New Mexico rehab center housing overflow inmates

Albuquerque Journal/December 18, 2008

Albuquerque, New Mexico - A controversial Albuquerque rehabilitation center is struggling with finances, and the secure facility for drug and alcohol offenders could be in violation of the law that allowed it to open by housing overf low prisoners from a county jail .

The Second Chance Center uses massage, natural diet, saunas, and some training manuals based on criminal justice research done by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to detoxify and rehabilitate drug offenders.

But the program is facing more than the criticism and skepticism aimed at it from the time it opened in 2006.

The Second Chance Center, in the old Bernalillo County jail building on the West Mesa, has laid off employees, missed payroll deadlines and lost a court judgment for not paying all of the bill for its video surveillance system.

But it's not the center's money problems that have Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White questioning whether Second Chance should be shut down.

White is taking issue with the fact that Second Chance is housing overflow inmates from the Sierra County jail.

Sierra County Sheriff Ron Brown said he has transported inmates from the jail to Second Chance. He did not know how many, how much Sierra County was paying Second Chance or how long the inmates were staying at the center. A call to the Sierra County manager was not returned.

"I find it rather annoying that I had to learn from the Albuquerque Journal that we had a private prison operating in our backyard," White said Wednesday. "I'm going to ask the attorney general to look into this to see whether it needs to be shut down."

Second Chance can take only prisoners who meet certain criteria - such as not having been convicted of a violent or sexual offense. And, they must be sentenced to the facility by a judge.

Prisoners assigned to the center must complete a rehabilitation program of six months before being released.

Second Chance President Joy Westrum could not be reached late Wednesday to comment on the Sierra County inmates.

She confirmed earlier that the program was struggling to make ends meet, but was upbeat.

She said earlier that the center has about 40 employees. Five have been laid off in recent weeks, she said, for "poor performance, for not getting up to snuff."

"And we have a few people who haven't been paid, but they're OK with it, and they should be paid in the next few days," Westrum said Wednesday. "We have been in good communication with those who haven't been paid."

In an e-mail obtained by the Journal, the mother of a Second Chance "corrections officer" paints a different picture. She says payroll has been a persistent problem at the center, and her son fears he won't be able to pay his rent.

The corrections officer "was supposed to be paid on Dec. 8, and the corrections officers have not yet been paid, and were told that the center does not know when they will be paid," the e-mail says.

Westrum said the center had trouble making payroll earlier this year but never went more than two weeks without paying its employees.

Cash crunch

The recent struggles to make payroll haven't been the center's only financial problems.

A state District Court judge last month found Second Chance in breach of the contract it signed with Albuquerque-based Industrial and Commercial Security Systems Inc. for a video security system.

The company's president, Steve Berniklau, said Second Chance officials paid him about $45,000 for a 29-camera system when the contract was signed shortly before the center opened in September 2006. Another $45,000 was due a few months later after the installation, but he said Second Chance never paid.

Berniklau sued, and Second Chance was ordered to pay $78,000 including attorney's fees and interest, court records show.

Last year, Second Chance officials received $600,000 of a requested $3.6 million from the Legislature. The center had received a federal grant for $350,000 around the time it opened in September 2006 and was paying the rest of its operating costs through private donations.

Westrum told the Journal last month that private donations have exceeded government funding and are now paying for most operations. Westrum said at the time that she will be asking for state money again during the coming legislative session - however much she can get.

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