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Innovators in Corrections: J. David Donahue
By Charles F. Field, Jr.
Published: 04/09/2018

Iic davedonahue geogroup banner  2 The following article is the third in a series titled "Innovators in Corrections" which focuses on people and their ideas that move corrections forwards.

J. David Donahue, Senior Vice President and President of U.S. Corrections & Detention & International Operations with the GEO Group, the largest for-profit prison operator in the $4 billion privatized corrections market, humbly attributes much of his success to divine intervention and supportive management in both the public and private sector.

Case in point: One Sunday morning, following bible study at their church, Donahue’s wife introduced him to a friend whose father just so happened to be the warden of the nearby federal prison. Donahue was in law enforcement at the time. The pay and work schedule was a strain on his marriage. “The warden was soft-spoken and small in stature,” he recalls, “not at all the stereotype of the prison wardens: six-foot-five, barrel-chested, physically intimidating. If anything, he was a buck-fifty in weight and five-foot-seven, with a runner’s build. As we parted ways in the parking lot, he suggested, ‘Well, why don’t you come out to the prison?’”

Young, eager and unaware of proper protocol, he showed up the very next day, coat and tie, in the lobby of the federal prison and announced that he had arrived to visit with the warden. “I won't say it startled the staff, but they weren't accustomed to someone just walking in without an appointment and saying, ‘I’m here to see the warden.’”

The warden was gracious and quickly arranged a tour of the facility. “It was a huge physical plant and had the stately presence of a federal installation. I met with staff in the personnel office, and applied for a job then and there, wrestling with an IBM Selectric typewriter, which, at the time, was the height of technology for federal prisons. Three weeks later, I enter the National Corrections Academy for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”

As a young correctional officer with a small child, Donahue’s FBOP salary was still insufficient to make ends meet. Free time was spent landscaping and painting houses on the side to stay ahead of the bank and the utility companies. Like all first-year officers in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, he was required to complete 180 days of civil service before he could be considered for federal agencies like the Border Patrol or the U.S. Marshall’s Office. Disillusioned by the pay, and ever restless to find his career path, he counted the days. Officer Donahue was about to have a second life-changing conversation in a parking lot.

A Career Choice Affirmed

“I was changing out of my uniform at my truck after my shift when the chief psychologist - the highest ranking member of the mental health division of the prison – called me by name,” Donahue recalls.

"Officer Donahue, I want to thank you for what you did today," he said. The psychologist, who was a civilian and not in a uniform division like Donahue, walked across the parking lot, extended his hand, and thanked Donahue for the job that he had done this day.

“I'm confident I looked like a deer in headlights, because I didn’t recall doing anything heroic or unique or different than what I'd done every day,” he says.

The psychologist recounted Donahue’s intervention with a mental health inmate whose emotions had reached a tipping point. According to the psychologist, he had deftly de-escalated a potentially dangerous situation, and credited him for his instinctive response. “I just thought I was doing my job,” recalls Donahue. “I had no real appreciation for what I had done, and he thanked me for doing my job that day. That was the moment I fell in love with what we do.”

Since that moment, Donahue has earned the reputation as an Innovator in Corrections, focused largely on cognitive intervention and earning a reputation in the public and private sectors of the corrections industry for efficiency and effectiveness. He moved up the ranks at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, transferring from a uniformed division to the correctional programs division, serving in various positions including Case Worker, Unit Manager, Executive Assistant and Warden of several facilities in the country.

“I used to say the programs division promoted hope in what was sometimes seen as a hopeless environment,” says Donahue. “Not everybody in prison was significantly different than the people that I met every day on the street. They had used poor judgment and they were being held accountable for that judgment, but (eventually) they were going to get out of prison. When people return home after their period of confinement, we want them to be in a position to rebuild their lives and contribute to a community.”

First Foray into Privatized Corrections

Following his distinguished career at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Donahue joined a private firm, U.S. Corrections Corporation, which was purchased in 1998 by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for $225 million. John Rees, president of Rees and Associates Correctional Consulting - then Vice President Business Development at CCA - was responsible for determining the fate of US Corrections employees. Donahue was SVP and COO of USCC and had to tender his resignation in the transaction and subsequently Rees didn’t hire Donahue.

“It was perhaps my greatest mistake of my career,” says Rees. “I didn’t keep Dave. We were competitors who often saw each other at RFP meetings and the like, but I balked.” When he was Commissioner of the Department of Corrections in Kentucky though, Rees saw things differently. He aggressively recruited and hired Donahue to serve as Deputy Commissioner, focusing on administrative policy, training, and supervision.

If You’re Not Keeping Score, You’re Only Practicing

A long-standing, mutually beneficial relationship enabled the corrections departments of Indiana and Kentucky to achieve improved economies of scale. From the late 1990s, hundreds of inmates housed in over-crowded Indiana jails and prisons were sent to Kentucky where empty beds could be leased for a cost of $35 to $45 per inmate per day.

According to an article published in the Journal Review in 2007, the bed shortage in Indiana led to the construction and expansion of new facilities that sat empty due to lack of funding at the state level. Back then, Indiana had a $750 million budget deficit and it simply cost less to send inmates to Kentucky.

In the governor’s race of 2004, the 2,000 empty beds in Indiana became an issue. As a candidate, Mitch Daniels sought the counsel and advice of John Rees to identify a new Commissioner for the Indiana Department of Corrections if he were to win the governor’s race. Rees strongly recommended his deputy, J. David Donahue. “Dave is a leader, a visionary,” says Rees, recalling his conversations with the governor. “He is always looking to innovate. It was apparent to me that he and Governor Daniels – both data-driven administrators - would work well together.”

Indeed, Mitch Daniels was elected governor in 2004, Donahue was hired, and he instinctively adapted to Daniels’ management mantra: “If you’re not keeping score, you’re only practicing.”

“It is hard to overstate the impact Dave Donahue had on our state,” Daniels offers. “Dave revolutionized corrections in Indiana. Our primary obligation was to find the best deal for the taxpayers of Indiana. Under Dave’s leadership, we cut the cost of corrections 15 to 20% and used our corrections facilities capacity in all sorts of creative ways.”

Donahue brought home Indiana inmates housed elsewhere. He negotiated intergovernmental agreements with California and Arizona to ease overcrowding and to populate Indiana’s under-utilized facilities. He privatized food service. He privatized health care services. He contracted with the GEO Group to run the New Castle Correctional Facility. Under privatization, a once-empty facility became a major local employer with 300 new staff hirings.

“When we bid out correctional services or any state service, we were indifferent to who won the bids,” says the former governor. “We encouraged incumbent state employees to organize themselves, form a company and bid. At one of our facilities, they won, and saved the state a great deal of money by removing a layer of middle management and relying on their own expertise.”

During Daniels’ tenure as governor, Indiana had a significant meth-amphetamines problem.

“We had a meeting with law enforcement, the judiciary and corrections to see what we could do for our population of inmates addicted to meth,” Daniels recalls. “We needed an all-out offensive against the problem, like opioids today, it was so powerfully and instantly addictive. In response, Dave helped to develop the CLIFF program (Clean Living is Freedom Forever) - a very disciplined substance abuse treatment program with a dedicated unit. Next to soldiers’ funerals, the most emotional events I attended in my eight years in office were the graduation ceremonies in our prisons from his program. I still hear from graduates on how it changed their lives.”

Donahue’s impact in Indiana is revealed in the numbers: for three years as Commissioner in Indiana, Donahue led a workforce of over 9,000 employees, supervising nearly 39,000 offenders in addition to 3,000 Juvenile Offenders and those individuals placed on community supervision. During his tenure with Indiana, Mr. Donahue instilled best correctional practices that improved sex-offender registration, enhanced facility security with the addition of state-of-the-art equipment and protocols, and consolidated services to increase departmental efficiency and effectiveness.

“Dave pioneered a community reentry program using model case management practices,” says Rees. “He was well ahead of the curve when it comes to the development of reentry programs and community corrections. When he left Indiana to join GEO Group and return to the private sector, I knew he would thrive.”

The GEO Group

Today at GEO Group, Donahue oversees 72 correctional facilities encompassing over 82,000 beds. He is a strong proponent of cognitive intervention, a rehabilitation process that prepares inmates to avoid mistakes and criminal behaviors upon release and reentry into their communities. “Changing mindsets and behaviors of offenders is a challenge inherent to our work,” says Donahue. “When an individual is sanctioned to a term of confinement at a court level, whether it's municipal or district or state, the likelihood is they're going to be returned to that same sentencing jurisdiction and to the communities that gave rise to their criminal thinking.” The National Institute of Corrections’ model, “Thinking for a Change,” has formalized the process of cognitive intervention, dividing it into three components: cognitive programming, moral reconation therapy (a treatment strategy that seeks to decrease recidivism among juvenile and adult criminal offenders by increasing moral reasoning), and individual counseling. The GEO Group’s Continuum of Care initiative puts cognitive intervention into practice, offering academic and vocational programs, cognitive behavioral treatment, faith-based services, and substance abuse programs.

“We spend an enormous amount of time with opportunities for individuals to engage in dialogue with our professional, trained employees in our company so they have a plan. There's a lot of individual and group interaction that occurs, and that’s equally apparent with individuals that suffer from mental illness in our facilities. The mental health needs of individuals are significant in our industry. Corrections is a repository, unfortunately, of individuals that suffer from mental illness and sometimes co-occurring disorders – those individuals that have addiction or substance abuse disorders along with mental health issues learned to self-medicate, the fundamental problem can be traced back to mental health issues.”

The goal of the in-custody evidence-based programming at GEO Group is to facilitate a successful transition to life at home, continue their transition post release maximizing the impact of evidence-based programs delivered to reduce recidivism. After assessing risks and needs of inmates in jail or prison and initiating programming while in custody, the transition to a community-based program is seamless and behavior change is expedited.

“There is a logic to individuals that mature out of criminal thinking,” says Donahue, who pursued a graduate degree in Education. “As people mature chronologically, behaviors become more appropriate to the cognitive skills they need to evaluate decisions. Individuals can be introduced to cognitive skills they need to possess, we spend an enormous amount of energy in our company focusing on the academic platform, the vocational platform and a life skills platform that’s essential for people to return to independent living and meaningful engagement in the community, we also focus on cognitive behavior.

“We promote cognitive programming that will provide tools individuals need to have so they can evaluate options in the decision-making cycle when they return to their community and not just merely try to use avoidance”.

The approach has been particularly successful at GEO Group: over 12,000 GEDs have been awarded to inmates in the last decade; 45,000 have participated in vocational training; and over 100,000 have completed substance abuse and therapeutic programs in the same time period.

“When you work with government, you have to be patient. Bureaucracy moves slowly,” says John Rees. “In the private sector, if the boss thinks it’s a good idea, you can move forward more quickly. Dave has done very well guiding innovative programming at GEO Group.”

Next Challenge: Corrections as Infrastructure

“I always saw corrections as the ‘unappreciated part’ of law enforcement,” says Daniels. “Corrections officers are law enforcement that no one ever sees, but we are indebted to them.” The greatest challenge facing the industry – as Donahue sees it – is the recognition of corrections as a critical component of the nation’s public safety infrastructure.

“The oldest prison that I've worked with was built when President Lincoln was in office,” Donahue says. “It’s still operating. It serves a function and a purpose, but I'll assure you it's not efficient physically. It's extremely expensive for the taxpayers to maintain. It's not designed to embrace the technology solutions we have in the industry today, whether it's video surveillance, whether it's security enhancements that make facilities safe for host communities or inmate safety in line with the intended improvements brought about because of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

“When you look at the inventory of correction facilities in the country, many of them are very expensive to operate. The return on the investment to operate is not there. It takes a significant amount of staff, and the time and the talent resource is phenomenal.

“When resourcing in government is so limited and the demands of supporting communities is so obvious, those correction systems, those resources are becoming fewer and far harder to get,” he says.

Donahue also believes that for-profit correction operators get a bad rap.

“Unfortunately, what you don’t see every day in our business is the great work by our people and frankly, the inmates, says Donahue. “The headlines should be saying how many people obtained a high school education, how many people are physically doing better because of the access to medical care they didn’t have in their community, or how they’ve learned to cope with some of those debilitating demons that they’ve had in their world.”

“I look back at my 38 years and realize that the work that we do truly matters,” Donahue says. “We're rebuilding individuals’ lives, our communities and our country.”

Charles F. Field, Jr. is a Senior Writer for Corrections.Com


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