Does Addiction Warrant Jail Time?

Take a moment to think about the death rates from cars versus drug overdoses. Now, consider how the rates of incarceration have grown in conjunction with the rise of the opioid epidemic. According to The Wall Street Journal, state prisons are experiencing problems with reducing prison populations due to a surge of arrests following the use or distribution of opioids, including prescription drugs and heroin. The problem is not limited to the higher frequency of arrests either. State legislators are toughening the drug and parole policies of the prison system, creating an environment that favors long-term incarceration for people with addictions. Yet, opioid abuse and substance abuse continue to plague the U.S., so does addiction truly warrant jail time? To answer this question, you need to understand the mortality rates of opioid abuse, the facts behind sobriety during and after incarceration and violent crime statistics near rehabilitation facilities in the public.  

How Often Are Opioids Killing Americans?

At the close of the 20th century, the risk of dying in a car accident was twice as high as fatal drug overdoses, reports Frontline. By 2014, the risk of a fatal drug overdose had switched places with car accident victims. Meanwhile, opioid deaths jumped 369 percent, surpassing cocaine as the leading drug killer in the U.S.

By 2014, opioid deaths jumped 369 percent, surpassing cocaine as the leading drug killer in the U.S.

The overdose rates do not discriminate either. All races and people of different socio-economic status have been impacted by the opioid epidemic, and incarceration seems to be the only way to slow its epidemic. Ultimately, incarceration immediately limits a person’s ability to obtain drugs. However, drugs are present in America’s prison system, and even the strictest of prisons may still have a flow drugs in them. Unfortunately, lawmakers that buy into the ideals of drug-free prisons are only worsening the problem.  

Extended Sobriety During and After Incarceration Is a Myth

There is a stereotype regarding sobriety in America’s prison system. If a person cannot access drugs, he or she will go through forced withdrawal and recovery. Most of the people arrested for drug possession are non-violent offenders, and many do attain sobriety during incarceration. In fact, more than 90 percent of previously incarcerated young men and 80 percent of previously incarcerated women suffered from substance use disorder, reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Some other important facts regarding sobriety and incarceration of today’s youth from the NIDA include the following:

  • Previously incarcerated men had a higher lifetime risk of abusing marijuana or alcohol.
  • Previously incarcerated women were more likely to abuse cocaine, opiate or amphetamines.
  • Non-Hispanic Caucasians were 30-times more likely to abuse cocaine than African Americans.
  • Prevalence of substance use dropped with greater time periods after incarceration.

These findings suggest the immediate access to addiction treatment facilities, including behavioral health facilities for those with co-occurring mental health disorders, is inadequate for people being released from incarceration. Unfortunately, the risk of abusing substances after incarceration increases with each subsequent incarceration, even short-term periods of being arrested and released, such as spending two days in jail. Another side of the problem deals with access to addiction treatment while incarcerated. Some prison units offer behavioral health services, including addiction treatment, to inmates. Yet, the trail of services tends to end upon release, reports the Huffington Post. Additionally, the risk of overdose is “extremely high” in the two weeks after release. This is due to strong cravings for drugs and the body’s low tolerance for them, particularly for inmates who have not abused drugs for an extended period. As a result, the conversation must turn to addiction treatment immediately before and after release.  

Rehabilitation and Behavioral Health Treatment Upon Release

The number of accredited, safe addiction treatment facilities continues to underserve the needs of those of addictions. Communities often argue the presence of drug treatment facilities inherently increases crime rates in neighborhoods, but evidence suggests otherwise. In a recent study of Baltimore outpatient addiction treatment centers, reports Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, violent crime rates near drug treatment centers tend to be lower than other commercial areas. In other words, the rate of crime is higher near convenience stores than drug treatment facilities, including methadone clinics. Unfortunately, the “not in my backyard” propaganda against rehabilitation centers has become a spectacle of both political criticism and backlash this election year. Consequently, addiction specialists are being forced to look more carefully at inmates’ risk for relapse and overdose while these people remain in custody. This includes the days before release for inmates serving long-term sentences. For example, a person with a known addiction to opioids may be given Vivitrol to block the euphoric effects of opioids and to reduce cravings. The idea behind this measure is to provide a safety net for people about to be released for the week or two between release and obtaining continued treatment at a drug treatment facility. Besides Vivitrol, the other addiction medications, buprenorphine and methadone, are controlled substances, which make them unavailable in many prison systems. This potential solution is only a beginning. Unfortunately, the Federal Bureau of Prisons does not offer addiction medicines according to its policies; however, the “Bureau is considering changing that policy this year.”  

The Big Picture

This glimpse into addiction among people who have been incarcerated is dark, but it does have a silver lining. Although access to drugs while in prison does exist, jail is one of the most controlled environments for treating addiction. However, addiction treatment programs must be implemented throughout the prison system. If these programs only focus on making drugs unavailable, addiction is never successfully treated while incarcerated. By understanding the true evidence and problem with simply tossing people with addictions into jail, including the lack of treatment programs available, you can help the community you serve become aware of the importance of community-based drug treatment facilities. Furthermore, you must serve as a bridge between the panic-driven beliefs of the public and the truths behind incarceration, addiction and drug treatment.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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