[Noozhawk’s note: This is the second in a series of stories examining Santa Barbara County’s custody operations. The county jail and substations, inmate services programs and Los Prietos Boys Camp are part of a world mostly out of the public eye — namely, what happens after a suspect has been arrested. Today, Noozhawk reporter Giana Magnoli takes an in-depth look at the Sheriff’s Department’s treatment program. Click here for a previous article that provided an overview of the county jail’s operations and programs. Click here for an article about juvenile offenders featuring Los Prietos Boys Camp.]

As we walked toward the E Block of the Sheriff’s Department’s Main Jail, men called out “Hey, Chuck!” to the man walking by their cells. Chuck McClain is the civilian supervisor for the sheriff’s treatment program, and the 17 men waiting in a meeting room know him well.

The men are dressed in blue and are of various ages, races and criminal backgrounds. The mixed population isn’t common for a jail, but the drug and alcohol treatment program has no politics. McClain has seen to that.

The men sit quietly, and raise their hands or look around before speaking. Although you’d never guess it by their behavior, at least six of them are facing life sentences.

Unlike being in the general population, living and participating in the program makes them get “slapped in the face with the truth” of their addiction problems, one participant said.

Twelve years ago, the Sheriff’s Department started the treatment program, which focuses on alcohol and drug counseling.

It started with just 12 men in 1996 and has had more than 7,000 participants since. McClain oversees the 140 enrollees who live in two treatment-program housing units in the Main Jail and the medium-security facility.

“It’s not about saving money today,” he said. “It’s about saving money in the big picture, down the road.”

About 80 percent of the incarcerated population committed crimes involving the use of alcohol or drugs, said McClain, adding that more than 70 percent of those with a problem will be back the same time next year for the same offense.

Staff are working on updating the program’s statistics, but so far treatment-program graduates have shown a 35 percent recidivism rate (at least to the Santa Barbara County Jail).

“We want to link to the state to broaden our database to see if they’ve gone back to jail elsewhere,” said Lt. Mark Mahurin, who’s in charge of the Inmate Services Unit.

While people may not be “loaded” when arrested, they could have just come off a high or been trying to fund their habit, he said.

Chuck McClain, civilian supervisor for the sheriff’s treatment program, participates in an impromptu meeting of inmates in the E Block unit.

Chuck McClain, civilian supervisor for the sheriff’s treatment program, participates in an impromptu meeting of inmates in the E Block unit. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Prison doesn’t mean no drugs or alcohol — sometimes it’s as readily available on the inside as on the outside, and there’s never-ending creativity to break the rules from inmates who have nothing but time on their hands. Treatment-program housing provides a different environment.

The point of the program is not only to save money (it costs about $26,000 to house an inmate for a year). If inmates successfully finish the program, they have a better chance of staying clean and sober on the outside. Those who go through aftercare treatment programs upon leaving jail have a phenomenal success rate, McClain said.

“They become citizens who are no longer takers; they’re givers,” he said.

Instead of continuing to cost the system money, they work, pay taxes and contribute to society, he said.

“That’s a big deal,” McClain said. “They’re also an example to friends and family — yes, you can do this thing called sobriety, and you can do it without getting in trouble.”

The program is paid for by inmates, not taxpayers. The Inmate Services Unit makes a percentage off collect-only phones and the commissary network (through which inmates can purchase food and other small items) and the funds go toward the library, recreation and alcohol and drug treatment.

One-of-a-Kind Program

The sheriff’s treatment program is the only one of its kind in California. Substance abuse programs — let alone residential ones — in jails and prisons have suffered huge cuts in recent years. And it’s a problem McClain is very opinionated about.

Jails and prisons are overcrowded and expensive, and facilities can implement programs faster than laws can change — and he’s been expanding the county jail’s program since he was hired.

The intensive course is anything but a “cruise-ship program,” Mahurin said.

Participants are voluntary or court-mandated, and there’s always a waiting list — often at least three months long.

An anger-management course is part of the sheriff's treatment program curriculum.

An anger-management course is part of the sheriff’s treatment program curriculum. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The program has a lot of support from the court system, and many judges specify that inmates have to be in the treatment program in order to leave jail.

Bed space is limited to 52 beds in the Main Jail but McClain has nontreatment-program housing groups in the medium-security facility, as well.

“They have to earn their way in, and once they’re in they have to earn the right to stay,” Mahurin said. Those on the waiting list are often given assignments, and willingness to get involved can move them up the list.

Compared to the average inmate, who would spend his time watching TV, in a cell or in the yard, treatment-program inmates are required to undergo counseling, participate in educational programs, complete assignments for McClain and attend group meetings.

Group meetings include anger management, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, life skills, rape recovery, fatherhood, how to apply for jobs and anything else they can come up with.

Running a treatment program inside a jail has its advantages to outside programs.

“I have the luxury of a captive audience,” McClain said. “They really can’t leave me. Once they’re in my unit, they can’t leave.”

Whether someone truly wants to get sober doesn’t matter, he said. Many people sign up to look good for the courts or family and think it’ll help get through jail faster.

And treatment doesn’t happen overnight. Some inmates get involved in the program multiple times before they take it seriously.

“We have a significant amount of leverage here,” Mahurin said. “We can force them into doing certain things — like the educational program.”

Shorter sentences, as a result of overcrowding and law changes, can create problems for programs like the treatment program.

For instance, in October, state Senate Bill 18, Chapter 28 doubled the threshold for felony theft and changed the credit system for certain charges. As it is, inmates earn a day of credit for every six days they serve; the new law wants to change it to be a day of credit for every four days (excluding certain crimes), Mahurin said.

Parole violations may change as well, and increased qualifications for prisons means that everyone will fall into jail systems — and the department has yet to see if the funding will follow the increased burden, he said.

More inmates — and shorter sentences — make it difficult to offer programs, as participants transfer or are released before completing anything.

Equal Treatment

The men are also forced into a living situation completely unlike the rest of the jail. The classification unit separates rival gang members and other conflicting groups.

In treatment-program housing, however, everyone is forced to get along. There are men of all ages, races and gang affiliations, and those who speak English and Spanish — and that’s how McClain likes it.

In the women's housing side of the sheriff's treatment program, cells are bare and the doors are steel and glass, not bars.

In the women’s housing side of the sheriff’s treatment program, cells are bare and the doors are steel and glass, not bars. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

“They’re with each other on the outside so now they’re doing the same thing in here,” he explained.

The politics and affiliations of the outside shouldn’t matter as much as the issues of addiction at hand, he said.

He can recall one or two violent issues in treatment-program housing during his 12 years with the operation.

“I have opposing gang members in there,” he said. “It works fine.”

It’s not easy for the inmates, however. Some men said the hardest part of the treatment program was accepting the other cultures and attitudes they were confronted with.

“We have to settle things well, in a good way — not the way we used to on the outside,” one man said.

Whether they’ve been in the program a few days or more than a year, they spoke highly of it. Of course, McClain was in the room.

More is expected of the inmates who participate in the program, and the 10-page application and three-month-or-longer waiting list encourages dedication once they earn their way in.

The life men face after jail varies drastically, as well. Six of the 20 men in one housing area are facing life sentences and many face deportation.

“You should watch what happens with somebody who’s going to be there for 30 days, on a drunk in public or something,” McClain said.

“Their bunkmate is a guy who’s going to be doing 55 years. The interaction between the two, you would think, ‘Oh, geez, that’s going to blow up.’ It doesn’t. It is so focused … they’re together working their stuff together. They’re trying to figure it out because life is life wherever you’re at — you’re still alive, you still have to go through today.”

Women’s Program

There are far fewer women in the sheriff’s treatment program — and general population — than men, but all the same services are offered.

However, there’s a less positive outcome.

Since most women are caretakers, they get sucked back into their old lives when released from jail and are reluctant to pursue additional treatment, McClain said.

The women are focused on their children and housing when released, and it’s a lot harder to convince a mom to go into a program, he said. There are very limited options for residential treatment that allow children within the county, and most programs cost money.

Self esteem is also a big issue, and many women lose sight of themselves, which makes treatment difficult.

“They have an identity crisis — without kids, who am I?” McClain observed.

Community Benefits

The community at large benefits from the program’s success, McClain said.

Ninety percent of the jail’s population will be released by this time next year — and be our next-door neighbors, he noted.

“Do you want your next-door neighbor out of jail or prison to have had help for their addiction or to not have bad help?” he asked. “And that absolutely is the big picture.”

After treatment-program inmates are released, about 70 percent of them are transported “door-to-door” to an aftercare facility to continue treatment.

“Weaning” them back into society through treatment programs helps the success rate, and monthly barbecues help the Sheriff’s Department keep in touch with the program’s graduates.

How You Can Help

The community can help decrease recidivism, as well, as released inmates need jobs to get the rest of their lives in order. Mahurin urged employers not to write off all felon applicants without at least interviewing them.

“If they went through the program, they’re living differently than they ever did before,” he said.

Mahurin and McClain got a few new staff members in December, and hope to use the extra resources and new statistics to find out what really works with the program — not just what they think works. The problem of female recidivism is one of the biggest issues, and they hope to continually fine-tune the program to make it more effective.

Just the Facts

» Between the Main Jail, Santa Maria Jail and Medium-Security Facility, there are at least 900 people in custody at any given time.

» To mitigate court-mandated inmate population caps, which are determined by available beds, the jail uses electronic monitoring, early release and citations.

» The operating cost of the jail for the current fiscal year was nearly $36 million, and it costs about $26,000 to house an inmate for a year. The recidivism rate is in the 70s — meaning that more than 70 percent of inmates will commit new crimes when released and be incarcerated again.

» The jail doesn’t keep records on demographics or crime statistics beyond homicide; there are currently 64 people incarcerated facing those charges.

» While the maximum amount of time a sentenced inmate stays in jail is a year per charge (for a longer sentence, inmates are transferred to prison), people can spend months to years waiting for their trials to conclude.

» Anyone can donate to the Inmate Services Unit in general or to a specific program. Click here for a Sheriff’s Department donation page, which includes the average cost for various services. It costs about $22 per day to sponsor an inmate in the sheriff’s treatment program, or $1,250 per person for a 60-day program. Programs typically are 60 or 120 days long.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.

A stylized hawk's head on a red background

Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.