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States Experiment With Specialized Drug Prisons

Pennsylvania facility provides treatment for offenders. The aim: to break cycle of crime.

Shane Pinkerson was 16 when he started drinking. He was 18 the first time he was arrested for possession of stolen property. Five years later, he was sent away for the fifth time when he broke into a home to score some money to feed his cocaine habit.

Sentenced to 4-1/2 to nine years for robbery, last year Mr. Pinkerson was transferred to a new prison - one the tall, softspoken inmate says may finally end his revolving-door ways.

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The State Correctional Institute in Chester, Pa., which opened its doors in August, is part of a small but growing movement in the nation's prison system to deal with the unique needs of substance abusers - and thus try to keep them from filling jail beds in the future.

The medium-security facility - which looks a like a brick office building, until you step inside - provides full-time treatment for inmates with drug or alcohol problems. It is one of three such specialized prisons in the nation.

The state's experiment here, if successful, may offer a glimmer of hope for America's justice system. With 7 of every 10 inmates having substance-abuse problems, expectations are that the repeat-offender rate could drop significantly if such prison programs become widespread.

"What drives our prison growth is drugs," says Steve Amos, an official of the Department of Justice Corrections Program. "If we want to impact public safety, we need to treat those people.

"Locking up inmates in prison is a short-term response. The question is, will they be back to the same behavior when they get out?" says Mr. Amos. The average treatment length is nine to 12 months and costs $3,000. It costs $30,000 per year to lock someone up. "[Treatment] is a cheap investment."

Sonjia Paige, director of SCI-Chester's prison program, agrees, and points out another benefit of treating inmates: a captive audience. "In prison, we can do an excellent job of providing inmates with tools they need to change attitudes and behaviors."

Exploding population

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A change in behavior is desperately needed. Inmates who do not receive adequate treatment are more likely to become repeat offenders and have caused an explosion in the prison population, found a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. From 1980 to 1996, the number of inmates in state, federal, and local prisons tripled from 500,000 to 1.7 million.

In 1997, the Federal Bureau of Prisons spent $25 million, or less than 1 percent of its budget, on drug treatment.

But Todd Craig, chief spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, says the percentage is misleading, because the number of federal inmates in need of treatment is lower than at state prisons.

The $70 million prison has a no-tolerance policy on all drugs, including nicotine. It costs $61.40 to house and treat an inmate at SCI Chester - the average for inmates in Pennsylvania state prisons.

SCI-Chester contracts with Gaudenzia, a private drug-and-alcohol-treatment provider in Norristown, Pa., to treat inmates. Drug counselors are on site 12 hours a day, and treatment ranges from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to one-on-one sessions with a counselor.

According to Paige, structure is a key component of the treatment program. Each day, 250 inmates must make their own beds and shine their shoes in addition to other chores. They spend most of the day in counseling and vocational education programs.

Continuous care

When inmates are ready, they move to a halfway house, where they continue treatment and take part in a work/education program.

That continuity of care is a key to success. Seventy-one percent of inmates who took part in both prison treatment and a work-release program remained out of prison 18 months after release, compared with 48 percent who only had prison-based treatment, according to a study of Delaware inmates by Jim Inciardi, professor at the University of Delaware.

There are certain complexities to running such a prison, however. Paige points out that the problem with getting inmates into a treatment program like SCI-Chester is that inmates won't admit to a drug problem, which might damage their records or hurt chances of parole. Second, many of the inmates at SCI-Chester are not there voluntarily.

"Some are mad that they're here. It takes us a little while to get them to understand where they are and why," says Paige. However, she adds, the outlook is usually good if they can get inmates past the initial 35 to 40 days to a point where they can recognize their problem.

Pinkerson and Bruce Jenkins, another inmate who was convicted of a drug-related assault, say their stay at SCI-Chester has given them a sense of direction.

Both plan to go back to school - Pinkerson to get a degree in computer programming; Jenkins to get an associate degree that would let him work for the prison treatment center.

They say the strict schedule is a stark contrast with previous state prison experiences, where treatment is offered a few hours a week and inmates are often idle.

"It gave me a reality break," says Jenkins. "We can see what we've done with our lives and the people we've hurt, and we're facing up to a lot of responsibilities. Our lives don't have to go to a complete waste."

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