Nearly two-thirds of all inmates (a little under two and a half million) who are sent to prison meet the criteria for drug addiction, when incarceration occurs. Disturbingly, less than 10% of these millions ever receive treatment. For the vast majority of inmates, the zero-tolerance policies of these punitive institutions mean that most prisoners will experience withdrawal, which can be tremendously dangerous, without any medical assistance. Failing to address the root of their addiction leaves inmates with high cravings but a significantly lowered tolerance, and upon their release are prone to resume using drugs and accidentally overdose. The criminal justice system’s repeated failure to provide adequate addiction treatment support is just as much a public health issue as one of public safety. 

Drug Use In Prisons (Statistics)

A disproportionate amount of the individuals incarcerated in the United States are there for drug-related offenses—around 20%. Even in the case of non-drug-related crimes, many of these individuals were on drugs when they were arrested. Sadly, it’s unsurprising that a considerable amount of the prison and jail populations have a substance use problem. Approximately 65% of imprisoned individuals meet the criteria of a substance use disorder but the percent of inmates with substance abuse problems, in general, is much higher. 

Equally disturbing is the result of a study conducted by MACI which found that 80% of incarcerated individuals abuse alcohol or other drugs while incarcerated. This means that the odds of those who aren’t current drug users taking up drugs while in jail are very high. 

Despite the prevalence of drug use within America’s incarcerated, the options for treating drug abuse and addiction in the criminal justice system are few. Treatment is rarely offered to either inmates who arrive already meeting the criteria for substance abuse disorder or those who develop an addiction while incarcerated (drug use often runs rampant despite the highly-controlled environment and zero-tolerance policies). 

The Benefits of Providing Prisoners Access to Addiction Treatment  

The National Drug Intelligence Center reported that in one year alone, the financial burden of drug use cost society $193 billion dollars, the majority of which deal with drug-related crimes (legal representation and the victim compensation, etc.). Considering that 77% of drug offenders were arrested again within five years of their release, it not only highlights the need for treatment versus punishment on drug abuse in prisons and jails but the benefits that inmate addiction treatment programs would have for society as a whole. 

Promising findings from the American Psychological Association back up the argument of a treatment—not punishment–approach. In the 1990s, a pilot substance abuse program saw that only 27% of prisoners who received treatment became re-offenders versus the 75% of those who did not receive drug treatment. Studies conducted in the 2000s found similar results. The Federal Bureau of Prisons also found that drug treatment programs reduce the likelihood of relapse, committing crimes, and inmate misconduct. It increases the odds that they’ll seek educational pursuits and find a job. It improves their physical and mental health and overall wellbeing while reducing the financial and safety burdens of the general public. Best of all, it would only cost a fraction of the costs society is already paying (only $14.6 billion compared to $193 billion) to provide drug treatment programs in prisons. 

What Can Prisons Do To Fix The Problem?

Providing education and support after treatment is hugely impactful in preventing prisoners from relapsing. However, the more immediate need is for more prisons to provide medication-assisted treatments (MAT). Many prison inmates pass through their doors already having a substance abuse issue and access to medications such as Vivitrol, buprenorphine, and methadone can be lifesaving. Further still, these alleviate the medical costs that arise from medical emergencies from inmates’ untreated withdrawal effects.

While medical intervention alone will not be enough to completely curb the link between substance abuse and incarceration, it can make a huge impact in slowing the cycle of repeat drug-abusing inmates who fuel the circulation of drugs within prison systems. Dr. Kevin Fiscella, an addiction specialist echoed this sentiment, saying that prison is often a time when inmates are highly motivated to overcome their drug habits and have the benefit of being in a controlled environment. Unfortunately, many prisons waste this opportunity and instead, become a revolving door for drug-fueled or related criminals.

If you have a loved one that is addicted to drugs, the odds of them having run-ins with the law are high. Unfortunately, the current criminal justice system doesn’t adequately address the needs of addiction prisoners, which puts these individuals’ welfare at risk. Enrolling them in an addiction treatment program can save their life by keeping them out of the prison system, find a rehab near you, today.