Experts say that providing intensive drug and alcohol treatment, education and job training are the keys to reducing crime and recidivism in the United States, which has the highest prison incarceration rate in the world.
In this country, 748 people out of 100,000 were serving time in prison in 2009.
Based on figures reported for that year in the World Prison Brief, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and The Sentencing Project, no other nation comes close to the United States.
The second-ranked Russian Federation’s incarceration rate was 598 per 100,000 population; followed by Rwanda at 593.
Among Western nations, Spain ranks 80th with a rate of 165 of every 100,000; England and Wales combined rank 87th at 154; Scotland ranks 91st at 152; Canada 121st at 117; and Germany 152nd at 87.
In the U.S. the incarceration rate doesn’t tell the whole story, though.
Bureau of Justice Statistics reported by the PEW Center also show that nearly 5 million Americans are under parole or probation, bringing the total population under control of the correction’s system nationwide to 7.3 million, or one out of every 31 adults.
Karen Yeakley, chairwoman of the Prison Advisory Council for the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City, said studies show that when inmates receive a combination of counseling, education, job training, and drug and alcohol treatment they are less likely to re-offend after being released back into society.
Yeakley said she believes that if rehabilitation were more of a focus in the criminal justice and corrections systems in Oregon and across the country, there would be less crime, less recidivism and fewer victims.
If more prisons provided the type of intensive drug and alcohol treatment, education, job training and work experience available to inmates at Powder River, Yeakley said she believes the United States wouldn’t be locking up a higher percentage of its citizens than every other nation.
“If we can’t make a difference with the programs we are doing, then we are going to have more victims, and the cycle of recidivism will go around and around and around,” she said. “We need to put a stop to it.”
Before she was appointed to the prison advisory council, Yeakley took training in the mid-1990s to become a volunteer at Powder River. At that time, she was a member of the Baker City Council appointed to serve as the Council’s liaison to the minimum-security prison, which opened in 1989.
From 1997-2003, Yeakley, who has a long career in banking and is an assistant manager at Old West Federal Credit Union, volunteered to teach budgeting and financial management classes to inmates.
“When I started volunteering at the prison, it was basically a 50-bed work camp,” Yeakley said.
Over the years it’s grown into a 286-bed prison focused on providing drug and alcohol treatment.
“I taught classes of 25 to 30 inmates in a classroom setting, inside the prison,” Yeakley said.
Many inmates who took Yeakley’s classes had never balanced a checkbook or made a household budget.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that despite nearly two decades of falling crime rates nationwide, the rate of incarceration in county jails, state and federal prisons increased by more than 50 since the mid-1990s, due in part to longer prison sentences imposed by tough-on-crime initiatives such as Oregon’s Measure 11.
Yeakley said she understands the motivation to protect victims with initiatives like Measure 11, passed by Oregon voters in 1994, and others that forced the state into a decade-long prison-building boom.
But simply locking people up for longer periods is costly, and can even be counter-productive if there’s not an emphasis on rehabilitation and treatment.
“I know people make mistakes. I don’t like crime any better than anybody else, but let’s say they serve five years. I don’t want more of the same or worse when they get out,” Yeakley said.
Even with longer sentences, 97 percent of people sentenced to prison eventually are released, she said.
“You are dealing with human beings. I always look ahead to the end result,” Yeakley said. “If you continue longer sentences but don’t provide treatment, education and job training, what do you have when they finally get out?
“I want to see a whole, productive person who is never going to re-offend or hurt people again.”
Given the tough budgeting choices facing the state, Yeakley said she’s lobbying lawmakers to require that any future measures imposing longer prison sentences or more prisons be accompanied by a financial impact statement, informing voters how passage could affect funding for schools, police and other services.
Despite its costs, Measure 11 remains popular in some circles.
“I’d hate to see Measure 11 go away,” said Mitch Southwick, Baker County sheriff.
Violent crimes were the target of Measure 11, and Southwick said the law has succeeded in getting more violent offenders behind bars, where they are no longer preying on victims.
“Voters felt like they had to pass Measure 11 because criminals were not being held accountable. People who were committing crimes, and judges were letting them out on parole and back out on the streets,” Southwick said.
Former Oregon legislator and gubernatorial candidate Kevin Mannix, along with Steve Doell, president of Crime Victims United and the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance, worked to convince voters to pass and retain Measure 11 and other tough-on-crime initiatives.
Crime rates have been going down in Oregon and nationwide for years, during the same time prison populations have gone up. Southwick said that’s because repeat offenders are getting locked up longer, and he believes that’s a good thing.
Even though the United States has the world’s highest rate of incarceration, Southwick said he still believes America’s criminal justice system is the best.
“If I was king, there’s lots of things I would do different, but I think our system is proven to be the best in the world,” Southwick said. “People still have their rights.”
California and some other states have reduced their prison populations by easing penalties for certain drug crimes, but Southwick said he opposes such leniency, including the proposed legalization of drugs.
“It has been my experience that some of the violent crimes, shootings, murders, sex abuse, rape and assaults are drug- and alcohol-related,” Southwick said.
Aside from the well-documented connection between the surge in drug and alcohol abuse and rising rates of both violent crimes and property crimes from the mid-1960s through the early 1990s, Southwick said drug and alcohol addiction is a public health problem as much as it is a criminal justice problem.
That view is shared by 43 percent of police chiefs in small towns across the country surveyed by The Polocer Foundation, compared to 40 percent who regard drug problems as being better handled by the criminal justice system, and 14 percent who said drug problems are best handled by the public health system.
“I believe in treatment. I have been lobbying on behalf of the Sheriff’s Association to get funding for treatment of first-time offenders in the county jail, before they get to prison,” Southwick said. “I think treatment would be probably be more effective before they get to prison.”
Southwick said Baker County did receive $50,000 from the state to provide drug and alcohol treatment to people on probation in Baker County, but he said some people aren’t amenable to treatment.
“Whether it’s gang affiliations or whatever, some people don’t want to be rehabilitated,” Southwick said.
At Powder River, the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) contracts with New Directions Northwest of Baker City to provide drug and alcohol treatment to inmates.
Currently, about 171 of the prison’s 271 inmates are in treatment, said Ken Neff, operations manager at Powder River.
Neff said the DOC sends prisoners to Powder River for treatment when they are nearing the end of their prison sentences, usually with six months to two years left, but only if they are deemed to pose a high risk to re-offend, based on their past criminal records and the role alcohol or drug addictions played in their criminal behavior.
Drugs and alcohol are considered a factor in the felony convictions of about 80 percent of the 14,000 people currently serving time in Oregon’s state prisons. By comparison, just over 600 inmates each year receive treatment at Powder River and two other alternative incarceration prisons in Oregon that focus on drug and alcohol treatment.
“We are designated a high-needs facility for drug and alcohol treatment. Those are the ones the treatment program at Powder River Correctional Facility focuses on,” said Ron Miles, who serves a dual role as food services manager and communications officer at Powder River.
To be eligible for placement at Powder River, Miles said inmates must be at a minimum custody level, which people originally booked at a medium or higher custody level can attain toward the end of their sentences, with credit for good behavior.
“It is an intensive, 14-hours-a-day drug and alcohol treatment program,” Miles said.
Neff said he sees prison as a microcosm of the world, where it takes everyone doing a wide variety of jobs to keep things running smoothly.
Inside prison, Neff said inmates do tasks such as cooking, washing dishes, laundry, janitorial work, gardening and landscaping.
On average, inmates at Powder River earn around $30 to $35 per month.
Dishwashers receive the least, equivalent to 9 points a day or roughly $30 per month. Mechanics are at the top end of the pay system, earning up to 17 points per day, or roughly $75 to $80 per month.
However, they don’t get to keep all of their earnings. Inmate pay is offset by a percentage that goes into the victim restitution fund and inmate welfare fund, and further deductions are taken out for behavior-related fines, based on a statewide point system called the Prison Recognition Awards System.
“There is always going to be accusations of slave labor,” Neff said.
But he points out that inmates are housed, fed, clothed and provided with medical care, and they’re free to spend or save what they earn.
“They can use it to pay for their hygiene items, food products, CD players, CDs, TVs and stuff like that,” Neff said. “Some inmates send it to family, (or) they put it in savings for their release.”
Every year, a few inmates at Powder River who have a qualifying disability and a record of chronic unemployment also can apply to work assembling computer printer cartridges inside the prison for Step Forward Activities of Baker City.
Miles said inmates who apply for the printer cartridge assembly jobs initially earn 9 points during the training period, with a raise to 12 points, equivalent to about $42 a month, once they complete training.
Disabled people doing the same work at the Step Forward Activities plant outside of prison earn at least minimum wage ($8.40 per hour) and can work their way up to $11 to $12 per hour for an assembly worker or up to $16 or more as a foreman or supervisor, said Gene Button, executive director at Step Forward.
Brian Stift, 29, has been at Powder River for nearly three months. He’s been in prison since he was 25, and he is serving a 104-month sentence for mail identify theft and fraud — crimes he committed mostly to get money to buy meth.
He worked off and on in the hospitality industry, either tending bar or serving food in restaurants, but he was unemployed at the time of his arrest.
“I think people should know that these programs exist,” Stift said. “Step Forward and the prison work together to give people a leg up when they are released.”
Josh Ericson, a 26-year-old inmate at Powder River, was unemployed and addicted to methamphetamine when he was sentenced to prison for stealing cars.
“I was unemployed, and the meth made me not care about anything, so I decided to steal stuff,” Ericson said. “The treatment here has shown me that I don’t have to have drugs to have a good time.
“The folks at Step Forward have taught me a lot about being responsible. I hope the experience helps me, so when I get out I can claim this other life,” said Ericson, who has been in prison since he was 19 and is hoping to get out soon with time off for participating in the alternative incarceration program at Powder River.
Tray Mitchell, 41, was sentenced to prison for identify theft. This is his first time incarcerated in Oregon, but he was in prison in Colorado previously for the same crime.
Mitchell said he turned to identity theft to support his family, and to buy cocaine.
He applied for a job assembling printer cartridges “to learn a skill so I can have a chance for a better career when I get out,” Mitchell said.
“I haven’t had treatment yet, but I can see it definitely works. You can see the change in people. Within a couple weeks after they start treatment, they are positive people. That’s what I want,” Mitchell said.
Miles said inmates who want to work and earn good time, along with a little pay, must fill out an application, submit a letter of interest and be interviewed, just like people do on the outside.
Yeakley said inmate work crews utilized in the past by Baker-area non-profit groups, churches and some government agencies were also an effective tool for helping inmates near the end of their sentences learn to be part of the community again.
Unfortunately, she said, funding for the inmate work crews was cut July 1, as part of a 9-percent across-the-board budget cut Gov. Ted Kulongoski ordered state agencies to make to offset declining tax revenues.
Yeakley said she’d like to see that funding restored, because the work crews give inmates an opportunity to see what it means to be part of the community again, and to give something back.
“Encouraging inmates to do something to give back to the community has been an important part of the drug and alcohol treatment program at Powder River for years,” Yeakley said.
Connie Boone, a retired drug and alcohol counselor from Recovery Village in Baker City, said she knows from experience that people who get treatment, education and job training are less likely to re-offend once they’re released.
“If we were doing treatment, education and job training nationwide, that would cure a lot of the ills in our society,” Boone said.
In treating addicts, Boone said it’s amazing to discover the wonderful people who, in effect, come back to life when they complete treatment and stay clean and sober.
“The person was always there, but the drugs or alcohol took the real person away,” Boone said.
Once out of prison, Boone recommends addicts go to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings for the rest of their lives.
“Go to meetings, go to meetings, go to meetings, is what we preach,” Boone said.
Having family members and friends who are willing to attend AL-ANON meetings and learn what their role is in helping addicts stay clean and sober can also be a big help.
“One of my greatest rewards was having clients come back or call and say, ‘I am still clean and sober, and I have a job,’ ” Boone said.
Ultimately, she said, “A person has to want recovery in order to have it.”