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Missing data undermines prison financial report

November 26, 2018

Reincarcerating prisoners who violate the terms of their parole after release — most by using drugs — costs New Mexico taxpayers $40 million per year, and there is no evidence the practice improves public safety or addresses the root causes of crime, says a recent evaluation of the state’s prison programs.

That finding is one of several concerns identified in the Legislative Finance Committee report.

The review team reached some conclusions, the report says, and provided some recommendations on Corrections Department programs and oversight, but an overarching theme in the evaluation was the difficulty the team had getting data it needed to get a clear picture of what is taking place inside the prison system.

For example, the evaluators found Corrections spends about $8.4 million per year on inmate programs to help reduce recidivism — such as education and drug abuse prevention. But they couldn’t determine whether inmates were completing such programs or benefiting from them because the department “has participation figures for 0 out of 31 in-custody programs.”

“This is in stark contrast to the 2012 LFC Corrections Evaluation, when the department had participation and completion figures for all of its programs,” the report says.

Asked why the Corrections Department couldn’t provide the data, spokesman S.U. Mahesh said the state agency is in the process of implementing a new system that will allow it to better track participation in prison programs as well as outcomes.

The Corrections Department received funding for the new offender management tracking system — about $7 million — in 2016, according to the legislative report, but implementation isn’t expected to be completed until 2021.

Mahesh said he thinks it could be finished in 2020.

In the meantime, the legislative reviewers concluded, “there is no way of knowing which programs are cost effective, being run with fidelity or are returning the best outcomes.” This dearth of information, the report says, is preventing the department from directing resources toward programs that are working and away from those that are not.

Lack of relevant data cropped up at nearly every turn, according to the report.

Corrections purchased an inmate risk and needs assessment tool in 2008, the report says, but still had not used it to conduct any assessments by 2012. Records indicate the department spent $40,000 for assessments in 2013, “though it’s not clear what was purchased with it.”

The department spent $232,000 administering the assessment to prisoners in 2017, the report said, but could not provide data on the results of those assessments or proof that needs identified by the assessments were addressed.

Department policy requires a committee to create a re-entry plan for each inmate 180 days before release, which must address treatment, employment and housing needs.

But the report says Corrections was “unable to produce any records” of how many inmates were connected with those services upon release.

“LFC staff witnessed a concerning pattern of near release inmates lacking good employment and housing plans during multiple prison visits. … These observations are by no means conclusive of anything,” the evaluators wrote, “but utter lack of substantive re-entry preparation was unavoidably apparent.”

Unknowns also kept evaluators from conducting a thorough examination of the quality of health care services provided to inmates, the report says, and prevented them from thoroughly reviewing the department’s efforts to hold health care vendors accountable for delivering quality care.

“Current healthcare performance measures are an improvement from past contracts,” evaluators wrote, “but say little about healthcare quality.”

Evaluators said the department’s current performance measures “are detailed and cover appropriate healthcare topics” but “count outputs rather than outcomes.” For example, the department documents the number of doctor visits but not whether diseases and conditions were effectively treated.

“Without strong quality performance measures, evaluators wrote, “it’s difficult to evaluate the efficacy of the healthcare provider and ensure prisoner’s civil rights are being met.”

Asked to address the findings on these points, Mahesh said the department recently hired a clinical nurse specialist and is looking to hire two more nurses to focus on auditing the care provided by the vendors.

This would be a return to previous practices abandoned in recent years when the department replaced the team of medically certified auditors with a health services administrator who was a lawyer rather than a medical professional.

Mahesh said the department also is asking legislators for more money to buy a new electronic health records system, which he says “will dramatically improve oversight of the contractor by providing the ability to track in real time the care that inmates are receiving.”

Page 27 of the 34-page report was reserved for the department’s response to the evaluation.

It was blank.

Mahesh said Corrections Secretary David Jablonski responded to the findings in person last month by answering questions posed by legislators following a presentation of the report to the Legislative Finance Committee.

Jablonski began his remarks that day by saying: “I think the administration and my staff have done a great job.”

Few of the questions posed by lawmakers prompted answers from Jablonski specific to the report’s findings.

For example, committee Chairwoman Rep. Patricia “Patty” A. Lundstrom, D-Gallup, asked him to provide a “30,000-foot view” of the state’s prison facilities.

Jablonski responded by reciting the name, location, security level and inmate population of each facility.

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