A Visit to Black Mountain

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Last week, as part of the North Carolina Judicial College’s Correctional Facilities Tour (West), I visited the Black Mountain Substance Abuse Treatment Center for Women. Today’s post shares some things we learned about Black Mountain—North Carolina’s one and only state-run community-based residential substance abuse treatment program for women on probation or parole.

As a few of you may remember from this blog post I wrote nearly a decade ago, Black Mountain opened in 2010 as the state’s lone residential substance abuse treatment center for women. Before that, we had DART Cherry for men, but no counterpart program for women. (Posts describing DART Cherry are available here and here.)

Where is Black Mountain? Black Mountain is in Buncombe County, east of Asheville.

What is Black Mountain, legally? Like DART Cherry, Black Mountain is a residential program. A judge can order it as a special condition of probation under G.S. 15A-1343(b1)(2) or, I suppose, as a “community and intermediate probation condition” under G.S. 15A-1343(a1)(4). As a legal matter, any probationer (community or intermediate, felon, misdemeanant, or impaired driver) is eligible to attend, subject to program eligibility requirements that I’ll get to in a moment. There is no fee to attend the program.

Black Mountain is not an option as part of an active sentence. A judge can recommend substance abuse treatment for someone being sent to jail or prison, but it will be provided in the jail or prison, not at Black Mountain. That said, a small number of former inmates attend Black Mountain upon their release. When we were there, 10 of the 60 beds were filled by DWI parolees, sent by the Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission under G.S. 15A-1371 and G.S. 20-179(p)(3).

How long is the Black Mountain program? It’s a 90-day program. However, program staff recommend that court officials not specifically mention “90 days” on judgments or modification orders, because occasionally a person winds up being there a little bit longer due to medical, disciplinary, or other issues. Writing “Attend and complete Black Mountain” without reference to a specific number of days gives staff the flexibility to have the defendant finish the program without the need for a formal modification to cover any additional time beyond 90 days.

Jail credit. Time spent at Black Mountain almost certainly counts for jail credit against a probationer’s suspended term of imprisonment. See State v. Lutz, 177 N.C. App. 140 (2006) (concluding that time spent at DART Cherry counts for jail credit).

Screening and assessment before treatment. Under G.S. 15A-1343(b3), a defendant ordered to Black Mountain must be screened and assessed before attending the program. Only if screening indicates that the defendant is chemically dependent and in need of residential treatment (ASAM Level III) may the defendant attend Black Mountain. That screening and assessment is conducted through TASC. Given the scarcity of bed space at Black Mountain, program staff suggested having defendants screened as early as possible before ordering the program to help save the staff from doing administrative legwork for a defendant that is later deemed ineligible for a bed.

Eligibility requirements. Due to limited space and medical capabilities (there is one small nursing station on site), the program has a fairly extensive list of eligibility criteria. You can see the full list here.

Daily life. Residents are up at 6:00 a.m. every day and in treatment every weekday morning from 8:30 to 11:00 a.m. After lunch the women have access to educational programming through Asheville-Buncombe Tech (a class on neuroscience is especially popular) and various clinical programs. There are evening meetings and free time after dinner, with lights out at 10:00 p.m. Visitation is allowed on Saturday afternoons. A full list of program rules and regulations is available here.

The wait list. The elephant in the room when it comes to Black Mountain is bed availability. There are 60 beds at Black Mountain (compared to 300 at DART Cherry). Unlike DART Cherry, which currently has no wait for a bed, Black Mountain generally has a wait. When we were there last week (May 10), one of the probation officers told us she was assigning beds for early July.

That delay raises all sorts of issues for probationers in need of treatment and a court system with limited means of keeping a defendant in a safe and effective holding pattern while awaiting a bed. There was some sense in talking to program staff (and residents) that holding the defendant in jail until a bed is available was a good solution, in that it could serve as a detox period and keep a person readily available if a bed opened early.

The problem, of course, is that a judge doesn’t have general authority to just hold a person in jail. If criminal charges or a probation violation is pending, then perhaps the “hold” can be achieved through conditions of pretrial release. If the person is being sentenced or has been found in violation of probation, the judge could order a split sentence to be served in the time before a bed opens. If the delay between now and bed availability is longer than the split the judge could legally impose (or longer than what the judge thinks is appropriate), a hybrid solution might be to order a short split to be scheduled by a probation officer in the week or so before the defendant’s scheduled bed date. Program staff said residents seem to do well when they come to the program after five to seven days of confinement.

Physical space. Black Mountain is small. There are basically two buildings, one with a multipurpose library area and dining hall, and the other with dormitory rooms and offices that double as treatment space.

We walked through at about 9:30 a.m. and saw the residents crowded into several small offices along the same hallway as their dormitory rooms for group therapy. It was close quarters to begin with, and honestly a little claustrophobic as our group of twenty judges, lawyers, clerks, and magistrates passed through. The dining area has a high ceiling that makes it hard to hear, and thus limits its usefulness as a space for programming. The Governor’s Budget includes a million dollar appropriation for modular classrooms that would offer expanded program space.

We concluded our visit with a panel discussion with five residents. Their stories were powerful. They said they wished they had more space and more mental health programming, but by and large they were very positive about Black Mountain and grateful for the opportunity to be there.

I sometimes worry about bringing tours into a sensitive space like this—not so much for security reasons, but rather because I don’t want to interrupt the residents’ progress or put them on display. But I think the visit was positive, and I am grateful to the staff for their hospitality. The residents with whom we spoke seemed pleased that a group of court officials would take the time to listen to their stories and learn more about how to make the best use of a scarce resource. As one of the women said, “It’s nice to have a voice.”

One comment on “A Visit to Black Mountain

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Jamie. I hope others will realize there needs to be much more done in the area of residential programming for substance use in corrections. If we have any chance of lowering recidivism, one of the areas we must confront head on is substance use, along with the co-occurring disorder of mental illness. We know that residential substance use works in short term and if we can provide adequate and appropriate aftercare and MAT, we may have some chances. Again, thanks.

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