Hope For Wyoming's Prison Crisis In North Dakota

Dec 7, 2018

Wyoming's prisons are exceeding capacity, and as a result, state prisoners are held indefinitely in county jails, and this past year the state paid to house 88 prisoners at a private facility in Mississippi. State lawmakers are at a crossroads: spend $50 million to house more prisoners or figure out how to reduce the incarceration rate. Wyoming Public Radio's Tennessee Watson sat down with WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham to discuss his reporting on solutions to the problem.

Tennessee Watson: Andrew, you've been reporting on how Wyoming lawmakers are responding to the state's prison crisis. Can you kind of sum up what the problem is?

Andrew Graham: There are several problems, but one of the biggest drivers is that more than half of new prison admissions come from people failing on probation and parole. So those are not people committing new crimes, but people on probation and parole who fail the conditions of their supervision. And of those people, the vast majority are not failing because they're committing new felonies. They have repeated violations of things like a drug test or meetings with their parole officers, holding a job, things like that.

TW: And so it sounds like people are not actually being rehabilitated. They're not coming out in sort of a better position, right?

AG: Yeah I think a lot of these violations are driven by substance abuse problems, mental health problems, which often is what led them into trouble and put them behind bars in the first place.

TW: And how do you know that? Do you have data on exactly what the violations are?

AG: Yes. So there's some outside researchers who've been looking at Wyoming's corrections system right now and they've come up with: 54 percent of our prison admissions are revocations on parole and probation. And 84 percent of those don't come from new felony convictions. So the vast majority of people aren't committing new crimes.

TW: In trying to figure out what Wyoming could do to deal with that you went to North Dakota. Why?

AG: Well North Dakota like Wyoming sort of suffers from this lack of mental health and substance abuse services, and it's a big rural state as well. But they've come up with a pretty creative solution that they put in place over the last couple of years to try and get a handle on this problem.

TW: And one of the people who explained that to you was North Dakota's Director of Corrections and Rehabilitation Leann Bertsch?

AG: Right.

TW: Let's hear a little bit of the conversation that you had with her:

Leann Bertsch: But the frustration coming out of P and P was that if you want to keep people from being revoked, or if you want to keep people from having an incarcerative sentence then you have to have adequate resources in the community. And so that was very clear that we didn't have enough resources to really work with these high needs, high-risk people in the community. And you know at some point they got to the point where they really didn't have any alternative but to recommend treatment.

TW: So she says "P and P." What's that?

AG: That's parole and probation, and that description of the problem in North Dakota is a lot like what lawmakers have been hearing here in Wyoming.

TW: And so what has North Dakota done to deal with that need for more comprehensive treatment?

AG: So North Dakota went through a very similar process that Wyoming is going through now where they looked for broad solutions to their prison growth. And they put in a lot of sentencing reforms that would have an immediate impact on lessening the number of people who were being incarcerated. And then they took money that they would have spent building new prisons. In their case, it was $7 million over a two year period and they allocated that money instead to this new program they created called Free Through Recovery, which essentially is trying to create a grassroots recovery system in places where there aren't clinical services, traditional substance abuse treatment. And instead tap into these networks, whether they're sort of faith-based networks or just people who are recovering from addiction themselves, and connect those people with people leaving the prison system or being diverted into probation.

TW: And so Free Through Recovery — this grassroots effort — is that a permanent solution?

AG: No. I think everyone I spoke to in North Dakota was quick to say this is not the final solution but when you compare the costs to the costs of trying to get more clinical providers into some of these rural areas, it's sort of like taking advantage of what's already there, to just try and get some kind of a hand on this problem even if it's not permanent.

TW: What's your sense of what stands in the way of Wyoming following the footsteps of North Dakota?

AG: There are perhaps a couple of challenges here. The biggest one so far is that while lawmakers are really taking a look at our incarceration rates and they're trying to figure out how to head them off, there's been a recognition of the need for more services and more support for people going out on probation and parole. But there hasn't been sort of that clear dedication of funds; we're going to take $7 million and put it over here. We haven't seen that quite yet.

TW: Is anybody talking about that?

AG: I think people are talking about it but it's not in the legislation that I've seen that's coming out of this broad criminal justice reform effort.

TW: You can read more of Andrew Graham's reporting on what's happening in North Dakota and how it could help Wyoming at wyofile.com.