Prison contractor squares off with counseling lobby in Capitol


The Illinois-based company that runs Wyoming’s in-prison treatment programs is battling mental health and substance abuse treatment lobbyists in an effort to lower licensing standards for its counselors. 

Debate grew bitter Tuesday night as the state’s mainstream mental health and substance abuse lobbyists accused the prison contractor of seeking to bring in less-qualified staff for profit reasons. The contractor’s representative and its legislative supporters, meanwhile, accused the state’s more established addiction counselors of protectionism and of running a smear campaign. 

Critics already question the company’s treatment practices. The Gateway Foundation has faced criticism from former inmates and is named as a defendant in two jailhouse lawsuits. Some complaints focused on a lack of staffing and a subsequent lack of counseling time during months-long in-prison residential treatment programs that are designed to help inmates confront their addictions before achieving their freedom. 

At the same time, data shows the state continues to suffer from a dearth of mental health and substance abuse treatment resources. Addiction and mental health woes have helped drive growth in Wyoming’s prison population, growth that officials hope to quell with a series of reforms in recent years. 

The legislation at issue this week was Senate File 107 –  Penal institutions-addiction counselor license reciprocity. The bill would create four new classes of counselor certification in the state. The new certifications would only apply to work in correctional facilities, not private practice or the state hospital in Evanston. 

The bill has broad and bipartisan sponsorship. It passed the Senate 22-8 and is now before the House for consideration. A similar effort to change statutes failed last year. 

This year’s version is pushed largely by Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) and Rep. Patrick Sweeney (R-Casper), in close conjunction with Frank Craig, Wyoming director for the Gateway Foundation. The nonprofit company holds contracts with the Wyoming Department of Corrections to operate treatment programs in the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp and Boot Camp in Newcastle, the medium security prison in Torrington, and the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk. 

Gateway has struggled to fill the staffing obligations in its contract. The Wyoming Department of Corrections can extract a fiscal penalty on the company for being understaffed and has done so on occasion, Craig told the House Judiciary Committee. 

Craig blames the shortfall in part on Wyoming licensing requirements he says are too strict. Counselors he has hired who he considers well credentialed, and who are licensed in other states, have struggled to get licensed in Wyoming, he said. He brought two such candidates before the committee to talk about their education and the hurdles they’ve faced before the Wyoming Mental Health Professions Licensing Board. 

Bouchard and Sweeney see the bill as an avenue to get more addiction counseling into Wyoming, where it’s in short supply, and focus it on the state’s prison population, where the need is high. Bouchard pitched the bill as aligned with the state’s recent criminal justice reform efforts. 

Indeed, the Council of State Governments, a group that studied Wyoming’s criminal justice system over several years, found mental health and substance abuse counseling to be a glaring need. CSG researchers found that 86% of people on felony probation and parole from 2014-2017 wanted for mental health and substance abuse help. Only slightly more than half of that group got it, the researchers found. 

Other states have implemented new classifications for addiction workers with lower education and training requirements to boost counseling resources. North Dakota, for example, instituted “peer support” specialist networks. That class of addiction counselor swaps education and traditional credentials for lived experience — many peer support specialists are in recovery from addiction themselves. 

Bouchard envisions Wyoming following some similar road, beginning in the prison system. “Don’t hold such a [high] standard that we can’t put people to work,” he told the House Judiciary Committee when it heard the bill on Tuesday night. “Remember this is a captive audience,” he said of the prison counselors’ clients.

Lobbyists for traditional counseling groups in the state pushed back against that idea. The licensing board is already working on new standards for in-prison counselors, Lindsay Simineo with the Wyoming Counseling Board told lawmakers. Gateway is trying to get around that process with the bill, she said, and create new licensing standards to address its own staffing woes. 

“We do recognize that this specific institution is experiencing a problem,” she said. “This won’t fix it.” 

Counseling organizations around the state confront staffing issues, she said, which result as much from low salaries and the challenges of bringing professionals to rural Wyoming as licensing standards.

Creating new licensing standards abruptly could harm efforts to rehabilitate addicts serving prison sentences, not accelerate it, Simineo said.

“We have too many unknowns and too many questions,” she said. “We have too much that’s not in this bill that needs to be in this bill to protect this vulnerable population.” 

The Wyoming Department of Corrections itself was neutral on the bill, the agency’s director Bob Lampert told the committee, but supportive of the concept. “People working inside prisons have to have a special attitude and commitment that may not be for everyone,” he said. “Having a special licensing track for them does make some sense to us.” 

If the legislation fails, he said, they’ll work with the licensing board to advance separate licenses that way. 

Inmates across the DOC have questioned Gateway’s treatment programs. 

Last spring, WyoFile spoke with more than a dozen veterans of the program in the women’s prison. While a few described the treatment as life-changing, the majority said they had faced harsh discipline and but received little counseling from Gateway during their prison sentence. 

This year, inmates at both the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp and the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington, both men’s prisons, filed court complaints against the company and WDOC. 

Seven inmates at WMCI signed on to a lawsuit accusing Gateway of overstating their addiction severities in evaluations in order to force them into treatment programs. Ten inmates at the Honor Farm in Riverton filed a similar complaint. A different Honor Farm inmate made a similar accusation in a letter to the editor printed by the Casper Star-Tribune. All the inmates said being forced into the treatment program was extending their prison stays, as they had to complete the months-long programming before they could begin parole.

WyoFile did not receive comment from Gateway by press time.

Opponents of SF-107 distributed the WyoFile report to members of the House Judiciary Committee to which the bill was assigned after passing the Senate. Rep. Sara Burlingame (D-Laramie) questioned Craig about the company’s use of group discipline methods described in the article. 

Craig responded by pointing to the unconventional nature of both his company’s program and its clients. Gateway uses a treatment model called a therapeutic community. Much of the emphasis is on the inmates governing themselves, and staff and counselor interaction is designed to be light. “I am my sister’s keeper,” is among the mottos of the women’s prison program, according to a handbook for the program WyoFile previously obtained through a records request.  

When the “community” gets off track, members can face punishments that are physically and emotionally taxing. Former inmates interviewed by WyoFile described a punishment called the tight house: Instead of class or counseling, inmates alternate between marching and sitting stiffly as a group in silence.

Burlingame asked Craig about such punishments. He described them as an attempt to counter “criminogenic” habits and inmates acting out in response to unaccustomed discipline. 

“When we restrict somebody from their zou zous and whim whams they have a tendency to have a bad attitude about that … much like were you to chastise a child and say ‘go to your room,’” Craig said.

Ultimately, the committee advanced the bill to the House floor with a 6-3 vote. 

Rep. Art Washut (R-Casper), a criminal justice professor at Casper College, voted against the bill. He worried about Gateway programming that tries to treat drug and alcohol addiction without looking at underlying mental health causes, he said.

“I don’t know where that model came from,” he told WyoFile, “the addiction people at the very least need to be aware of the complications of mental health problems.” Though therapeutic communities have successes, people with underlying mental health complications might respond poorly to the Gateway model, he said. 

Similar reservations led Burlingame to vote against the bill, she said. Concerns raised by inmates that Gateway’s treatment is “humiliating” and “shame based” suggest in-prison drug treatment needs more oversight as much as new licensing standards. 

“It is not that I believe that we really need to have overqualified people, people that have an excessive amount of schooling,” she said. But, “if that is not to be the case, if we’re going to use community based, peer-to-peer counseling, then I think your own house needs to be really in order,” she said. 

Other lawmakers expressed frustration that they were being asked to legislate on complex questions of mental health and addiction treatment best practices. Several argued the bill should at least have gone to a different legislative committee, the House Labor, Health & Social Services Committee, whose members have spent more time with the issue.  

Rep. Mark Jennings said he would count on Lampert and the WDOC to oversee the treatment programs. “I feel totally inadequate to making a decision right now,” Jennings said. “I’m going to take a gamble and I’m going to hope that I’m doing this right.” 

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

Advertisement