|Spotlight: Montana’s Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center programs
|By Amy L. Abendroth,Correctional Unit Manager for the MASC Program
Jails across the United States are bursting at the seams and prisons are faring no better. How can we best utilize the limited secure space at our disposal?
Perhaps a more pointed question is: How do we handle those inmates who seem to be “clogging” the system? Specifically, how do we deal with inmates who have been convicted of sexual offenses, those who battle serious alcohol and drug addictions as well as those with mental health issues? Secure facilities throughout the nation are overwhelmed with these special-needs offenders.
A community corrections program in western Montana has been tasked with assessing and providing referrals for such offenders. The Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center (MASC) is a state program operating under the Community Corrections Division of the Montana Department of Corrections.
MASC was created in 2003 at the suggestion of Mike Ferriter, who was administrator of community corrections at the time and is now department director. Since its inception, MASC has been organized and cultivated into a successful program under the leadership of Administrator Dan Maloughney.
MASC operates under a contract between the state and the Missoula County sheriff’s department and is housed inside a unit of the Missoula County Detention Facility. The county provides all security staffing for MASC.
To understand MASC’s mission and work, one must first recognize that Montana’s criminal justice system is unique. Judges have more flexibility than imposing a prison, deferred or suspended sentence for felony offenders. Depending on the factors in each case, judges have the option to sentence someone to the department, referred to as a “DOC commit.” This leaves the placement decisions to corrections professionals.
DOC commits can be placed directly into a community corrections program or undergo further assessment to determine their suitability for community placement.
That assessment process is conducted at MASC. MASC serves only adult male offenders; the equivalent for women is housed in a separate facility in eastern Montana. If a court sentences an offender to the department, the sentence can be for any length of time allowed by law. However, all but five years must be suspended in order for an offender to be eligible for placement at MASC. Offenders who are sentenced directly to prison are not eligible for MASC.
One of MASC’s initial goals was to divert approximately half of incoming offenders into community corrections programs, rather than sending them to prison. But the program has been far more successful, diverting three out of every four offenders.
MASC is also tasked with upholding the DOC mission:
The Montana Department of Corrections enhances public safety, promotes positive change in offender behavior, reintegrates offenders into the community and supports the victims of crime.
Therefore, MASC staff must be diligent in their assessments in an attempt to facilitate the best possible outcomes, both for the community and for offenders. This is particularly challenging as MASC does not generally receive offenders who are easy to place. Instead, the bulk of MASCs population is comprised of special-needs inmates: sex offenders, the chemically dependent and those with mental health issues.
Attorneys and probation officers can provide offenders with applications to community corrections programs. Therefore, offenders who are easy to place are often approved for community programs prior to sentencing or shortly after. Community corrections programs are less likely to take special-needs offenders immediately after sentencing. Understandably, they prefer to take only those special-needs offenders who have gone through an assessment process and have been deemed appropriate for community placement.
Sex offenders, chemically dependent offenders and those with mental health issues are a concern for institutions all over the United States. However, Montana’s correctional institutions have been more heavily populated with these special-needs offenders than many other states. This underscores the significance and importance of an assessment and referral program like MASC.
Nationwide, estimates are that more than 12 percent of incarcerated individuals are sex offenders (Sabol et al., 2007). In Montana, the rate is more than twice as high at 28.7 percent (Law and Justice Committee, 2009). Although Montana has six prerelease centers (referred to as work release centers or halfway houses in some states), only two of those centers accept sex offenders. Additionally, Montana State Prison has the only in-patient sex offender treatment program in the state, and sex offenders in Montana – treated or not – are rarely granted parole because of the limited community placement options due to public views of sex offenders.
Yet, statistics indicate that treated sex offenders have a lower recidivism rate than many other offenders. Among the treated sex offenders who have been released from Montana State Prison in the past 21 years, only 2 percent returned to prison for a new sexually related offense (Law and Justice Committee, 2009).
Chemically dependent offenders comprise another large portion of the incarcerated population in Montana. Nationally, almost 80 percent of inmates nationwide are incarcerated due to substance abuse and dependence (Khalsa, 2003). In Montana, about 90 percent of offenders are chemically dependent (Conley and Schantz, 2006).
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 65 percent to 70 percent of inmates released on parole nationwide are sent back to prison within three years, primarily because they return to their use of drugs and alcohol. While treatment does not guarantee that offenders will remain sober, a lack of treatment certainly increases the chance for relapse and/or recidivism.
Mentally ill inmates are a third group of special-needs offenders prevalent in Montana. Nationwide, the rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is 56.2 percent (Fellner, 2006). An estimated 40 percent of inmates in Montana suffer from some form of mental illness (Conley and Schantz, 2006).
Unfortunately, most jails and prisons are ill equipped to appropriately treat and monitor mentally ill offenders due to a lack of staffing, limited medication options and other barriers. Additionally, mentally ill offenders are more likely to disobey institutional rules, receive write-ups; and, consequently, are more likely to be denied parole based on their behavior while incarcerated.
The prevailing sentiment among the American population is that the government should be “tough on crime,” particularly in regard to sex offenders. Little progress has been made in illuminating the fact that we cannot simply lock up everyone and throw away the key. Most offenses do not warrant the death penalty or a life sentence. The bulk of all offenders will, at some point or another, be back out in society.
It would serve us well to provide these individuals with as many tools as possible in order to assist them in becoming law-abiding citizens. In the case of special-needs offenders, treatment in conjunction with stability and supervision are some of the most important tools we can offer.
In the past six years, the MASC program has successfully facilitated treatment, stability and supervision for special needs offenders. MASC staff has conducted over 3,000 chemical dependency, mental health and/or sexual offender assessments. The program prison diversion rate is 77 percent.
Jason, Robert and Kirk (their last names are omitted to maintain confidentiality) were assessed at MASC and ultimately obtained community placements. All three were considered special-needs inmates based on their criminal history, substance abuse and/or mental health history. Jason was convicted of felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs at age 25. He received a three-year DOC commitment. However, six years earlier when Jason was 18 years old, he was convicted of a sex offense for having a relationship with a 14-year-old girl. He had not completed sex offender treatment prior to his drug conviction.
Robert was 21 when he received a felony conviction for operating a methamphetamine lab. In addition to manufacturing and selling the drug, Robert also was a heavy meth user and struggled with clinical depression. He was ultimately sentenced to a five-year DOC commitment.
Kirk first began exhibiting signs of mental illness when he was about 21. For the next 10 years or so, his parents and family tried to get him help. However, despite their attempts, Kirk experienced auditory hallucinations and suffered from a paranoid delusional system. At the age of 31, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Fourteen years later, he was convicted of sexual intercourse without consent and sentenced to the department for 20 years with 15 suspended.
Jason, Robert and Kirk were transported to MASC following their sentencings. Although they arrived at different times and their individual experiences varied, the program itself is somewhat standardized. Each went through the same basic process that all other MASC inmates go through.
Upon arrival, an inmate is placed in the classification pod. Within a few days, the inmate attends an orientation session facilitated by Missoula County staff and MASC staff. This orientation covers facility rules and regulations as well as a basic overview of the program. Following orientation, the inmate is classified by county staff and moved into one of the general population housing units.
The informal assessment process begins as soon as an offender arrives at MASC. Inmate behavior is monitored by both county and department staff. For example, if an offender cannot maintain clear conduct while housed at MASC, he is determined to be inappropriate for placement in the community. Such an offender would be transferred to prison rather than going through any further assessments.
The formal assessment process begins after MASC receives the inmate’s file, which includes the final judgment or other legal paperwork from the sentencing court, and after the offender has completed orientation. At that point, MASC staff conducts an intake meeting with the offender. During intake, staff reviews the offender’s file and conduct a cursory interview with the offender about his background, criminal history, chemical dependency and/or mental health issues, incarcerating crime, and any other pertinent information.
Based on the intake interview, the offender may be referred to one of the MASC contract staff members for further assessment. Theses members include three licensed addiction counselors. One counselor is a licensed clinical social worker and another is a licensed clinical professional counselor as well as a clinical member of the Montana Sex Offender Treatment Association.
Once an offender has been assessed, he is scheduled to appear before the MASC Screening Committee. The committee is comprised of the MASC administrator, the institutional probation and parole officer, the correctional unit manager, administrative support, the three contract staff and a sergeant or other representative of the detention center.
The committee conducts screenings weekly. During screenings, the committee reviews an offender’s file and any assessment results are presented to the group. The committee discusses the offender’s placement options and the offender appears in person before the committee. Following discussion with the offender, the committee presents its placement recommendation to the offender. At that time, the offender may be given applications for the appropriate programs.
The options are any of the six prerelease centers; a methamphetamine/opiate treatment program; Connections Corrections, a chemical dependency treatment facility; Warm Springs Addictions Treatment and Change, a facility treating felony DUI offenders; Treasure State Correctional Training Center, a boot camp; or a combination of these programs. On occasion, an inmate may be placed on the intensive supervision program directly from MASC. If the committee determines that none of the programs are appropriate, the offender is transferred to prison.
If the offender agrees to the proposed community-based program, he completes the application given to him by the committee. MASC staff then compiles a packet of information that includes the application, copies of legal documents and other pertinent information, and sends it to the appropriate community program. Each program conducts its own independent screening process; MASC cannot compel a community program to accept an offender.
Community corrections programs are able to take a much more comprehensive look at offenders based on the information provided by MASC. Once an inmate is accepted by a community program, MASC staff notifies the offender, a bed date is arranged, and the inmate is placed in that program when space becomes available. If an offender is denied by a community program, he is notified of the denial and may be called before the committee again for additional discussion. If an offender is denied all appropriate community placement options as determined by the MASC screening committee, he is transferred to prison.
The average length of stay at MASC is 76 days. While there, an offender may be placed in groups to aid in the assessment process and/or to provide some treatment. For example; one of the addiction counselors facilitates a chemical-dependency group, the sex offender therapist runs a treatment group, the social worker facilitates a group focusing on criminal thinking errors and the correctional unit manager facilitates a group for offenders who are recommended for placement at the boot camp. An offender may also have one-on-one sessions with contract staff, and mental health services are provided as needed.
Jason, who arrived at MASC as an untreated sex offender, found his community placement options limited based on that fact alone. During his stay at MASC, he also was assessed as methamphetamine dependent. He was originally considered for the meth treatment program, but was denied placement there because of his sex offender status.
In order to assess him further, Jason was placed in chemical dependency and sex offender treatment groups. It became apparent to the group facilitators that Jason was committed to taking responsibility for his actions and was motivated to change. The screening committee opted to have Jason stay at MASC until he completed phase one of sex offender therapy. This greatly enhanced his chances of obtaining a community placement.
Jason requested consideration for the boot camp and the committee agreed that this would be an appropriate referral. He joined the appropriate group and was subsequently approved for the placement. Jason graduated from the program, attended their aftercare program, was placed on community supervision and eventually discharged his sentence.
Robert came to MASC as a meth “cook” and addict. He was initially difficult to assess, as he was very guarded and somewhat verbally combative. Robert was interviewed several times and one report completed at MASC stated that, although “there were not any extenuating circumstances to preclude him going to prison … this writer saw glimpses of a young man who is very ashamed about how his behavior has affected his family and who covers up his fear with anger.”
MASC staff opted to place Robert in the chemical dependency and criminal thinking groups to assess him further. Robert ultimately agreed with the committee’s recommendation for the meth treatment program. He graduated, served a six-month term in a prerelease center, was placed on supervision and has since transferred his supervision back to his home state.
When he arrived at MASC, Kirk had a history of not taking prescribed medications for his mental illness. But he had most recently been taking court-ordered biweekly medication. His schizophrenia was being successfully managed. He continued to receive the medication at MASC. Kirk was interviewed, tested and assessed by MASC’s sex offender therapist and was designated a low-risk offender.
However, due to Kirk’s history of unpredictable behavior, he was placed in the sex offender and criminal thinking groups for additional assessment and monitoring. Ultimately, Kirk received a placement in the intensive supervision program and was closely supervised through electronic monitoring. He completed the program and has been on supervision for two years.
In addition to conducting assessments, MASC also offers an additional service to the department. Offenders on probation may be sentenced by means of a hearing to serve a period of time at MASC as a consequence for failing to comply with conditions of their community placement. This is referred to as a sanction. Sanctioned offenders may be held a maximum of 30 days and must remain in the classification pod for the duration of their sentence. These offenders are not assessed and receive no special services while they are serving their time. Sanction offenders comprise only a small portion of MASC’s total population.
On average, five to 15 offenders arrive at MASC each week. The same number are being assessed and placed in appropriate facilities weekly. This is accomplished only through the hard work and dedication of a small, but very effective, staff.
Can corrections professionals successfully deal with special-needs offenders and reduce the current “clogging” in jails and prisons? As evidenced by the Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center, the answer is a resounding yes.
Conley, Timothy B. and David L. Schantz. 2006. “Predicting and Reducing Recidivism: Factors Contributing to Recidivism in the State of Montana Pre-Release Center Population & the Issue of Measurement.” http://www.cor.mt.gov/content/Resources/Reports/PrereleaseRecidivismStudy.pdf .
Fellner, Jamie. 2006. “U.S.: Number of Mentally Ill in Prisons Quadrupled,” Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2006/09/05/us-number-mentally-ill-prisons quadrupled.
Kanapaux, William. 2004. “Guilty of Mental Illness,” Psychiatric Times, Jan 1.
Khalsa, Sadhu Singh. 2003. “Treating the Chemically Dependent as a Resurrection Process,” HealthWorld Online. http://www.healthy.net/scr/Article.asp?Id=2350.
Law and Justice Committee 2009. “Sex Offender Fact Sheet No. 1.” Montana Department of Corrections. http://www.cor.mt.gov/content/Issues/SexOffenderFactSheet1.pdf.
Sabol, William, Heather Couture, and Paige M. Harrison. 2007. “Prisoners in 2006,” Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/p06.pdf.
Amy L. Abendroth serves as the correctional unit manager for the MASC program. She has worked in law enforcement and corrections for more than 10 years and has held such positions as detention officer, security officer and police officer. A graduate of the University of Montana, Ms. Abendroth extends a special thanks to Dan, Bob, Lisa, Mike, Mary Helen, Sandy, Michael, Barb and the county staff for their hard work and dedication, as well as for their assistance with this article. She may be reached at AAbendroth@mt.gov.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT