Prisons in the United State have a reputation for having the highest prison population in the world – 716 for every 100,000 people according to the Washington Post. This adds up to 2.3 million inmates, many of which are struggling with an addiction.
Figuring out how to support an addict who has been incarcerated, however, is not an easy or straightforward task.
Drug addiction and incarceration
The vast majority of prisoners, as many as 80 percent, have a problem with substance abuse. Many are clinically addicted. According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, over 65 percent of inmates in the U.S. were clinically addicted to some kind of substance.
Despite the fact 1.5 million people in prisons were struggling with abuse, treatment has been sparse. The same study found only 11 percent received any treatment at all while they were incarcerated.
Drug-dependency and crime
Although many prisoners are addicts, they don’t necessarily go to prison or jail for using or possessing drugs. Actually, addiction can influence users in many other ways that eventually lead to other types of crime and incarceration.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), only 6 percent of inmates in state prisons were incarcerated for possession, and only 18 percent had other drug offenses.
So why are so many addicts in prison?
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, aside from participating in the violent system of drug production and trafficking, there are two main ways drug addiction and use can result in incarceration:
- Drugs and alcohol affect a person’s behavior and thoughts. Some people commit crimes while under the influence because of this altered state.
- In trying to obtain an illegal substance or alcohol, some addicts commit crimes, like robbery or prostitution, to obtain money.
Supporting incarcerated addicts is crucial to prevent relapse and recidivism
Crime and drugs are linked, but treatment and an effective support system are obvious solutions. Unfortunately, most prisons and jails are failing people with addictions. Addiction is a disease, and simply eliminating access to drugs or alcohol does not effectively treat addiction.
According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 95 percent of incarcerated addicts use drugs again after they’re released and 60 to 80 percent will commit a new crime, often related to their drug addiction.
Just as troubling, overdose is especially high once inmates are released from prison. The risk of overdose can increase 129 times and is highest the first two weeks after release according to an article published in Addiction Science & Clinical Practice.
This is why it’s so important to support addicts and provide them with quality treatment while they’re incarcerated.
Supporting an addict who has been incarcerated effectively
Prisons and jails are not the ideal places to treat substance abuse, but there are many ways to increase support so addicts have a better chance of recovery.
1. Treat prisoners the way people in the community are treated
The World Health Organization argues that prisoners should receive the same kinds of treatment offered outside of prison. However, this rarely happens.
In state prisons, 70 percent of inmates aren’t treated in inpatient hospitals or special units. Instead, they stay with the rest of the prison population. And even though 73 percent of jails provide some kind of treatment or programs, only 32.1 percent offer detoxification while 29.6 percent have educational programs about drugs and addiction.
However, findings show the best way to successfully treat addiction and prevent relapse is to provide detoxification, behavioral counseling, medication, treat co-occurring mental health issues, and to stay involved in a long-term follow-up program.
Providing inmates with better care, the same tested and professional care they’d find outside of a prison, is essential to successful treatment and support.
2. Provide drug replacement therapies
Studies show drug replacement therapies can be effective in treating and preventing relapse. In the case of methadone, a popular drug used to replace opioids, it can be as high as 70 percent effective.
These types of drugs reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings. After release from prison, they can also help prevent recidivism by providing a less dangerous, prescription alternative to illegal substances.
While often effective, most prisons do not utilize it. According to the NIH, surveys showed only 55 percent of prisons offered methadone and only half of them gave it out in specific circumstances. Usually, it was only prescribed for pregnant women, people with chronic pain, or those who were detoxing.
Providing these drugs and referring addicts to treatment centers that can provide them once they’re released can be a crucial step in treating addiction and preventing relapse.
3. Treat for co-occurring disorders, not just addiction
Many people who have an addiction also have a mental health disorder and vice versa. In most cases, treating one without taking the other into account is ineffective. Prisons need to start providing dual diagnosis and integrated treatments to support addicts with co-occurring disorders.
Even the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration admits that the justice system is “ill-equipped” to properly treat people with co-occurring disorders. Most lack programs that provide treatment for both issues and the justice system does a poor job of detecting them in the first place.
Better screening from the moment someone comes in contact with the justice system and providing specialists who can treat co-occurring disorders is the only way to effectively support addicts who also need mental health services.
4. Build connections with aftercare programs to provide follow-up and help with reintegration
Ideally, rehabilitation programs provide addicts with contacts and resources in their communities to help them manage cravings and concerns once they return to their communities.
The American Psychological Association reports that treatment combined with aftercare can be particularly effective at preventing recidivism and future drug use. Prisons should strive to build connections to community-based aftercare programs and provide resources and referrals to prisoners as well.
5. Educate inmates about drug addiction
One of the barriers to treatment in prisons is a lack of knowledge about drug addiction. Many people in prisons are under the misconception that needing treatment is a sign of weakness. Educating about addiction, it’s causes, effects, dealing with cravings, and preventing relapse are essential.
6. Give inmates the skills they need to reintegrate into their communities
Most inmates lack specific skills necessary to function and be successful in society. Many haven’t finished high school, they may not know how to read, and they may have had unstable family lives.
In order to find a job after prison and become financially and emotionally stable, prisons need to provide inmates with opportunities to develop financial, social, and emotional skills.
7. Include family in the process
Addiction is often considered a family disease because it affects everyone the addict is close to. Given the influence addiction has on family, and a family’s possible role in enabling addiction, it’s often a good idea to include them in the process.
Many family members may be struggling to understand their loved one’s addiction and their own contradictory emotions. They may also have trouble understanding what addiction and recovery mean and can benefit from education and support.
Family tension from years of struggle may also need to be addressed, and family therapy can help tackle some underlying issues.
8. Provide alternative programs to prisoners whenever possible
Some addicts might qualify for an alternative program such as the Treatment Accountability for Safer Communities (TASC) or Drug Courts. This effectively removes addicts from the prison environment and provides them with more focused and targeted treatment. Usually, these programs also have higher success rates.
Incarcerated addicts are in a unique situation, but they need the same, quality support offered to addicts who aren’t in prison. However, incarcerated addicts also face challenges and barriers to treatment that need to be addressed within the criminal justice system.
Addiction is a disease, but it is treatable. If you or a loved one has an addiction, getting help is the first step. For incarcerated addicts, advocating for screening, treatment, resources, education, and relapse prevention are some of the ways to support addicts on their journey toward recovery.