BOISE — The first time Deborah Escamilla was ordered to a rider treatment program in 2005, she was not successful.

Incarcerated most of her life, Escamilla, 53, recently completed her second rider treatment program; she said she is ready to be out of the prison system. The tools she was given during the program will help her be successful, she said.

Idaho’s rider treatment program is an alternative to prison. It is designed for low-risk offenders to get treatment. If successful in the program, they are put on probation rather than finishing their sentence in prison.

“It offers people an out,” said Bree Derrick, Idaho Department of Correction chief of staff. “There’s an off-ramp to get back on to probation.”

The goal is to reduce offenders’ chances of re-offending and to find success on probation without having a lengthy term in prison. But Idaho Department of Correction officials and offenders have noticed problems with the program.

Offenders sentenced to rider treatment programs are more likely to re-offend in three years than inmates sentenced to prison or directly placed on probation. From 2015 to 2018, rider participants re-offended at a rate of about 43 percent, nearly 10 percentage points higher than probationers and 8 percentage points higher than parolees, according to the Idaho Department of Correction.

Low-risk offenders, especially those with no prior criminal history, are even more likely to re-offend, Derrick said.

“They’re actually recidivating at higher rates than people who are sentenced directly to probation or might serve a term and then leave on parole,” Derrick said.

As the state of Idaho struggles with a burgeoning prison population and is sending prisoners out of state because of a lack of prison space, a successful rider system could alleviate the problem, as riders are intended to shorten the length of stay for a prisoner. However, if nearly half of the offenders in the rider program end up back in prison within three years, that only makes the problem worse.

A rider treatment program is not all that different from prison, Derrick said. Inmates in rider programs are still incarcerated in IDOC prisons. They go through the same treatment programs other prisoners would go through, just at a faster pace, Derrick said. Starting the treatment program happens a little faster than it would for someone sentenced to prison.

“It’s a last-ditch effort to try to do something short of prison,” Derrick said. “Unfortunately, what I think ends up happening is it looks a lot like prison.”

During that time, low-risk offenders might learn more about the criminal world than they would have otherwise, according to Eli Shubert, 21, who completed a rider treatment program in 2017. While incarcerated, he learned how to break into cars and where to find drugs in his hometown, he said.

Derrick, who has worked in 12 other states, has never seen this rider model in any other state. In another state, Derrick said, low-risk offenders might instead get sentenced to probation.

“Here we might give them that rider program, but we make them worse and more likely to recidivate,” she said. “We want to really reserve that for the people who really need it.”

The roughly 1,500 Idaho inmates in rider programs make up 17 percent of the state’s total inmate population.

If a judge orders an offender to what’s called “retained jurisdiction,” the judge has discretion for up to a year on whether the offender will go on probation or stay in prison after completing the rider. Most offenders complete treatment in six to nine months, Derrick said, at a 90 percent success rate. However, almost half of those inmates end up back in the prison system within three years.

More than 70 percent of rider inmates are in for non-violent crimes, according to IDOC data. They often participate in two treatment programs at once, designed to help with issues such as substance abuse, aggression and sexual misconduct.

Idaho has five prison facilities that house rider inmates — three for men, and two for women. Only one prison facility for men and women specifically holds offenders on riders — the North Idaho Correctional Institution and the South Boise Women’s Correctional Center. The other facilities also serve parolees and prisoners but typically those on riders are separated.

At the South Boise Women’s Correctional Center women are assigned bunks in dormitory-like rooms. They wear prison garb. There aren’t many windows. There is a large communal space, called a day room, where the women can hang out at tables, talk and play games.

Men and women who are sentenced to a rider are taken on a prison bus from the county jail, strip-searched and handed their small pile of supplies for their stay — bed roll, blankets, sheets, pillow and hygiene supplies. They first get placed in what’s called the Reception and Diagnostics Unit at the state prison in southwest Boise for men and the state prison in Pocatello for women. Offenders spend about a week getting medical tests and assessed for what treatment programming is best for them. During that week, they’re on a 22-hour lockdown.

They don’t know which facility they’re going to until the day they leave.

“This section is a culture shock,” said Cole Davenport, 22, who in May was waiting for placement at a rider facility. He was in for drug possession.

The 22-hour lockdown was difficult, Davenport said, but he was eager for the treatment program where he said he would have more freedom. He’s glad to have the opportunity to qualify for probation.

Shubert completed his rider program at the North Idaho Correctional Institution, a former military base in Cottonwood. The 414 beds there primarily are reserved for men serving rider programs. He shared one of 63 bunks laid out in a single open room, within arm’s reach of each other.

“It’s prison still,” he said.

The classes Shubert took were aimed at helping offenders slow down and assess everyday situations, he said. He and the other offenders used flashcards with theoretical scenarios on them and had to discuss how they would react. While some of it was helpful, he said, it was largely a one-size-fits-all approach.

Idaho has used riders since 1972, according to the Times-News. An overhaul of the programming in 2016 increased the success rate to 90 percent of riders, up from 85 percent in 2014.

Success is measured by an offender meeting their treatment goals that were set during programming, Derrick said.

In 2018, of the 1,600 or so who took part in a rider, 234 offenders had their retained jurisdiction revoked and were ordered to serve their prison sentence, according to Jennifer Tyvand, program manager for the Reception and Diagnostics Unit.

Some successfully complete rider treatment but are back in prison within three years. In 2016, for those released to probation on riders because judges deemed their treatment successful, within three years of their release 46 percent were sentenced to an additional rider or had their prison sentence imposed, according to IDOC statistics.

Escamilla, who thinks she will be successful after completing her second rider, said the first time she was ordered to a rider program 15 years ago, she just wasn’t ready to change. When she first arrived to the South Boise Women’s Correctional Center in November, she could hardly talk. After speech therapy, new teeth, and several rider treatment courses, she knows she will be successful. These were all skills she gained because of programming and relationships she built with the IDOC staff at the center.

For Shubert, who had no prior criminal history, the program served as an orientation to the crime world. He now knows where to get drugs in his hometown and how to break into cars. He’s not the only person who had that experience.

“I know that I know a lot more about meth and heroin than I did before I went in,” he remembered. He recalled one inmate he knew who, like himself, had never done meth before, but he’d heard so much about it in the rider program — and where to get it — he tried it when he got out.

Shubert also knew of people in the program who still bragged about their past crimes and about their access to drugs.

“You meet people in there, and it’s like, ‘Here’s my number, call me when you get out and I can hook you up,’” he said.

Sixty-three percent of offenders in a rider program have a drug-related charge, according to IDOC statistics.

“For me, it just speaks to a gap in community-based treatment for those individuals,” Derrick said. “Unfortunately, they come into the criminal justice system and we don’t have a robust residential treatment program and we end up catching them at IDOC as a result.”

It was a frustration echoed by offender Matthew Rachel, who was given retained jurisdiction in May for possession of a controlled substance. The same charge in surrounding states would not have landed him in the prison system, he said.

“Lots of people come here on possession,” Rachel said. “I get rider treatment is for treatment, but it’s not specifically for addicts.”

Though he believes prison is much better than county jails, he would much rather funding be used on treatment programs outside of a prison setting than sending those addicted to drugs into a prison setting.

If riders didn’t exist, Derrick said, one of two things would happen: More people with felony convictions would go to prison, or more would get directly sentenced to probation.

“We can tell from research that the probation option for sure has significantly better outcomes,” she said.

IDOC officials are working to ensure adequate supervision and access to programming for people sentenced to probation, Derrick said. That includes making sure probationers have access to necessary treatment in the community and giving probation officers the resources to effectively supervise probationers.

“If we could find a sweet spot where judges would still have an ability to make sure people receive treatment intervention but not in an incarcerated setting and have all the negatives prison has in someone’s life, that would probably make everyone happy.”

Idaho Press reporter Tommy Simmons contributed to this story