SHERIDAN – Wyoming lawmakers are considering several different solutions to address the state’s growing prison population and have already allocated funding for prison treatment programs.
According to an April report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, Wyoming’s incarceration rate increased by 4% in 2017 while the national rate declined.
Northern Wyoming Mental Health Center CEO Paul Demple said the Council for State Governments analyzed Wyoming’s incarceration problem and found that the state had an exceptionally high recidivism rate.
“Their conclusion was, the vast majority of these (repeat offenders’) primary issue was a substance abuse issue,” Demple said. “When they looked at it more, they saw there was a spike in recidivism at the same time the state cut substance abuse treatment funding.”
Those funding cuts, Demple said, particularly hurt treatment programs in the prison system.
“When people were getting treatment in the system and came back to our community, they were yards ahead,” Demple said. “Once they cut the system, we were seeing people get back here not having had treatment…With mental health and substance abuse treatment, you can pay for it now or you can pay for it later, and I think that’s what we’ve seen with the state’s recidivism. These are essential and critical services.”
During the 2018 legislative session, Wyoming’s lawmakers authorized funding to create 90-day intensive outpatient programs intended to offer prisoners substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling and life-skills classes in jails throughout the state. Sheridan County jail was one of several local jails in the state that expressed interest in housing an intensive outpatient program.
Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson said Sheridan County was one of the state’s few local jails that could accommodate more prisoners, which would allow crowded prisons to transport inmates to Sheridan for treatment.
“It comes down to, we have the bed space,” Thompson said. “Many county jails don’t have that bed space, so we have the availability to do it.”
The state would reimburse jails that host the outpatient programs per inmate housed.
“It’s a way to help the state, but it can also bring some money into our county general fund,” Thompson said.
The state has been unable to move forward with implementing the outpatient programs, however, because none of the state’s prisons were compliant with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, federal legislation that requires jails to implement safeguards to prevent sexual assaults against prisoners.
The intensive outpatient programs would potentially put prisoners from the state prison – which is PREA compliant – into local jails, which would jeopardize the Wyoming Department of Corrections compliance with the statute, potentially resulting in a loss of some federal funding.
Thompson said in some cases, jails’ lack of compliance with PREA was a technicality – that is, they had implemented safeguards prescribed by PREA, but still had not been inspected by PREA evaluators to officially verify their compliance.
Sheridan County’s jail has implemented many of them, Thompson said, but sometimes moves slowly on PREA procedures due to the size of its staff. In particular, Thompson said his office has had to delay book-ins for female prisoners until a female law enforcement officer can search the prisoner.
Recently, though, the Wyoming DOC announced it would continue to work with jails on their PREA compliance and allow them to move forward with creating the intensive outpatient programs in the mean time.
Sheridan County is well-positioned to implement intensive outpatient programs for prisoners, Thompson said, because its jail has enough room to accommodate more prisoners and there are several local providers that could administer intensive outpatient care.
Thompson said he is waiting to review a contract from the state DOC regarding the outpatient program, which will flesh out many of the details related to the program, including the rate per prisoner the state will pay participating jails. If the details of the contract make implementing the program in Sheridan County feasible and Thompson signs it, the state will put out a request for proposals to local providers to administer the outpatient program. Demple said he has not seen the state’s RFP yet and does not know whether NWMHC will respond to the RFP yet.
“It’s an interesting idea,” Demple said. “There are still a lot of logistics to work out.”