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State Jail Rehab Allegedly Tried to Pass Mentally Ill Inmates as Addicts

Photo: Mary Tuma, License: N/A

Mary Tuma

Ex-counselors with a substance abuse program at Dominguez State Jail claim inmates went untreated for mental illness

At the same time, employees were asked to pump up substance dependency numbers on the ASI. For instance, some inmates clean and sober for two decades were funneled into the rehab program, according to the former counselors. Others, in the jail system for reasons completely unrelated to substance abuse, found themselves among the roughly 180 inmates being treated at Turning Point.

“We would get some guys with no history of substance abuse or dependency,” said Cantu. “A guy who drinks occasionally would be pushed into the program. There would be nothing in their histories, no DUIs, no DWIs, no indication that says they ethically deserve to be in a substance rehab program.

They didn’t meet the criteria at all.”

And the test itself is ineffective, say ex-counselors, as the ASI focuses on chemical use in the past 30 days when most inmates go through the screening well past a month in jail. “Why were we even using this instrument in this setting? It didn’t make sense,” says VanHudson.

Patricia Jones**, another former Turning Point counselor who removed herself from what she characterizes as an “unethical” work environment, says by the program’s low eligibility standards most social drinkers would be deemed alcoholics.

“Having a beer once a week or even once a year would be considered ‘alcohol abuse,’ in the program, but it’s clearly not. [The supervisor] wanted to make them look worse than they were. Some of these guys didn’t even do drugs, they didn’t have an alcohol issue, they weren’t addicted, but we were supposed to classify them as addicts,” said Jones.

Ex-employees also contend the substance abuse program allowed for lax and unstructured therapy sessions and little one-on-one time with inmates. Additionally, some employees were undereducated and unqualified to conduct the work they were assigned, claim Cantu, Jones and VanHudson.

Lowering the severity of psychological disorders while inflating substance abuse problems meant more inmates would pass through the program and more state dollars would go toward Turning Point, claimed Jones and others. In September 2012, the private, for-profit program was awarded $5.64 million in state contracts for work until August 2014 at six jails including Dominguez, according to Legislative Budget Board data. From 2008-2012, they saw $11 million in state dollars through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Job security was contingent upon skewing the numbers to keep the program at full capacity—“it was demanded, employees can’t keep their jobs if they don’t comply,” said VanHudson.

“We were told, ‘You guys gotta keep your numbers up if you want to get paid,’” said Cantu. “If the numbers are up, you keep your job.”

When asked about the allegations, Houston-based Turning Point Inc.’s executive director, Peggy August, declined to comment.

In a state that ranks 49th in per-capita government funding to treat mental illness, some jails end up serving as de facto psychiatric hospitals. Studies show the number of seriously mentally ill prisoners in Texas jails far outpaces the number found in state, private and psychiatric units in general hospitals—by a 2010 estimate, there’s a 7.8 to 1 chance a mentally ill patient would be found in a state jail or prison rather than in a hospital in Texas.

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