Study: Many inmates not treated for substance abuse before prison

Administration says report supports call for additional spending

Posted: Friday, December 28, 2001

Many criminals needed treatment for alcohol or drug abuse but didn't get it before they landed in prison, a new study suggests.

The Knowles administration says the study bolsters its request for about $5.5 million in increased spending for the treatment of alcohol and drug abuse.

"There's a real need for specialized treatment for folks with these disorders and there's a lack of that resource available for people," said Candace Brower, legislative liaison for the state Department of Corrections.

Researchers in the summer and fall of 2000 talked to 208 Alaskans who entered prison in the previous year and spent at least a month outside of prison that year. Eight out of 10 had actively abused or were dependent on alcohol or drugs in the prior year. But only about half of them had received treatment when they were free, according to the study released Wednesday.

Half of those who did get substance-abuse treatment said they wanted more services but they weren't available. About one in five prisoners that needed such treatment never had it, the study said.

The study was conducted by North Charles Research and Planning Group of Cambridge, Mass., for the state Department of Health and Social Services in cooperation with Corrections.

Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, has asked for $3 million in additional funds in fiscal 2003 to reduce waitlists for alcohol treatment and $868,000 for more substance-abuse counselors in rural areas.

He also wants $2.5 million in new spending for juvenile alcohol treatment, alcohol treatment for women with children, and for former prisoners who are diagnosed with addictions and mental illness.

A 40-bed residential addiction-treatment program by Gastineau Human Services in Juneau has a three-month waiting list, said Executive Director Greg Pease. It is funded by the residents' rent and the state. State funding for all kinds of treatment programs has been flat for a decade, Pease said.

For the effectiveness of treatment, the Department of Corrections points to a study in 2000 of 20 women prisoners who underwent an intensive program while at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River.

Women in the treatment program were less likely to reoffend, and do so with lesser offenses, in the six months following their release than were women who needed the treatment but didn't get it, the study said.

Valerie Kelly, executive director of the Tongass Community Counseling Center in Juneau, said: "It has been clearly documented for the past two decades that treatment of substance abuse and addictions substantially reduces incidences of assault, child abuse, vehicular accidents, unemployment and other social issues."

Treatment for women who already have come to the attention of the legal system has the potential to help prevent birth defects and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome-related disorders, Kelly said.

But the larger study by North Charles also points to the uncertain results from treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. More than half of the surveyed inmates said they had gotten treatment in prison, some of them several times. Four out of five had undergone treatment sometime when they were free. A quarter had received treatment three or more times. Yet the surveyed inmates had been incarcerated an average of four times.

"Treatment may take individuals three, four, five times before it really catches," Pease said.

Relatively few inmates get specialized treatment while in prison, Brower of the Department of Corrections said. Intensive, residential programs at prisons in Kenai and Eagle River can treat a total of 90 people at a time. About 230 offenders get less intense but specialized treatment a year. About 4,450 people are in Alaska prisons, halfway houses or are being electronically monitored. The North Charles study suggests that 90 percent of them have abused alcohol or illegal drugs.

Rep. Bill Hudson, a Juneau Republican on the House Finance Committee, said the administration's budget request would be reviewed by the Health, Education and Social Services Committee.

"I think that the merits probably will be the determination on whether or not we are able to appropriate additional money for that program," he said. "Obviously, where are you going to find the money is the next big question that comes up."

The state must get a budget shortfall of at least $900 million under control, Hudson said.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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