Eye on KELOLAND: Growing treatment gap in women’s prison

Investigates

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Some 80-percent of the women behind bars in South Dakota have an issue with substance abuse.

Are they getting the help they need while they’re locked up? In many cases, it doesn’t look like it. Our 2016 KELOLAND News investigation “Jammed in the Joint” looked at the increasing number of inmates, high turnover and staff shortages at the Women’s Prison in Pierre.

Many of those problems linger today, in fact the prison population has jumped from 427 in 2016 to more than 500 today in Pierre.

The depleted staff is having a difficult time keeping up and despite that fact that the majority of the women in prison need treatment for drug addiction, that’s not possible.

We’ve brought you “Jessica’s Journey,” the story of Jessica Pfau who is an opioid addict who overdosed and was revived by Narcan. Pfau is serving her prison sentence because she’s a habitual offender who took drugs behind the wheel of a parked car. We recently spoke with her on the phone from the Community Work Center about what was happening in the minimum security unit at the Women’s Prison.

“I think sometimes it’s probably easier to have access to certain drugs inside prison that it is out. I think that might be an eyeopener for a lot of people. It’s ridiculous. People get high on Benadryl in here. They take 40 at a time. People get high on cold medicine. There’s been methamphetamine. Two girls were put into what’s called “the hole” last week for failing a drug test for meth,” Jessica Pfau told us over the phone from Pierre.

“They go out and work in the community; and then they come back in and if they don’t have pat downs they bring in drugs,” June Russell said.

June Russell worked as support staff at the Women’s Prison for five years before retiring a year ago. Russell says she saw the treatment programs within the Women’s Prison deteriorate during her tenure there.

“I loved my job, I loved it. Those ladies out there–a lot of them are just begging for help,” Russell said.

June Russell worked as support staff in the Women’s Prison for five years.

“We’re in the middle of a crisis with the opioid epidemic and meth epidemic,” Former Women’s Prison Addiction Counselor said.

A former licensed Women’s Prison Addiction Counselor asked not to be identified because she still does business with the state. She says when she first started working at the Women’s Prison more than a decade ago, the drug treatment programs were well run.

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: We had a great program going with the meth program. We had a specific meth treatment program running. We were running opened-ended groups. We were running three groups at a time. We were running Saturday morning art therapy groups. We were running treatment groups where they were getting out into the community; running graduations. The women were going back out into the community and most of our women were staying out in the community and doing well with the meth treatment

Kennecke: You thought it was effective?

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: We thought it was very effective.

But as the years went on, this former counselor says they were expected to help more inmates with fewer and fewer staff.

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: We went from nine counselors running the meth treatment and main unit down to half the staff and eventually down to two counselors.

Kennecke: Nine to two?

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: Nine to two.

The former employees tell us they were only allowed to be paid for 40 hours per week. But the job required 50 to 60 hours each week.

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: There’s not enough counselors and when you’re working extra hours you’re only paid for 40 hours.

Kennecke: You worked extra hours for free?

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: We had to. Most weeks I worked 60 to 65 hours a week.

Kennecke: And you only got paid for 40?

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: Yes.

Kennecke: Isn’t that illegal?

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: One would think, yes.

Russell says while she wasn’t a counselor, her job also required additional hours.

“I was doing more than what was needed. There were times I would put in 9-10 hour days because it needed to be done,” Russell said.

After years on the job, burnout due to staff shortages forced both of these former employees to leave.

Kennecke: So why do you think things changed?

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: Management changed. When Daugaard went into becoming governor he changed a lot of things and we got new management.

Now with Govenor Kriti Noem at the helm the women believe that not much has changed on the surface.

As KELOLAND Investgiates has reported, Jessica Pfau was only offered access to AA and NA meetings behind bars, not intensive treatment.

According to new information KELOLAND Investigates just confirmed with the State; two more mental health therapists are leaving the women’s prison this month, leaving just one mental health therapist on staff.

Only one licensed addiction counselor remains on staff, but DSS says there are four addiction counselor trainees

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: If you’re not getting those things treated, you can’t make change. If you don’t treat your cancer it continues to grow. If you don’t treat your mental health it continues to get worse. It implodes.

Kennecke: It sounds to me like it’s somewhat of a hold pen then

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: Absolutely..

Kennecke: …instead of a place where people can find sobriety, recovery and change.

Former Women’s Prison Licensed Addiction Counselor: Absolutely. If the facility were a treatment environment, a recovery environment; that was a co-occurring treatment program and you were able to run open ended groups and those women were addressing their needs: mental health, chemical dependency, cognitive behavioral therapy, moral recognition treatment, they’re getting some of those programs, but a limited number, very limited.

Recitivism rates back up that statement. In 2010, 18 percent of women returned to prison, a year after getting out. In the latest numbers available from the Department of Corrections from 2017, that number jumped to 22 percent.

In 2010, after three years, 35 percent were back behind bars, but the state hasn’t posted any three-year data after 2015.

Source: SD Dept. of Corrections

“The revolving door is very expensive. If you treat them you’re shutting that revolving door. They may be saying, meth we’re on it; we’re working on it. But where are those teams? What are they doing?” the former Women’s Prison licensed addiction counselor said.

The Department of Social Services’ Behavioral Health Division provides services to correctional facilities in South Dakota. The Women’s Prison has three mental health professional positions. Two of these three positions will be vacant as of March 23, 2020. DSS is currently hiring for the two vacant positions and is utilizing technology and mental health professionals in other locations to fully support the facility in Pierre. Behavioral Health has five addiction counselor positions. One of the Women’s Prison addiction counselors is currently a Licensed Addictions Counselor and four are recognized as Addiction Counselor Trainees through the Board of Addiction and Prevention Professionals. An Addiction Counselor Trainee is supervised by a Licensed Addiction Counselor or Certified Addiction Counselor as they work towards certification or licensure. There are 11 Correctional Behavioral Health positions at the Women’s Prison. Of these positions, there is one clinical supervisor, five addiction counselors, three mental health professionals, one behavioral health tech, and one administrative support position.

Tiffany Wolfgang, Director of Division of Behavioral Health Services, South Dakota Dept. of Social Services.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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