BOULDER — Editor’s note: This story is the first of a two-part series on a new book critiquing the Montana Department of Corrections’ management of treatment programs for criminal offenders.
In a book they co-authored and published, two former employees at a Montana correctional treatment program for female inmates say it was a big success – but the state shut it down in 2018, in part to fulfill contracts with privately run treatment programs.
The authors, who worked at the Riverside Recovery and Re-Entry Program in Boulder, also say the defunct program could and should be a model for successful treatment of felons in Montana, rather than what they see as programs that over-emphasize punishment.
“We were very different in the fact that we allowed the women to make choices,” said Rhonda Champagne, the lead counselor at Riverside and a designer of the program. “I think in other programs, the Department of Corrections doesn’t want that kind of relationship.
“They want this hierarchy -- `I’m the one in charge, and you’re going to listen to what I say.’ I understand that from a prison perspective, but we were running a treatment program.”
“The other treatment programs – I don’t want to suggest that they’re all bad,” added Michael Johnson, the co-author of the book and Riverside’s former housing unit manager and security chief. “But the recidivism rates are too high. We could do better.”
For example, at Riverside, Champagne insisted that it abandon its policy of strip-searching women when they entered the program – a procedure that’s standard in most state correctional programs elsewhere in Montana.
“You can’t start off treatment, in my opinion, by absolutely tearing a person down to their basic nakedness in a most humiliating manner,” she said. “I don’t care how nicely you tell somebody to take their clothes off – that’s not treatment.”
Johnson and Champagne, who live in Helena, self-published their book, “Correcting Treatment in Corrections,” this fall. The 176-page book recounts the beginning and development of the Riverside Recovery and Re-Entry Program, a 90-day treatment program for women inmates, and its demise.
Champagne, a licensed clinical social worker, was hired by the state Department of Corrections to help develop Riverside as a pilot project for women, as a “trauma-informed” treatment program to help those who’d experienced trauma to recover and start to become more self-sufficient and confident.
Johnson, who worked 12 years as a correctional officer and counselor for DOC at Riverside before leaving this year, said working within the program changed his life and his mind about treatment for criminal offenders.
The vast majority of offenders are in prison for non-violent crimes, he said, and Riverside showed him that using treatment as punishment is the wrong way to go.
“It was very positive-based,” he said of the Riverside program. “It was very focused on healing the women, as opposed to punishing them, as opposed to breaking them down. By the time they were heading out the door, they were more powerful than their addictions.”
Many of the women in the program were drug offenders and had undergone significant trauma in their lives: Drug or alcohol addiction, domestic abuse, losing their children, or witnessing a loved one commit suicide.
The Riverside treatment program, at a state-owned facility on the south edge of Boulder, began in 2016, at a facility that previously housed juvenile female offenders.
The next year, Gov. Steve Bullock toured the facility with state Corrections Director Reg Michael, and heard residents and staff extol the success of the program. At the time, officials said they planned to expand the 22-bed facility to 32 beds.
But 16 months later, in September 2018, Corrections official abruptly shut it down, with virtually no notice to employees or women in the program.
They said the state already had two treatment programs for women inmates – run by private contractors – and didn’t have enough need for three programs.
They also said the Riverside facility would be remodeled to house geriatric inmates who had been staying at a state facility in Lewistown, which was being closed.
State corrections officials initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, but last week canceled those interviews and would answer questions only in writing.
In a written reply, Deputy Corrections Director Cynthia Wolken said repurposing Riverside for the older inmates and moving the women there to other programs is saving $2.7 million over a two-year period – although it also cost nearly $900,000 to remodel the facility.
Johnson, who worked at Riverside until earlier this year, said he doubted those savings, because of frequent transportation he witnessed of the geriatric inmates from the Boulder facility for medical care in Helena or Butte.
DOC also confirmed, in its written comments, that obligations to the private contractors played a role in the closure of the Riverside treatment program.
It said it had paid at least $182,000 to the Elkhorn Treatment Center, a privately run program in Boulder for women inmates, for beds going unused while Riverside was full. Under its contract with Elkhorn, DOC must pay for at least 75 percent of its bed space – regardless of whether the beds are full.
“It was not a good use of taxpayer dollars to open Riverside without ensuring the population existed to sustain it, and the other treatment resources for which the department was obligated,” DOC wrote.
Johnson and Champagne said they believe the Riverside treatment program had proven to be successful, and that the state should be choosing programs for inmates based on their success – not whether they fulfill private contracts.
Johnson said DOC data shows that at Riverside, two-thirds of the women who completed the program had not returned to prison or jail for more than a year after leaving it – which DOC considered a success.
When asked how Riverside’s results compared to other treatment programs within the DOC system, including privately run programs, the department said it wouldn’t be an “apples to apple comparison – even if available.”
Each program has different “risk levels” of offenders, the department said, making comparisons not necessarily valid.
Most contracts the state has with private nonprofit treatment facilities requires the contractors to track offender “return rates” and recidivism, or, in other words, how often program graduates return to incarceration.
The department said it hadn’t “specifically collected” that information, but that the contractors should have it.
Johnson and Champagne noted that most DOC contracts with private nonprofits running treatment and other correctional programs have 20-year terms, locking in the state regardless of a program’s success.
A legislative audit released this summer also said DOC has no standards for evaluating the effectiveness of its multiple contracts for treatment programs.
“Those contracts are absolutely what closed down a program that was doing very well and meeting Department of Correction goals: Reducing recidivism, re-integrating people back into the community, successfully, stronger, overcoming their addictions and traumas,” Johnson said.
The authors' website is www.correctingtreatment.com.
Tomorrow: What’s in these contracts – and how and whether they shape correctional policy.