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Old 09-06-2003, 10:03 PM
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Default Sentenced to Fail - A Look at MDOC Failures

Sunday, August 31, 2003

By Tim Younkman

Prison probably hasn't changed the killer or child molester who just left a cell block and moved onto your block.

There's a 40 to 50 percent chance the ex-convict down the street will cause trouble again, experts say.

The ex-cons agree.

Take Antonio James Estacio, 25, of Bay City, who's been in trouble with the law since he was 13. His most recent offense: beating up his mother.

Estacio will be released from the Ionia Maximum Security Facility in the next few years, yet says he hasn't received the counseling necessary to end the violence.

"You go back home, onto the same streets, with the same people you hung out with before, and you know something's going to happen," said Estacio. "I very well could come back here."

He's not alone. Thousands of Michigan prisoners are re-entering society during a time of reform cutbacks.

The problem is multi-faceted:

Judges can recommend but cannot require counseling for the men and women they sentence. Too often, judges say, their recommendations are not followed. Bay County Chief Circuit Judge Lawrence M. Bielawski said he has found it difficult to talk to Department of Corrections officials.

"I've tried calling them and they put me off," Bielawski said. "I keep having to go higher on the ladder. I've not been told why they won't follow our recommendations."

State budget cuts tie the hands of people who work for the prison system. The system provides some counseling to as many prisoners as possible, but it's a matter of demand outweighing supply. Roger Smith, retired director of the Center for Forensic Psychiatry within the Department of Community Health, which oversees prison mental health programs, said the system will have to make do for some time to come.

"This is a difficult budget climate," Smith said. "We are like everyone else. Everyone took a hit."

And, many prisoners say they need counseling but instead are put on waiting lists. Some say their prison terms have been extended because counseling hasn't been available. "They haven't given me anything" in the way of counseling, said Carlos Lopez, 34, who is serving a sentence for manslaughter in the shooting deaths of two men in Bay City on April 19, 1994.

"I want counseling, I know I need it, but I will probably never get it," said Lopez, who is housed in Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.

Demand outweighs supply

Inmates like Estacio and Lopez are caught in a numbers game.

The Department of Corrections has about 100 psychologists on staff to serve the roughly 49,500 inmates in the state prison system.

That's not enough counselors, said Dan Levay of Bay City. Levay is a former prison counselor at Standish Maximum Correctional Facility who quit in frustration over the caseload. He now works at Bay Regional Medical Center.

There are 13 counseling teams for Michigan's prison system, according to the Department of Corrections. Each team has a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, nurse and secretary.

"There are 100-140 inmates for a team," Levay said. "You also have to realize that we just didn't see the 100-140 prisoners, but because of turnover of the prison population, we'd see as many as 300 prisoners."

Overall in the corrections system, about 6,000 inmates receive psychological treatment of some kind, and about half of them are treated through group counseling led by psychologists, according to Department of Corrections officials.

Levay said that even with the team approach, prisoners get the "minimal care that can be done. ... The effectiveness (of counseling) is questionable" given those conditions.

A waiting list is set up for inmates needing psychological counseling based on their earliest release date - the date when the minimum sentence has been served and the offender could be released on parole.

Most criminals incarcerated for nonassaultive crimes or nonviolent acts are not scheduled for counseling.

Tony Straseske, chief of psychological services for the state Corrections Department, acknowledges there is a backlog of prisoners who can't get counseling and that prisoners routinely are released before getting treatment.

"Part of it is due to manpower," he said. "If you provide longer-term programs, it will be extremely costly."

Straseske said there is no money available to add more personnel, such as psychologists, to handle the increased work that long-term programs would require.

"Part of the reason (for not having more extensive programs) is resources versus need," Straseske said. "What is the best that can be provided for the most folks?

"We try to provide these services just before parole so that they can be presented to the parole board as having completed their counseling sessions," he said.

Under Department of Corrections guidelines, prisoners with convictions for assaultive behavior or sex offenses have to undergo some psychological counseling shortly before being released.

Officials said assaultive prisoners must complete the minimum amount of group therapy sessions before they are allowed to be paroled. Some have been held back from parole pending the completion of the treatment program - prisoners call that "flopping."

If they are "flopped" back in order to complete the program, it usually will take another year before they can come up for parole again.

However, Staseske said, prisoners who complete their maximum sentence are released and don't necessarily have to complete treatment.

Levay, the former Standish prison counselor, argues that counseling should be given to violent offenders and sex offenders as soon as their sentence begins, rather than crammed in as they near release.

And, Levay says, even nonviolent offenders should be considered for some sort of counseling because of the effect prison can have on a person.

Levay believes the fears most offenders experience when first entering prison soon turns to anger. And anger that is harbored for years while a prisoner is behind bars is difficult to overcome when counseling is given just before a release date.

If the underlying causes of the criminal behavior could be confronted earlier, Levay says, the treatment would have a better chance of success.

Money is always an issue

An inmate's ability to get counseling has as much to do with money as it does with his or her crime or criminal background.

The Department of Corrections operates on a budget of about $1.6 billion, and about 1 percent - $16 million - is spent on counseling. Another 5 percent - $68 million - pays for more intense mental health treatment, according to 2002 budget figures.

But mental health treatment is in the same boat as the rest of the prison budget - riding a wave of budget cuts.

The Department of Corrections' overall budget was cut by 1 percent in Gov. Engler's 2002 fiscal year budget, and then another 0.5 percent this year, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gail Madziar.

Of $16 million in cuts to prison operations,

$5 million came out of the prisons' mental health treatment program, according to Department of Correction officials.

The Department of Corrections budget for 2003 includes $15.8 million for counseling and treatment by department psychologists, according to officials.

That includes the initial screening and evaluation of prisoners, as well as general counseling.

The 2003 budget provides $68.2 million to Community Health for hospital treatment and other intensive mental health services, down about $5 million from a year ago. Most intense mental health treatment for prisoners is handled by Michigan Department of Community Health.

Roger Smith, director of the Center for Forensic Psychiatry within the Department of Community Health, said the department will have to adjust priorities for treatment, although cuts can't be avoided.

The end result, he said, could mean less treatment for prisoners across the board.

The $1.6 billion Department of Corrections budget for 2004 - which goes into effect on Oct. 1 - calls for a 0.8 percent increase in funding.

But costs also are rising, requiring spending cuts totaling $160 million.

"That will be in administrative areas such as overtime, and will not come from custody-based programs," Madziar said.

Administrative jobs that are vacated probably won't be filled and there will be no new construction, Madziar said. Nor will the state open two prison facilities that have been closed for several years, she said.

Madziar said in order to contain costs, the priority in the coming year will be to keep the prison population under its 50,000-inmate capacity.

That will be a challenge. The prison population was 49,519 in mid-August, she said, and projections show all state prison facilities will be full by January 2005.

On a long-term basis, plans will have to be made to determine what to do as the population jumps over 50,000, Madziar said.

But in the short term, the Department of Corrections has made changes to reduce the number or parolees returning to prison.

For example, nonviolent violations of parole rules - such as abusing alcohol or drugs - will no longer lead to automatic trips back to prison.

"We are trying to work to make these people productive members of society, and perhaps locally based programs might be possible," Madziar said.

In other words, parole violators won't always be sent right back to prison, which means the growth in the prison population might be slowed if not reversed, Madziar pointed out.

Judges want to be heard

Local judges play what would seem to be a crucial role in the mental health treatment process - it is their task to recommend to the prison system what type of counseling a felon should receive.

"If I felt that a person is in dire need of treatment based on everything I have learned, I would believe he would receive treatment," said Bay County Chief Circuit Judge Bielawski. "Prison is not a good place to be without some kind of help."

Judges base their recommendation on information gathered from a prisoner's case history and from information gathered during the trial.

If the defendant has had prior trouble with the law, a judge also may review sentencing recommendations made by probation officials, which includes a routine mental evaluation of the defendant.

But the realities of crowded prisons and tight budgets often put those recommendations on the shelf.

Judges cannot order the prison system to do anything except take custody of a prisoner for a specified length of time, Bielawski said.

Roger Smith, retired director of the Center for Forensic Psychiatry of the Michigan Department of Community Health, helped formulate the mental health treatment policies for the department.

Smith said the judges' recommendations are reviewed but are not necessarily followed.

"The judge may recommend mental health treatment, but maybe the person is not mentally ill," he said, noting the evaluation should show mental health personnel what type of treatment, if any, is needed.

Staff members working in the prisons have been trained to observe prisoners' behavior to determine if any further mental health evaluation is needed, Smith said.

"If a defendant's behavior is strange - and it is determined that the person is mentally ill - we are required to pick up those people into our programs," he said.

Bielawski said he would like to see the Department of Corrections change its procedures to incorporate the court's recommendation in setting up treatment, and to communicate back to the sentencing judge on what is being done.

Bielawski said judges and presentence investigators from the county probation department are more familiar with all of the details of the case and the background of the individual. Therefore, he says, it's important their recommendations are followed.

However, he says, it isn't likely that anything will change, especially in the wake of budget cuts statewide.

Corrections officials said in interviews with The Times that most sex offenders and violent offenders get less that one year of group counseling before being put back on the street.

Some are released without any treatment because they've reached their "maximum sentence release date," which means they have served the total amount of time imposed on them by the court.

Yet statistics provided at a Department of Corrections conference attended by Judge Bielawski and Bay County Circuit Judge William J. Caprathe in 2001 stressed the need for counseling.

The judges learned that more counseling means fewer offenders return to prison. The rate of recidivism - the number of those who return to prison - for sex offenders who receive one year of counseling is 18 percent, while it is about 38 percent when no counseling is given, Bielawski said they were told at the conference.

Inmates struggle with the system

Peter K. Denison Jr., 37, of Bangor Township, is an example of how the prison counseling system can benefit inmates - and frustrate them.

Denison is serving four to 15 years after being convicted of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was convicted of having sexual contact with a 10-year-old girl in February 2000, and expects to be released in October 2004.

He is enthusiastic about the counseling he is receiving, but says he's frustrated by canceled meetings and lack of consistency.

"The program I am in is very intense work," Denison said of the group counseling program in G. Robert Cotton Correction Facility in Jackson.

"The main part of the therapy is studying and working on your own. The workbooks are excellent. They make you understand yourself and your problems."

He said the group sessions are good in "talking out situations and problems, but they are canceled a lot" if a psychologist is on vacation, sick or has an emergency to attend to.

"You wait all week to talk about your problem and then it is canceled," he said. "It's just frustrating."

Straseske, director of psychological services for the prison system, said the department is dealing with a backlog of cases and more counselors cannot be added because of budget restraints.

He said the department scaled down the group counseling sessions to one year or less so that more prisoners can be included.

The program now calls for a minimum of 44 to a maximum of 52 sessions, although it could take longer than a year to complete because counselors are not always available to run the sessions.

If an inmate needs more extensive treatment while in prison, the case is turned over to the state Department of Community Health.

With a scaled-back counseling program being provided by the state, the expectation is that prisoners will continue counseling once they are released, Straseske said, thus relieving the state of some of its financial burden.

Prisoners on parole are expected to pay for the continued counseling themselves, Straseske said.

That was the experience of Douglas Toews, 38, of Bay City.

Toews was sentenced to two to five years for carrying a weapon with unlawful intent, a crime that stemmed from a domestic violence incident.

Toews says he sought counseling in prison and put his name on a waiting list, but learned it would take six to eight months to get into a group session. Since his weapons crime did not constitute a violent act, he was not automatically put in for group counseling before his release.

Prison officials recommended he seek counseling once he was released, but told him he would have to pay for it himself, he said.

Toews, who was released last year on parole, has since been arrested on another charge. He was jailed in April on charges of domestic violence and invasion of privacy and is awaiting trial.

Earlier, he had commented on the difficulty of paying for counseling.

"To get started, I have to pay $75 for the first visit and then $20 for each visit afterward," he said. "People always don't have money to pay for this type of service."

Toews said the prison programs he observed are understaffed.

"Even if they would put one or two more people (counselors) in each prison, it would help. This way, I'm out and I haven't had much in the way of counseling help."

Help starts at home

Despite the changes to Michigan's prison systems, more still needs to be done, experts say. It's a complex problem that cannot be changed within the confines of prison walls.

Especially since only 25 percent of Circuit Court sentences result in a prison sentence, noted Matt Davis, a former spokesman of the Department of Corrections who now works as a lobbyist in Lansing.

Most defendants go to local jails, on probation or tether programs, do community service or go to boot camps.

The system, Davis says, can't be expected to single-handedly change people after a lifetime of failure by others.

"The most important influences on a person are his family and friends and it is an absurd expectation for the Department of Corrections to take the place of those influences," he said.

Nor should families take the attitude that there is a magic wand the department can wave, Davis said.

"We can't take the place of a person's home," he said. "Keeping out of prison is the key."

© 2003 Bay City Times. Used with permission

Copyright 2003 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.
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Old 09-11-2003, 12:44 PM
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Mrs. D.

thanks for this. It was very enlightening. I guess it won't be easy for Brian to get the counselling that was ordered by the court

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Old 09-11-2003, 01:17 PM
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Thanks for sharing...


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