Douglas County Jail re-entry program suffers from ‘farming out’ of low-risk inmates

It appears as if 2017 will be the year of decision on the proposed 120-bed expansion of the Douglas County Jail. The proposed 0 million building program would address overcrowding and problems that have arisen with changes to the jail's demographics.

Michael Hill Jr. said Reno County knew where to look when it started planning its inmate re-entry program for that county’s new jail that opened in 2015.

“We knew the program was working in Douglas County,” said Hill, who was hired as the Reno County’s jail programs manager shortly before the jail opened. “It was something we wanted to mirror. They kind of set the tone. I think they are a great leader. Mike Brouwer helped me with my job.”

Brouwer, the director of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office re-entry program, said although the re-entry program he has headed for four years is nationally known, its success is often overlooked locally.

“If you live outside Douglas County, you know about Douglas County re-entry,” he said. “If you live in Douglas County, you have no idea what we are doing out there. We get calls from all over the country almost monthly about our re-entry program or the mental health services we provide here at the jail.”

Brouwer takes pride in the reputation of the program the Douglas County Jail started in 2008 as one of two pilot programs in the nation funded through a grant program. Reno County is 1 of 7 Kansas counties — in addition to eight jurisdictions from outside the state — that Brouwer and his staff have provided training and assistance as they looked to start their own programs.

That pride is tempered with the knowledge the program could be better, and at one point was. Perhaps the statistic that best illustrates that point is that more than half the Douglas County inmates who have been deemed eligible to participate in the re-entry program can no longer access it. The reason: The county is forced to house those inmates in area jails due to a space shortage at the Douglas County Jail.

“One of the things I was slow to talk about with the jail’s population increase was that we’ve put all this time and resources into this re-entry program and right now half the people eligible for re-entry and case management are housed out of the county,” Brouwer said.

County officials have said that area jails insist that Douglas County ship its best behaved prisoners to their facilities. Those often are the same inmates that qualify for the re-entry program.

Improving access to the re-entry program is expected to be one of the selling points for an estimated $30 million, 120-bed expansion of the Douglas County Jail expansion once it is formally proposed, most likely in 2017. The project, though, will require public financing, and likely will require some public convincing. Already some groups have expressed opposition to the idea, instead urging the county to focus more on reducing inmate totals and build a crisis intervention center, which the county also has proposed.

Building space, building trust

County officials are hopeful that programs like the re-entry program will help voters understand that expanding the jail isn’t just about adding space to keep inmates locked up. The proposed expansion of the Douglas County Jail would get the re-entry program back to its previous level and beyond, Brouwer said. Among the expansion’s features is a plan to relocate the 28-bed male minimum security pod from the jail’s third floor to the ground floor. Off that new pod, the expansion would add re-entry pods that would house 28 male beds and 14 female beds.

Brouwer and Sherry Gill, programs director for Douglas County Corrections, said the new stepped-down dormitory-style re-entry pods would provide an environment for more effective re-entry programming and the use of specific programming for targeted populations. It also would make it easier to serve those prisoners who are supposed to have access to the program.

The reason so many are denied the opportunity is the surge in the jail’s population the county started to experience four years ago. That surge increased the county’s incarceration rate of 1.8 people per 1,000 residents to 2 per 1,000 and has forced the county to look beyond the jail’s walls to house inmates.

The transfer of inmates to the jails of six area counties is an expensive solution to overcrowding that will cost the county $1 million this year. It also can also deprive inmates of family visits and communication with attorneys. Perhaps most importantly, it also means they aren’t forming relationships with case managers.

“The two greatest predictors of successful re-entry are participants establishing relationships with case managers and the dosage of cognitive behavioral therapy they receive — the number of classes they sit in, the homework they do and how much time they spend processing that with case managers,” Brouwer said.

Brouwer explained intensive case management involves an inmate working with a case manager on the top two or three risks areas identified in an initial assessment.

“We know reducing those high-risk areas is important for the candidate’s success,” he said. “We then work on that plan through programming a minimum of 30 days before release and up to six months post-release. Really, the key is active engagement with the case manager.”

Gill said case managers ideally would meet with their re-entry inmates once or twice a week while they were in the program. That often is not possible today. Because of curtailed therapy schedules with inmates housed elsewhere, case managers don’t see inmates often enough to establish the relationships and trust that is critical for successful behavioral change, she said.

Before the jail’s population explosion, the re-entry participants also received 100 hours of cognitive behavioral therapy in which inmates address rationalizations and justifications for criminal acts, Brouwer said. Whole elements of the women’s cognitive behavioral training have been suspended because such a large percentage of the inmates eligible for the program are being housed in other facilities to address crowding.

Before the large-scale farming out of low-risk inmates started, inmates in therapy also had more opportunities to develop contacts outside of the jail while incarcerated and continue community-based therapy post-release, Brouwer said.

“We still offer that, but reeling those people in when they only see their case manager two or three times is much harder,” he said.

Recidivism concerns

Trust built through time is also an important part among the members of group therapy sessions, Gill and case manager Andrea Clark said. The camaraderie that develops in sessions often has inmates continuing discussions when they return to their pods, Clark said.

Peer trust can remain important post-release, especially if inmates move to Oxford House, a transitional group home managed by released inmates. Clark said potential residents have to go through an interview before the residents vote on their application.

The many transfers also have curtailed the jail’s work release program, Gill said. It doesn’t really exist now for women, and men have fewer opportunities to build habits, make contacts and earn money needed for success after release, she said.

One of the long-term goals of the re-entry program is to reduce participants’ recidivism from the 2007 through 2009 baseline rate of 43 percent. That rate is currently at 31 percent, which is better than the 34 percent rate in 2015, Brouwer said. He knows, however, if the farming out of inmates continues at its current scale, that percentage will start heading the wrong way.

The declining recidivism rate does illustrate the effectiveness of the program. It’s a record of success staff can supplement with firsthand accounts, such as that of a 40-year-old homeless addict with no job history who had burned all bridges to family and friends, but who still made a successful re-entry.

That’s an indication of the willingness re-entry inmates have to reform, Brouwer said.

“When I first started in jails in 2004, I thought they were trying to play us,” he said. “It took me a couple of years to realize they weren’t gaming or manipulating the system, but they really want to change. If you’re a social worker, jail can be a rewarding place to be because you do work with people who have reached the point they know they have to change.”