Rehab failures haunt Donovan prison

Audit links rising recidivism to therapy and training inadequacies

Donovan. "The fire marshal limited the capacity in at least three of the prison’s academic education classes from 27 to 16."
  • Donovan. "The fire marshal limited the capacity in at least three of the prison’s academic education classes from 27 to 16."

It's home to some of California's most infamous inmates, including Bobby Kennedy's killer Sirhan Sirhan, but one of the biggest black marks against the Robert J. Donovan Correction Facility on Otay Mesa may be its educational insufficiencies, per a review by state auditor Elaine Howle of California's in-prison rehabilitation programs.

"We found that R. J. Donovan, at 67 percent, had the lowest academic enrollment rate," says the audit, released January 31, "and R. J. Donovan had the lowest vocational enrollment rate, at 40 percent."

Learning inadequacies at state lock-ups are linked closely to the prison system's soaring rate of recidivism. "Although the number of inmates housed in state prisons has decreased in recent years, recidivism rates for inmates in California have remained stubbornly high, averaging around 50 percent over the past decade," the report notes.

Despite increased funding in recent years, officials at Donovan haven't been able to find the staff and space to conduct classes, the audit found. "The R. J. Donovan principal stated that staff shortages and difficulty filling vacant positions affected its vocational enrollment rate, as four of its nine positions were vacant during fiscal year 2017–18 and had been vacant since 2016."

"The Folsom and R. J. Donovan school principals stated that physical space limitations have also restricted the number of students they can enroll in their classes, preventing the prisons from filling all of the budgeted slots in their academic and vocational courses."

According to the audit, "the R. J. Donovan school principal stated that the fire marshal limited the capacity in at least three of the prison’s academic education classes from 27 to 16, a reduction of 33 slots."

But lack of sufficient space isn't the only problem.

The state corrections department "has neither consistently placed inmates on waiting lists for needed rehabilitation programs nor prioritized those with the highest need correctly," the report says.

"This contributed to Corrections' failure to meet any of the rehabilitative needs for 62 percent of the inmates released in fiscal year 2017–18 who had been assessed as at risk to recidivate."

Per the audit's findings, wardens have done a poor job choosing worthy students for rehab. "We examined the records for a selection of 19 inmates placed into rehabilitation programs during fiscal year 2017–18 at the three prisons we reviewed—Folsom, San Quentin, and R. J. Donovan— and found that 15 of the 19 should not have received priority for enrollment."

"Specifically, of the 19 inmates, four had a low risk of recidivating, four had a low need for the rehabilitation program they were placed in, and seven had a combination of both a low risk and a low need."

"When we reviewed the inmate population for R. J. Donovan," the report adds, "we found 89 inmates who should have received higher priority because they were not currently enrolled in another rehabilitation program and had a moderate to high risk of recidivating, a moderate to high need for the program, and a scheduled release date within the next five years."

Another piece of bad news involved the failure of what is known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a form of psychotherapy otherwise known as CBT. "Inmates who completed their recommended CBT rehabilitation programs recidivated at about the same rate as inmates who were not assigned to those rehabilitation programs," says the report.

"Corrections has not ensured that vendors provide consistent and effective CBT programs that have been proven through research to reduce recidivism—otherwise known as evidence-based," auditors found, with the problem particularly pronounced at Donovan.

"The number of CBT curricula that were evidence-based varied widely among prisons, and Corrections is unable to track whether an inmate received evidence‐based curricula. For example, in Pelican Bay State Prison, only one of 32 curricula (3 percent) were not evidence-based, while at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility nine of the 16 curricula (56 percent) were not evidence-based. "

In a January 11 response to the audit, state corrections and rehabilitation secretary Ralph Diaz said his department would prepare a "corrective action plan," adding that "CBT programs comprise just 26 percent of all rehabilitative programs; the remaining 74 percent comprises academic and career technical education."

Prison officials, the letter added, "believe that robust in-prison rehabilitation opportunities followed by aftercare are essential to holistically addressing the criminogenic needs of the offender population and truly impacting recidivism."

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Maybe more money should be spent on educating children and young adults so that they can be productive members of society. As for all the worthless POS inmates just keep them locked up.

Alex, I'm a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney who is familiar with our prison system. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people who serve time in prison will be released. Where will they live and where will they work? Earning a high school diploma, learning some job skills and behavior management coping skills are essential tools to being successful upon release. All prisons could improve their programs but without these programs our communities would suffer.

Wow, that is some aerial photograph of sprawling Donovan State Prison on Otay Mesa. I don't understand how recidivism can be measured by weak educational programs at the joint.

A Donovan prisoner takes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, gets released, reoffends and comes back? Seems like that's expecting a lot from a few overcrowded classes featuring the power of positive thinking.

What if we changed the way we incarcerate people by taking a leaf from the German playbook? A while back, I saw a "60 Minutes" segment on Germany's approach to rehabilitation of imprisoned criminals. Inmates were allowed freedom of movement within their area and regular socialization with a small group of inmates there.They were expected to cooperate on dividing and sharing work responsibilities. The system encouraged formation of functional small societies -- much better practice for life on the outside.

Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader