by the employees' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and that stopped transfers of some staff to Sheridan, Smith said.

Inmates were moved anyway and overtime worked by existing employees during the first two weeks of September was nearly double that of the same period a year earlier, according to AFSCME.

Deanne Benos, Corrections' assistant director, says the situation will change soon.

Sheridan's empty wing and 333 beds were needed immediately as the agency made budget cuts, she said. But by January, the housing unit that the new inmates occupied will be transformed into a unit for drug-treatment candidates readying themselves for the program, Benos said.

As current inmates' shorter terms end, recovery candidates will replace them.

"We can sustain of couple of months of challenges to come out with a stronger program than we started with," Benos said.

Advocates said they hope Corrections moves quickly, saying the groups' different needs exacerbate tensions.

Regular cons aren't in the intense therapy sessions of drug treatment and don't have the same opportunities at work assignments or schooling, and idleness leads to disruption, said Faye Taxman, a professor in George Mason University's administration of justice program.

"The institution then has to deal with that disruptive behavior, so security officer time is devoted to those issues, so the role of Sheridan's security staff changes," Taxman said.

At Sheridan, general population inmates envy the special programs for drug treatment, Fanti said. At one point, mail delivery was backed up, so general population inmates got theirs first to quiet them -- which caused tensions among the treatment population, Fanti said.

Sheridan, which now serves about 950, closed as a prison in 2002 and reopened two years later as a therapeutic community for addicts. It's one of few prisons exclusively dedicated to drug treatment and has gained worldwide attention.

Sheridan alumni are 20 percent less likely to end up back in prison than a typical Illinois inmate, according to research by Loyola University's David Olson. As the program matures, and more inmates complete the after-prison counseling and training programs, those released more recently from Sheridan are as much as 50 percent less likely to commit another crime, he said.

Corrections spends more for drug treatment per inmate than for general-population housing, but there's a $7 benefit to the community in reduced recidivism and tax contributions for every $1 spent on drug treatment, said Diane Williams, president and CEO of Safer Foundation, which helps former Sheridan participants find jobs.

"Investing more money in prison-based treatment in the long run will result in fewer people coming back to prison and therefore generate some cost savings," Loyola's Olson said. "But given the current (budget) environment, long run isn't going to cut it any more."

AFSCME fears not only for the program's integrity, but the workload. Sheridan doesn't mind more inmates, AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said, as long as it has proper staff and preferably, inmates sent there for drug treatment.

The union supports Quinn's proposed income-tax increase to close the budget hole and staff prisons better. But the governor's been unable to convince lawmakers.

As part of Quinn's layoff plan -- stalled by the lawsuit -- 17 employees statewide accepted transfers to Sheridan instead of losing their jobs, Corrections spokeswoman Smith said. A new class of correctional officer cadets will start Nov. 2 with 32 intended for Sheridan, she said.