Incarceration is Failing Those Struggling With Addiction

Photo by Michael Coghlan | CC BY-SA 2.0

by Simrat Kohli

America’s incarcerated population is suffering badly from addiction, with little medical or mental health support. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse has reported that 65% of incarcerated individuals in America suffer from some form of substance abuse or addiction problem. Additionally, 46% of inmates are incarcerated due to a drug-related offense. But most significantly, the Bureau of Justice has reported that 1 in 5 inmates are imprisoned for drug abuse or addiction directly. However, 85% of incarcerated individuals who would benefit from treatment for their addictions do not receive it.

As students of Philadelphia, we have to be aware that this issue is right at home. Philadelphia’s incarceration rate is more than double that of Pennsylvania’s as a whole. This disproportionate incarceration unjustly targets people struggling with addiction. Forty two percent of inmates in Philadelphia have reportedly abused drugs or alcohol, and 25% went to prison specifically for a drug-related offense. And while not all of these people are addicted themselves, 70% of state prison admissions have been diagnosed with a substance-abuse disorder. If incarceration was effective, rates of drug addiction should be going down. However, this isn’t the case in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia justice system uses another tool in order to keep addicts in the system: parole. In Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, over 6,000 people annually are sent to jail for drug use or paraphernalia. Of these people, one fourth will end up failing their parole and be sentenced all over again. Because of this cycle, almost 2,000 people end up in prison from their initial offense. 

Philadelphia has established addict supervision” probation laws, which follow a zero-tolerance policy for those on probation. On top of this, those on probation are often required to be tested several times a week, impeding their daily life. People have reported that even being 30 minutes late for one of these tests can end up placing you back in prison. While there are some interventions put in place in the city, these strict probation laws are creating a cycle of hopelessness. 

This issue remains salient across the United States, with most prison systems lacking an effective treatment policy. Only 11% of the nation’s inmates receive some kind of treatment for their addiction. While treatment options do exist, they simply aren’t being implemented. A study of prison medical directors found that most of them are not aware of the benefits of a proper treatment. The National Academy of Sciences has outlined the necessary steps to addiction treatment. This process includes a proper behavioral therapy, medication, wrap-around services after release from the system — including housing assistance and employment — and overdose education. 

However, the typical treatment when it is offered at all to inmates consists of only either behavioral counseling or detoxification, without any form of follow-up treatment, making it extremely difficult to remain drug-free post-treatment. Because of this, addiction without treatment is often a slippery slope for incarcerated individuals. The same report found that inmates struggling with substance abuse issues are more likely than those who are not to be re-incarcerated. Clearly, incarceration is not effective in helping those with an addiction – instead, it serves as a meaningless punishment for a “crime” they lack control over. In fact, medical experts have reported that just the threat of incarceration does not decrease the chances of abuse, but rather increases the risk of relapse. 

While this treatment may seem pricey, not helping our prisoners from a purely economic standpoint is even more costly. One specific study found that receiving proper treatment actually lowered the cost of crime in various communities in California. For those involved in the criminal justice system that received time-unlimited treatment, the economic benefits to the entire community improved even more. 

At the very least, the prison system needs to start implementing proper and complete treatment to those in need. But even more so, we need to stop incarcerating people for having a drug addiction, and instead provide proper treatment for them outside of the system. Rather than promoting and fueling the mass incarceration epidemic in America, funding should be placed into rehabilitation and treatment facilities to help those in need without incarceration. With the government spending $74 billion each year on incarceration, it’s inhumane that this money cannot be allocated toward mental health and addiction facilities. Addiction is a disease, not a crime, and proper treatment is critical to help those suffering. 


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