The Importance of Addressing Drug Abuse in Prison

In Drug Addiction September 25th, 2014 No Comments

According to statistics posted by Ezra Klein in a 2013 Washington Post article, the U.S. prison population is more then 2.4 million, a quadrupling since 1980. Furthermore, the single largest driver in this increase is putative measures towards drug use, affected by 1998 rules demanding longer sentences for drug offenders.

Thus, it is inevitable that our prison population is filled with many people in desperate need of recovery.  Indeed, a 2010 report from Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) revealed that 65 percent of inmates in federal and state prisons are in need of substance abuse recovery, but only 11 percent receive any care for it.

How We Got Here

Despite scientific research showing that addiction is a brain disorder requiring long-term medical care, popular opinion still seems to communicate that addiction is a moral failure, and that addicted criminals in particular are in need of harsh punishments so they will be “scarred straight.”

However, punishment itself has been shown to be an extremely ineffective in changing anyone’s behavior. Often, felons learn nothing from the prison experience except how to be better drug addicts, and without any supportive resources when they get out, they will simply relapse back into old addictive behavior.

Furthermore, drug use itself is often a significant factor behind criminal behavior.  The CASA study showed that 78 percent of all violent crimes and 83 percent of all property crimes are either influenced by drug use, or motivated by a need for money to get abused substances.  Since so many felons are users and addicts, the current system of simply locking people up and forgoing effective treatment, instead focusing on “punishment” is doing little good to really transform behavior.   Indeed

What Changes Are Needed

Inmates need to receive closer evaluations for substance abuse, as well as the underlying mental health issues (such as depression, anxiety, or trauma) that may be fueling them.  So many addicted inmates in prison are simply flying under the radar, and surround in a culture with many other addicts may only perpetuate their behavior. 

Our prisons need to meet this awareness with trained staff able to provide long-term programs that have been shown to be affective at encouraging sobriety. While this would require a greater deal of investment, the long run benefit to the individual and their society would end up saving money, upwards of $90,000 annually per rehabilitated and sober former inmate, according to the 2010 CASA study.

Some people suffering from substance abuse don’t belong in prison at all.  Simply treating the addictive condition in recovery has been shown to be more effective then jail time, which both has a higher effect at real transformation, and ends up saving the government money in the long run.  According to a study on JusticePolicy.org, Maryland saw the cost of offenders decrease from $20,000 a year to $4,000 when it shifted from drug treatment over incarceration.

One issue of particular importance is helping avoid relapse after release from prison. Psychologist Harry Wexler has had a great deal of success helping prisoners avoid relapse through the establishment of therapeutic communities and work release programs, that help an ex-convict leave prison to enter into new environments that make old patterns of behavior less likely.  

Pre-release planning and monitored after-care are absolutely essential to make sure treatment remains successful, and leads to real lifestyle changes.  Simply holding people in jail is doing nothing to change the behavior of a population that is especially affected and vulnerable to substance abuse.  Treatment over every aspect of an addiction and it’s sufferer’s life is the only thing that is truly going to transform behavior


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