I have no way of knowing what's going on inside SAFP treatment programs, but I can say with certainty there's a significant problem if there have been no outcome studies to measure the program's effectiveness since 2003. Why in heaven's name not?
Earlier this year, following the initial reports of inmate charges, Whitmire's committee announced that this interim hearing would focus on SAFPF procedures. But by August, specific mention of SAFPF had dropped off the hearing agenda. Asked why, a committee aide said: "There's not enough evidence. ... We're not going to hold hearings based on your article" – or based on the growing pile of inmate testimonials, apparently.
At last month's Senate hearings to review, among other things, the state's privately run prisons and related programs, Whitmire was caught off guard by the testimony of Kerry Wolf, former inmate of the Hackberry "special needs" SAFPF unit in Gatesville. "Obviously, you've come to support SAFPF," the senator began. "Did it work?" Wolf answered, "I was appalled by the human rights abuses and torture that went on in the name of treatment." She'd sat through tighthouse herself. "I saw inmates who were already mentally fragile losing their minds, running around, tearing out their hair, falling out of chairs onto the floor, having seizures, fainting, or hallucinating," Wolf said. As for "peer-driven" therapy, she told the committee, it was "Lord of the Flies run amok."
But Wolf was the lone SAFPF critic that day. A dismissive Whitmire implied that she'd been out of SAFPF too long for her testimony to matter, sighing in relief, "Ohhhhh ... there's been a lot of changes since then" (Wolf was in SAFPF from 2001 to 2002). Whitmire quickly lost interest, and during most of her testimony, he fidgeted and whispered to an aide. Michael Giniger took the mic and promptly discredited Wolf. "I am vice president of Gateway Foundation, the organization that this woman claims tortures people in our SAFPF facilities, which we don't. I ... tell you as I told you before, the SAFPF programs that are offered here in Texas ... are by far the best offered in the country." He pointed to 2003 "outcome studies," conducted by the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, which showed "astonishingly good outcomes." Unsurprisingly, Whitmire didn't point out that those studies also covered the years when Wolf was at SAFPF. Wolf left the hearings in tears. "I can't stand to listen to this," she said.
I realize Tony Fabelo's now-defunct Criminal Justice Policy Council did the last study and that agency no longer exists. But it's pretty much nuts to me that nobody at TDCJ or the Lege insisted that ball get picked up - how can we not be analyzing Texas' main in-prison treatment program to see if it works or if it needs improvement?
Texas has expanded its treatment capacity significantly since 2003, largely on the premise that evidence based treatment practices will reduce recidivism. I tend to agree with that premise, but it's just a hypothesis until tested in the real world, and we can't measure and test whether the program works or not if no one is comprehensively examining SAFP outcomes - the same can be said for the new treatment programs installed in 2007.
I hope Sen. Whitmire is right that complaints of abuse are dated or overstated, but the exchange at the November hearing revealed a shortcoming in the state's oversight of treatment programs that needs to be addressed in a more systematic, ongoing way.