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Mixing custody and substance abuse treatment
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 10/06/2008

1006balance scale3784875 Editor’s note: This story is being shared with us by the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel, from its newsletter, The Correctional Trainer.

In my readings, I came across an excellent book on corrections, Corrections: Past, Present and Future, by Jeanne B. Stinchcomb, PhD, from Florida Atlantic University. It is available from the American Correctional Association, and was published in 2005.

In the chapter titled “Special Populations in Corrections,” there is an interesting feature, “Close Up on Corrections” that discusses the question “What Works in Correctional Drug Treatment?” It is based on the report issued by the National Task Force on Correctional Substance Abuse Strategies, Intervening with Substance Abusing Offenders: A Framework for Action (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections, 1991).

Even though this report was issued in 1991, the task force recommendations still ring true and can be applied to all correctional substance abuse treatment programs. Corrections staff must understand that there are no easy answers to the problems of offenders and substance abuse.

Corrections staff see the results - multiple crimes, long criminal histories, broken families, ruined lives, disease, overcrowded correctional facilities, and psychological problems. Some corrections officers become jaded as the same offenders are seen re-entering the facility over and over, for reasons ranging from new crimes to probation and parole violations.

I have often said that custody staff and treatment staff must work together if these problems are to be effectively addressed. Working together means understanding each other’s responsibilities and roles. In my view, the elements of effective approaches to substance abuse treatment require this understanding.

Let’s examine each, crossing over from treatment staff to custody staff:
  • Individual treatment plans that are multi disciplinary: Offenders may require, as part of their treatment plans, to be enrolled in several programs-including education, life skills, and religious programs.

  • Matching offenders with supervision, control, and treatment programs that are appropriate to their assessed needs: Some offenders may be assessed by treatment staff as needing different levels of supervision and control. For example, some may need to be in more secure housing in the general population while others may be classified appropriate for direct supervision.

  • A full range of services, from substance abuse education to intensive residential treatment: This is a multi-tasked approach, and some offenders may be transferred to residential treatment. However, if some are security risks, it is the duty of the custodial staff to enforce discipline, maintain close supervision and if necessary to remove the offender from programs.

  • Pre-release treatment programming: A critical approach to treatment is the reintegration- the return - of offenders to the community. Custody staff should make treatment staff aware of good candidates for work release and electronic incarceration programs. Offenders that adjust well to incarceration obey the rules and put forth a sincere effort to change their behaviors should be known to staff.

  • Integrated treatment and custody staffing: Therapeutic community units or treatment units as well as classrooms and volunteer activities must be supervised closely by custody staff. Treatment staff, including volunteers, and custody staff should know and respect each other’s responsibilities and job tasks in the facility.

  • Use of incentives and sanctions to increase offender motivation: Offenders who break the rules should be reported and disciplined. Depending on the violation, they could be given a second chance. Also, incentives and rewards can be given such as an offender making trusty or earning extra good time per agency policy.

    Another incentive is to inform offenders if they do well in a treatment program, they may be recommended for work release or electronic incarceration to the sentencing judge or the community corrections screening staff.

  • Self help groups to provide adjunct services for treatment and aftercare: Volunteers are an important resource as they provide assistance for treatment staff and are a liaison to community resources. Volunteers must be properly trained in security, working with inmates and communicating with staff.

  • Targeted programs for special needs offenders: Some programs are very specific, depending on the needs of offenders. Progress may be slow, and offenders, especially the mentally ill, may relapse. Custody staff must be aware of this and tolerant. However, safety of staff - all staff - and offenders is still of primary importance.

  • Education and treatment for relapse prevention: Being given a second chance is frightening to some offenders. The “pull” of the street-criminal associations, alcohol and drugs, etc. is strong. Offenders must be supported and encouraged as much as possible to “stick with” treatment programs.
Treatment and custody, seeing and understanding each other - that is the true spirit of corrections.

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired from the Fairfax County (VA) Sheriff’s Office in 2005. He is a long time member of IACTP and is the co founder with Tim Manley, MSW, LCSW of ETC, LLC: Education and Training in Corrections.

He has written several books on corrections, including The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, from Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. His latest book, The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition is due to be published by the American Correctional Association in late 2008. Gary can be reached at 571-233-0912 or at adjinstructor@aol.com


  1. LeahG on 10/25/2009:

    Very interesting read. I have recently been doing a research for an Alcohol Rehab Facility and came across this post. There are also some self-help things you can do to lay off your addiction. What is really important is having the support and love of your family and friends in trying times.

  2. maria on 03/18/2009:

    I have read your article and it's given me alot of thought. It saddens me to see young people ingaging in such behavior. I'm not a corrections officer,but I've been given the oppertunity to visit with inmates. I've visited one young man many times. It's amazing how people's lives become so much eaiser when you have someone to talk to. This young indivdual has became a better person and wants to do something with his life just because someone cared. It doesn't take much to change one's life. It's important to me to able to listen to someone's opinion.

  3. One Life on 10/17/2008:

    I found your article interesting from an institutional point of view. I have personally worked with inmates over a number of years simply by mentoring them, writing to them, encouraging them to make necessary changes in their life. It's amazing how they respond when someone cares. I think a mentoring program would be wonderful. I had a young man call me today that I corresponded with for five years and he told me he is being ordained as a pastor. Another young man that I mentored is working for the city of NY and settled down now with a baby. These young men have turned their lives around and are now productive members of society simply because someone cared about them. Food for thought! One Life

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