by Mike McAinsh and Molly Prince
SOTP Audit Finds Utah Department of Correction’s Program Was Poorly Managed With Weak Oversight
The Legislative Audit of Utah State Prison’s Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP Audit) was released to the public on April 3, 2017. The audit report was presented to the Legislative Audit Subcommittee by Lead Auditor August Lehman, CFE. Also contributing on the SOTP Audit team was Audit Manager, Brian Dean, CIA, CFE, and Audit Staffer Christopher McClelland, CIA, CFE. Rollin Cook, the Director of the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC), Institutional Programming Director Victor Kersey, Ph.D., Chair of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole (BOPP) Angela Micklos and Director of Administrative Services Greg Johnson were at the proceedings to respond to the findings and share their commitment to remedy the problems identified and their vision for the future of SOTP. It will be important for the BOPP to coordinate and work with the DOC to create policies on the early or at matrix release of low risk sex offenders to be treated in the community.
A state audit of the Utah Department of Corrections Sex Offender Treatment Program found serious issues with how it was being implemented. Reports show a backlog is keeping some offenders behind bars longer, and a “one size fits all” treatment option has shown not to work for everyone.
The Utah Legislature Steps In
UPAN appreciates the courage of the families who brought these problems to the attention of their elected representatives. UPAN directors and hundreds of UPAN families also want to express sincere appreciation to Rep. Jim Dunnigan (R-Taylorsville), who requested the audit after receiving information on the problems that permeate SOTP from Utah constituents with family members behind bars who either cannot gain entry into the program, or have been removed from the program for minor infractions or reasons that, in community treatment, would be incorporated into the therapeutic process.
According to an article by Courtney Tanner in the Salt Lake Tribune, as of October 2016—83 inmates awaiting treatment should have already been enrolled to meet their parole deadlines. Currently, 1/3 of all inmates in the Utah prison system need sex offender treatment.
Tanner’s article further reports that Rep. Dunnigan stated that family members of inmates needing SOTP “were feeling that their relatives were just falling through the cracks. They’re just being warehoused and not offered an opportunity to complete the mandated treatments.”
There were a variety of problems and issues identified in the audit. Over the next couple of months UPAN News will outline these in more detail. For now we will offer a general report on problems identified and solutions already underway in the DOC.
About the findings of the SOTP Audit, Legislative Auditor General John Schaff indicated, “The shortcomings are quite extensive.” The audit found that the program has been a “one-size-fits-all” with outdated program curriculum. It has failed to use risk assessment tools to help determine which offenders actually need treatment while incarcerated, versus those who would be safe to treat in the community. It also identified lack of oversight and lack of accountability in terms of the supervision of staff and program delivery processes.
The proposed solution? To reduce the waiting list, low-risk sex offenders should seek treatment outside of prison as a condition of parole after serving their terms. “These are offenders who really haven’t violated anyone,” Schaff said. “They’ve had [a conviction for] probably looking at child porn or something.”
The Audit Finds Major Program Inefficiencies and Shortcomings
The audit reveals that an average of 114 inmates complete the therapy requirements each year in Utah’s prison system out of the 240 offenders that can participate in the program at any one time. There are three facilities that offer the sex offender programming—Utah State Prison in Draper has the largest number of spots, with Sanpete County Jail’s Inmate Placement Program (IPP) having space for about 30 offenders, which began that program a few years ago. San Juan County Jail has also offered SOTP for many years for State Inmates in IPP. SOTP was intended to take up to 18 months to complete, but reports UPAN has received from individuals who have completed treatment in the past year indicate that at times inmates have been fast-tracked and completed it in as little as 12 months, which may or may not be effective since the program itself was designed to take 18 months.
Of those currently in treatment, Schaff said, 37 percent are considered low-risk. In most cases, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole requires therapy be completed before release from prison and has historically rarely released a low-risk offender prior to completing treatment.
Many offenders are being held in prison for years after their sentencing guideline (aka matrix). According to the auditor’s findings, part of the reason there is a large back-log of offenders waiting to get into SOTP is because of mismanagement of the program by programming staff who are not using current best practice treatment of sex offenders, are not using evidenced-based programs, are not appropriately assessing inmate progress in the program, and are not keeping outcome measures or performance records. Schaff stated that the management of the treatment program has been poor and said, “Some therapists are not giving therapy at all and others not giving very much.”
Ongoing Issues with the Program’s Therapists
In terms of staff shortages, UPAN families with inmates needing this type of treatment have long been aware that there is a turnover of sex offender therapists, and often therapist positions go unfilled. Clinicians in the community performing sex-offender-specific treatment need to have their full licensure in their discipline at a Masters or Doctorate level of education (usually in psychology, counseling, or social work), plus additional years of training in the specialize field of sex offender treatment in order to become what is known as Approved Provider of Sex Offender Treatment as sanctioned by Utah’s Sex Offender Programming Task Force. The prison has, in the past, sometimes used contract agencies who have provided therapists to provide treatment on those contracts who are not Approved Providers, and are not very experienced in the highly specialized field of sex offender treatment. It is difficult for someone not seasoned in this specialized field of treatment to discern, even with risk assessment data, how to individualize a program to specifically target the needed treatment goals and address the underlying issues that were factors in the choice to offend.
In addition, there has been a vacant psychologist position since August 2016. It is believed that the low, noncompetitive pay discourages qualified candidates from applying for that position. The audit also found that one of the eight therapists with the Utah Department of Corrections has not actually been working with any inmates through the sex-offender program for the past five years. If those two positions were filled and treated inmates directly, it would create treatment openings for 80 more offenders at any given time.
Another consideration is the lack of devotion of face-to-face time with offenders in the program is limited to therapists providing direct care only 12 hours a week. The rest of their time is spent on paperwork, which deprives the needed level of attention the program participants need.
Over Generalization, Reduced Therapy Sessions, and Outdated Curriculum
The “one-size-fits-all” approach requires all program participants complete the same 300 hours of treatment, regardless of risk level or treatment content. Years ago, the program involved weekly individual and twice-a-week group therapy plus psycho-educational skills classes. Over the past decade, the regular individual therapy sessions between an inmate and the therapist has been eliminated and currently includes twice weekly group therapy sessions, one “group-out-of-group” session that is comprised of the inmates in the group only, without the therapist to review assignments and support each other in the therapeutic process. This is reportedly due to increased needs of offenders to get into SOTP and lack of funding to hire extra therapists. In addition there are psycho-educational skills classes taught that participants are required to take. These may include Victim Empathy / Impact, Abuse Cycle, Anger Management, Relapse Prevention, Parenting Skills, among others. Another audit finding is that some of the curriculums for these classes are outdated, some more than 15 years old, the audit notes.
Research over the past decade has found that intensive sex offender treatment is not useful for all levels and types of sexual offenders. Tanner’s Tribune article reports, “The treatment is intended to reduce recidivism rates, though the high-intensity therapy—when used to treat every level of offender—could actually ‘increase the risk of reoffense’ for individuals who committed low-level crimes.”
The audit recommended low-level sex offenders be released for treatment on parole to help reduce the backlog. It identified that the program spent $678,000 in fiscal 2016 to house inmates with extended incarcerations because of the delays in treatment. That is estimated to rise to $780,000 for 2017.
UDC’s Future Approach to Alleviating the SOTP’s Dilemma
The authors of this UPAN article have been in contact with Dr. Kersey regarding the changes he has been working to implement into SOTP. He is working toward the report’s recommendation so that the prison will offer:
- Different courses and levels of classes and requirements based on an inmate’s crime, and
- Create a protocol so all sex offenders are assessed for risk level upon entry to prison, so that low-level offenders are identified early on with the goal that they can access community treatment upon their parole.
Auditor General Schaff suggested that this approach would allow the more serious offenders to access and participate in prison SOTP and reduce the backlog.
Executive Director Rollin Cook told the Audit Subcommittee that the DOC has already begun complying with the recommendations. He shared his hope that all changes will be made and recommendations of the audit will be met within the next six to 12 months.
Even though Director Cook has only been in his position since 2013, and the problems with SOTP began long before he took the helm. Director Cook said, “I take full responsibility for the unfavorable outcomes identified by the legislative audit team… We failed in this particular area and moving forward—we’re going to fix it.” The willingness of Director Cook to acknowledge the problems and humbly accept responsibility in addition to already developing plans, with some in place, to remedy the situation was very encouraging to those present in the audience, and the Department’s response to all the problems is reassuring to families and inmates alike that there will be changes made.
Last June, Dr. Victor Kersey, a former psychologist and clinical director of the sex offender program in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, was hired by the DOC to serve as the Institutional Programming Division Director. Kersey has outlined five programming tracks that will assist in addressing the problem of needing a variety of programs. These include:
- Pre-treatment track and a program for low-risk offenders that can include
- Release to community treatment once low-risk offender’s sentencing guideline is reached
- Core sex offender treatment track
- Special needs program that will address treatment for those with disabilities
- Finally, the importance of after-care will also be addressed.
UPAN Directors have been in touch with Director Kersey in the past with the suggestion that the core curriculum also may need to include specialized tracks that specifically address a treatment focus for those individuals who do not have “hands-on” sexual offenses (such as child pornography or internet crimes that never evolved into meeting in person), incorporate the problem of pornography addiction into the core curriculum for appropriate candidates, as well as remembering that not every sex offense is against a minor.
It was announced that SOTP will also incorporate individual therapy into the treatment experience for the inmates. This will significantly enhance the treatment experience for the inmates and allow the therapists to develop a more meaningful therapeutic relationship with the program participants.
SOTP is Especially Lacking in Support for Those with Disabilities
Mr. Schaff reported that the DOC is “being sued all the time.” He explained that offenders with disabilities are unable to be successful in the program because the program has not offered support services to them to assist them in actually doing the intensive program that is based on reading and writing, as well as verbally presenting assignments. Individuals with learning disabilities that include difficulties in comprehension or disorder of written expression cannot do it without help. UPAN has been told that inmates have been kicked-out of the program for getting a group member or celly in the program to help them understand and create written assignments, but then are charged with cheating because they didn’t do every bit of it on their own. This is complicated by not being able to go to an individual therapist to get guidance and help with what is expected. Other offenders with lower IQ, or even Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) that affects attention span and learning, as well as those with a range of other disabilities including anxiety disorder, social anxiety and other mental illness, blindness, or hearing problems try to make it through the program, but get removed for “failure to progress.” Their disability needs are not accommodated. They wait for two or more years, get back in, and fail again. They may spend up to 20 or more years in prison simply because they learn differently than the mainstream, not because they are such a high risk to the community.
There was a lawsuit settled for $60,000 with a former inmate who was trapped in this cycle of inability to complete SOTP while incarcerated. Yet the inmate finally was released by the Board to a program in a halfway house, that he was able to succeed because he had individualized treatment plan and a group and therapist that supported him in his disability. This has hopefully encouraged the DOC to provide necessary accommodations for those with disabilities.
The Program Favors Punitive Measures Over Offering Meaningful Guidance
Inmates have been writing UPAN since its inception regarding the problem about prison staff (versus therapy staff) removing inmates from the housing unit for minor housing infractions, that then result in the inmate also being removed from treatment because they no longer live in the area of the prison that provides treatment. Kersey explained that this, “significantly contributes to the backlog.” Currently, if prison staff pulls someone from housing and therapy, it can take the offender years to get back into the program.
As it stands, if someone receives a write-up, they are immediately removed from SOTP, even before they have had a hearing to be found innocent or guilty of the infraction. Even if the allegations are dropped or the person is found not guilty, the offender has to write a letter to SOTP taking full responsibility for the violation, write up, or false allegations and say what he or she will do to change in the future so it doesn’t happen again. They have six months and two tries at writing the letter, with no guidance from Programming, and no longer have access to their therapist to help them figure it out. Once the offender writes an acceptable letter of responsibility and plan to change with a well thought out solution to the problem, he/she is added back on the waiting list. Then it can take as long as 18 months or more to resume treatment. The audit found that 42% of inmates are removed from therapy each year in Utah’s SOTP.
While the audit says that even though removal from treatment may be justified in some cases, the 42% removal rate is significantly higher than other states, such as Washington, which removes only 7 to 8%. Kersey reports they will make the treatment program less punitive so those who break guidelines can still participate without being kicked out and having to start over. It only makes sense that if someone breaks the rules, if they are in treatment, then the program should use treatment to help them examine their motivation and thinking in the choice to violate the rules.
Kersey also indicated that the mandatory hours of therapy will be increased from 300 to 780 for high-risk offenders at the same time moving inmates through the system faster and more effectively.
Next Steps Moving Toward Essential Reforms
Greg Johnson of the Board of Pardons and Parole contacted UPAN Directors McAinsh and Prince, the ACLU, and the Disability Law Center soon after the audit was presented and invited us to be part of discussion as the Board creates new policy that will assist the Board in collaborating with the prison to more effectively accommodate the needs of sexual offenders in terms of looking at early release for low risk offenders to do treatment in the community, among other things.
It came out that the DOC has failed to keep up with internal audits and didn’t address recommendations from a 2014 Utah Criminal Justice Center Report, House Minority Leader Brian King (D-Salt Lake City), questioned whether the department would actually adhere to the recommendations. Director Cook responded that they are taking the opportunity to fix the problems that are now out there for lawmakers and the public to see.
- Finally, the audit recommends no additional funds be allocated to the DOC until it addresses the inefficiencies cited and complies with the audit recommendations
- The Office of the Legislative Auditor General will also follow up in coming years to determine what policies are implemented.
UPAN wants to extend gratitude and appreciation for the hard work the audit team did in digging deep and doing extensive research to conduct this audit. The auditors who worked on this are:
- Audit Supervisor August Lehman
- Audit Manager Brian Dean
- Audit Staff Christopher McClelland
- Audit Staff Tyson Cabulagan
UPAN also wants to acknowledge all the hard work our Secretary Mike McAinsh did in creating the SOTP Survey for this audit, as well as sorting and cataloging and forwarding the results of the hundreds of surveys received to the audit team.
We would like to thank all the people who helped provide information for bringing the problems with SOTP to light, including inmates who responded to the surveys, ex-offenders in the community that shared their stories with both legislators and auditors, family members that shared the problems with legislators and auditors, as well as therapists and other treatment providers who shared their expertise and information with the auditors as it pertains to sex offender treatment.
Finally, we would like to express our hope that this is a giant step in the right directon in terms of bringing Utah’s Sex Offender Treatment Program in the prison system into the 21st century, which will benefit the offenders that need this highly specialized and challenging type of therapy, their families and friends, and finally, society in general. 95% of the incarcerated will return to the community to be our neighbors. We do need to help them prepare to be the best they can be and reach their potential, and providing high quality individualized sex offender treatment is an important part of that process.