Sentencing reform debate shines light on lack of substance abuse treatment in prisons




Lawmakers’ ongoing discussions about sentencing reform have turned a spotlight on substance abuse treatment in Arizona prisons, and the stark lack of options for the more than three quarters of inmates who have addiction issues.

The Arizona Department of Corrections says 78 percent of the inmates in its custody have a history of substance abuse at the time they’re admitted into prison. But less than 4 percent of all inmates who spent time in Arizona prisons in fiscal year 2019 received treatment while behind bars. 

At the end of November, 933 inmates were enrolled in substance abuse programming. That accounted for about 2.2 percent of the total inmate population of 42,562. Department spokesman Bill Lamoreaux emphasized that that figure is just a snapshot of enrollment, and doesn’t account for people who have completed treatment but are still incarcerated.

Of the 60,272 inmates who saw the inside of a state correctional facility during the last fiscal year, only 2,299, or about 3.8 percent of the year’s total prison population, graduated from substance abuse programs. 

The need for treatment exceeds the availability of programming, Lamoreaux said.

Few places to turn

Virginia Mireles has experienced that firsthand.

Mireles had already done several stints in prison when she was sentenced to five years for property crimes she committed to feed her heroin addiction in 2013. This time, she was committed to getting sober and kicking her 28-year heroin addiction.

“Any crime I’ve ever committed has been in regard to getting my fix,” said Mireles, who has now been sober for nearly seven years.

In her five years in Perryville, Mireles sent five letters to prison officials asking to be enrolled in substance abuse treatment. The first four went ignored, she said. Officials finally responded on the fifth try and said she would be placed on a waiting list for a program. But by then, Mireles had less than a year left on her sentence and therefore was ineligible to participate.

Mireles’s predicament isn’t uncommon. The Department of Corrections uses a ranking system based on need, risk to recidivate and time remaining on a prison sentence to determine which inmates get enrolled in programming. Inmates who can qualify for an early release by completing substance abuse counseling go to the front of the line. Treatment ranges from 36 hours for people convicted of drunk driving to 12-month “intensive treatment,” according to Lamoreaux. 

In August, Karen Hellman, who runs the Department of Corrections’ division for inmate programs, told a legislative committee studying sentencing reform that 13 of her division’s 26 positions for substance abuse treatment counselors were vacant. Lamoreaux told the Arizona Mirror that a recent salary increase has helped fill six vacant positions.

Under Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law, inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, but can earn the option to serve the remaining 15 percent on community supervision. A 2019 law lowered the requirement to 70 percent for people who were only convicted of drug offenses, if they complete addiction counseling or other programming. As of late June, 101 inmates were already eligible for early release and nearly 7,400 others could become eligible in the future.

While inmates who are in line for an early release have an obvious need for priority, that may leave other inmates without access to the treatment they need. Inmates with substance abuse problems and long prison sentences often go many years before receiving treatment. Mireles was granted an early release after serving 85 percent of her sentence in exchange for attending 90 days of substance abuse treatment after her release.

Nate Dixon, who spent five and a half years in prison as a result of a “pretty mean substance abuse problem,” was among the lucky few who was able to get substance abuse treatment while behind bars in Arizona. During his incarceration at the Department of Corrections’ Tucson facility, he participated in Men in Recovery, a “super intense” six-month program in which he participated in two-and-a-half-hour classes twice a week. His status as a veteran gave him access that many of his fellow inmates didn’t have, though he noted that not everyone who participated was a veteran.

Though he’d been sober for four years by the time he was actually admitted into the program, Dixon said the program helped him deal with the underlying issues that fueled his problem. After eight years sober and two years as a free man, Dixon still uses the lessons he learned there on a daily basis.

“It really helped me peel back the layers. At the time that I took that class, I was four years sober, four years completely sober. After I took that class, I actually finally felt like I was healed,” Dixon said.

Dixon served his time with a lot of other guys who weren’t able to get treatment or who didn’t avail themselves of the opportunities. Of about 50 people he was close with during his incarceration, Dixon estimates that all but three have “gone back to the lifestyle” and gotten in trouble again.

One friend in particular stands out in Dixon’s mind. The friend was a methamphetamine addict who had been sober for 10 years. Nonetheless, Dixon repeatedly urged him to enroll in Men in Recovery. But the friend didn’t think he needed it. Dixon said that person was using meth again within six months of his release.

“Every single guy in prison should have this available to them,” Dixon said. “The guys that took this class, you talk to these guys and it’s just palpable how much better off they are.”

Options are limited

Even when treatment is available, it’s not always of the highest caliber. Rebecca Fealk, program coordinator for the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that promotes criminal justice reform, has heard many stories from former inmates about treatment that basically consists of, “do this packet and I’ll watch you in the classroom while you complete this packet, which talks about making the right choices or what kind of coping mechanisms would you have so you don’t do drugs again.” 

“That’s not actual treatment and counseling. Those are worksheets,” Fealk said.

Donna Hamm, director of the prison reform organization Middle Ground, said treatment sometimes consists of little more than filling out a workbook, and those in need sometimes don’t even get counselor. When they do, she said, “counselor” is often a misnomer. Joe Watson, a former inmate who now works for the American Friends Service Committee, said treatment is often provided not by counselors but by correctional officers who lack training in treating substance abuse issues.

“You and I would go to a therapist or a psychiatrist or a psychologist and lay on a couch and discuss our innermost feelings. This is a person who’s essentially pushing paper,” Hamm said.

Outside volunteers offer Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or other classes. Other times, inmates themselves lead classes for those hoping to kick their addiction problems. Some, like Dixon, found them to be of little use. Others, such as Mireles, say those inmate-led programs are helpful. 

“The peer support, having people that live the situation you live and are trying not to go back there again, I would say it was very helpful,” Mireles said.

Criminal justice reform proponents are looking to make major changes to Arizona’s harsh sentencing laws. A far-reaching proposal in 2019 died quietly after a committee chairman refused to give it a hearing. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are looking to raise the issue against during the 2020 session. Other advocates are hoping to put a far-reaching plan on the November ballot.

If Arizona is going to pass sentencing reform, especially if it’s going to tie early releases to substance abuse counseling or other programming, the Department of Corrections will need to provide more options to inmates. 

Throughout the six meetings held by the House Ad Hoc Committee on Earned Release Credits for Prisoners, the lack of substance abuse treatment and was a constant theme among experts, advocates, formerly inmates and people whose loved ones have been incarcerated. Numerous lawmakers and witnesses blamed the lack of treatment for Arizona’s 38-percent recidivism rate for inmates who are within three years of their release. Hellman told the committee that the Department of Corrections lacks the resources to provide treatment for everyone who wants or needs it.

More treatment on the agenda

Multiple lawmakers are contemplating how to increase availability as they prepare for the upcoming legislative session.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, has sponsored legislation to create a loan repayment program for substance abuse counselors, therapists, psychologists and other mental health professionals who are willing to work for the Department of Corrections for at least five years.

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, frequently focused on the need for more substance abuse and mental health treatment in prisons during his time on the sentencing reform committee. He hopes to put a proposition on the November ballot that would ask voters to reallocate millions from the state’s medical marijuana fund to pay for it.

“Our law enforcement agencies are very good at finding out who does what and arresting them for it. But we keep hearing that they end up arresting the same people over and over again because we’re not doing anything to address the underlying issue,” Roberts said.

Gov. Doug Ducey said the state needs money for substance abuse treatment in its prisons. It’s unclear whether he’ll push for more funding in the fiscal year 2021 budget, but said he plans to focus on reducing recidivism.

“Prison … is not the best place for people with mental health issues, often substance abuse issues. Sometimes people are in prison because they’re feeding that addiction. So we are looking at different alternatives in terms of reforms that we can have so that we can give people a second chance and allow them to make a better choice. And substance abuse programs are part of that,” the governor told reporters in December.

Fealk, on the other hand, doesn’t believe the department needs for funding at all. The Department of Corrections has a budget of about $1.1 billion. Rather than give it more, Fealk said the department needs to change the way it spends its money to prioritize things like treatment.

Jeremy Duda
Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”