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Investigation finds no fraud by Texas prison contractor that was paid despite cutting inmate therapy services

By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

Investigation finds no fraud by Texas prison contractor that was paid despite cutting inmate therapy services” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Months after one of the country’s largest private prison companies was accused of defrauding Texas by collecting millions of dollars for in-person therapy it didn’t provide to prisoners, a state investigation found there was no fraud because prison officials sanctioned the practice.

In Texas, many prisoners who have been granted parole must first complete final rehabilitation programs focused on life skills, substance abuse or sex offenses before being released. The programming, often run by the private prison group Management & Training Corporation, generally takes three to nine months, involving group therapy, individual therapy and other services.

As the coronavirus pandemic began to kill thousands of prisoners across the country in 2020, prison rights supporters pushed for Texas to waive the therapy requirements and immediately release people approved for parole, especially as many prisoners claimed the treatment programs were no longer providing substantive care. The request was met with firm resistance from the Texas parole board.

But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice did allow MTC to cobble together “alternative treatment methods” to avoid human contact and still get paid under its contracts, according to a July report from the Texas Board of Criminal Justice’s Internal Audit Division. Written assignments replaced in-person therapy, and group therapy sessions were held with counselors outside, sometimes yelling into the dorms.

“These process modifications, while not conventional, allowed the continuation of pre-release programming and release to parole during the pandemic,” board investigators said in their report.

The internal investigation was spurred by a November complaint filed by prison-rights advocacy group LatinoJustice. The group alleged that despite a drop in therapeutic services, MTC continued charging the state for its programs and forced prisoners to falsify documents stating they had received treatment. It was unknown at the time if TDCJ had approved a change in the contract, and the group said the agency continues to fight the release of such records.

Andrew Case, senior counsel at LatinoJusice said the finding that TDCJ approved of the change doesn’t mean the modified programs accomplished what MTC was being paid to do. Before the pandemic, he said, prisoners participated in individual and group therapy sessions, and had worksheets with related exercises to complete between sessions. Switching to just worksheets, he said, is “essentially giving people the tests without the classes.”

“Someone at TDCJ made a decision to deny people care and continue to pay a vendor for it, and that’s a very troubling set of facts,” Case said Wednesday.

TDCJ spokesperson Amanda Hernandez declined to answer questions Thursday about LatinoJustice’s criticisms or whether the agency ever sought to end MTC contracts. After the state auditor’s report was released, Emily Lawhead with MTC said last month that the findings proved her company complied with its contracts.

“The COVID-19 pandemic proved challenging for individuals and organizations across the world – including all prison operators and prison residents,” she said in a statement. “MTC worked with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to find new ways to provide programming to residents, as in-person learning was not feasible.”

LatinoJustice and prisoners, however, said the new programming largely didn’t happen. A former prisoner told The Texas Tribune last year that group therapy in his 2020 substance abuse treatment pre-release program was at times a MTC therapist sitting in a dorm of about 60 men and reading a book. He said prisoners were told to mark off 20 hours of direct treatment, or in-person therapy, on their weekly progress reports when all they’d received was paperwork.

The prison system audit acknowledged that some prisoners were told to record the alternative assignments, mainly completing worksheets, as direct treatment. The practice “could cause an inmate to believe he was directed to falsify records,” the investigation found.

“However, once the inmates submitted the forms, staff routinely documented direct hours were achieved through alternative means,” the report stated.

The prison board audit recommended TDCJ clearly mark which treatment hours were done through alternative means. The agency said the change is in the works.

Case said the report shows TDCJ is acknowledging what prisoners said was true.

“They were given documents and told to sign off on them, and they had more hours listed on them than they actually had in treatment,” Case said. “TDCJ said this could lead them to believe they could be forced to falsify documents. In fact, they were forced to falsify.”

Aside from the fraud allegations, the auditor’s office and the criminal justice board audit faulted TDCJ for allowing the alternative treatment methods to continue until after LatinoJustice complained last November, despite Texas lifting almost all coronavirus restrictions by March 2021. In some cases, a lack of in-person therapy has continued not because of the pandemic, but because of the notorious staffing challenges in Texas prisons.

“It is our belief these staffing shortages will continue to represent risk to program delivery and consideration should be given to reevaluating contract provisions to ensure future success,” the board report said.

TDCJ officials responded that they were working with MTC to explore new options, like providing virtual therapy sessions.

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