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Second Chance removes last inmates from old jail building

By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Second Chance officials pulled the last of their inmates out of the old West Side jail building Saturday, marking an abrupt end to the drug rehab program's controversial two-plus years there.
        Fewer than 20 inmates had remained as of the end of the week. The remaining inmates were taken back to the jurisdictions from which they had been sentenced, including Grant and Sierra counties.
        Even after a Journal photographer had taken pictures of men loading a rental truck with equipment at the site Saturday afternoon, Second Chance President Joy Westrum was denying that the building had been vacated.
        She later released a statement that said: "After evaluating all it's options, Second Chance Center has determined that while it could fight the cancellation of its lease, Second Chance's clients ... are better served by Second Chance devoting its resources to finding a new center."
        City of Albuquerque officials had given Second Chance until Jan. 31 to vacate the building. The city terminated the program's lease for violations that include housing violent offenders and making unauthorized changes to the building.
        The facility appeared deserted Saturday, with just three cars in the parking lot, gates ajar, and a few employees inside. There was no sign of any inmates. From the entryway, items could be seen heaped into shopping carts.
        Albuquerque Chief Public Safety Officer Pete Dinelli said Saturday that he learned from a Journal reporter that the old jail building appeared deserted. So he sent police officers there to see what was going on.
        "If there's free access to the building, I want to know about it," Dinelli said. "If it's abandoned, we need to secure our asset. And I want to know if there has been damage to the building."
        The city is still considering whether to go forward with a civil lawsuit against Second Chance, he said. An audit shows Second Chance may owe as little as $20,000 or as much as $100,000 in water bills and unpaid rent.
        The program opened in 2006 amid plenty of buzz. It had received a $350,000 federal grant and had high-profile support: John Brennan, a former state District Court judge who had had his own substance-abuse problems, served as president. Second Chance had a few hundred referrals in its first year, on average housed about 65 inmates, and had a waiting list.
        But by mid 2008, Second Chance was struggling to pay bills and employees. Judges seemed unclear about who was eligible.
        What happened?
        • October 2006: Controversy swirls around Second Chance from the start for the program's ties to Scientology, unconventional methods and unwillingness to disclose finances. Still, it gains support, mainly from rural parts of the state.
        • By the end of 2007, Brennan has distanced himself from Second Chance over the way the program was being operated and managed, referrals from Bernalillo County have ceased, and state money isn't coming in at the level Second Chance had hoped.
        • Early 2008: To make ends meet, Second Chance begins, essentially, jail shopping. As financial troubles deepen in the first few months of 2008, the program begin making offers to rural counties around the state to take their overflow inmates — including women — at a discounted rate.
        • July 2008: Second Chance officials receive $600,000 of a requested $3.6 million from the Legislature. The rest of its money comes from private donors, but it isn't enough to cover expenses.
        • October 2008: A University of New Mexico study says violent offenders housed at Second Chance violate the center's criteria, and judges who sentence inmates to the program are unclear about its mandate. The study also questions the program's methods.
        • November 2008: City officials say the program has become a "dumping ground" for inmates from around New Mexico. Some of Second Chance's inmates have been convicted of violent felonies such as armed robbery and aggravated battery. According to the center's Web site, only male offenders with nonviolent drug offenses who were facing six months to a year behind bars are eligible.
        • Dec. 26, 2008: The city announces it will terminate Second Chance's lease. Several counties, including Socorro, Grants, and Taos, begin taking their inmates out.
        • Jan. 24, 2009: Second Chance moves the last of its inmates out of the building.
        Journal staff writer Hailey Heinz contributed to this report.

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