Is prison really the right place for the drug addicted?
As the heroin epidemic continues to claim victims, the justice system is incarcerating more and more addicts.
While many states have shortened sentences for drug crimes, most prisons still fail to provide a pathway out of addiction through treatment, and more than half of inmates with addiction histories relapse within a month of release.
Still, sending someone to prison for addiction may be the only effective method law enforcement has to stem the tide of drug related crimes contributing to the decline of many communities.
“There comes a point when we have to protect the public,” says Adams County Sheriff Kimmy Rogers. “I believe we’re making a mistake by reinforcing the idea that it’s only about the addict.”
Kelleyanne, a 26 year-old heroin addict now serving time in Ohio’s Reformatory for Women, says she “understands that law enforcement has to protect the community” but questions whether prison is the most effective means for achieving that end.
“I don’t think caging people like animals and punishing them for their mental illness is the answer,” she says. “I think it can actually be more detrimental to put a bunch of prisoners together who all have the same mental illness – it just festers.”
Research does suggest that prison isn’t always the best place for people addicted to drugs, and in fact, for many addicts, it might be the worst place because inmates are most likely to a find a drug trade as pervasive as the one outside prison walls.
The availability of illegal drugs in penal institutions coupled with a lack of effective treatment does not help addicts avoid the “revolving door” according to a RAND Corporation study which concluded that treatment is “fifteen times more effective at reducing drug-related crime than incarceration”.
Of the 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, more than half meet the medical criteria for substance abuse addiction. When combined with those incarcerated for drug and alcohol violations, and those who committed crimes to feed their addictions, the percentage raises to 85 percent. Inmates hoping to escape their addiction under those circumstances may have little incentive to stay clean.
“There’s no doubt about it, people are continuously going back to their addictions,” says Kelleyanne, who entered prison during her second year of sobriety, “I believe the entire system has to be completely reformed and looked at from a completely different angle.”
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), providing treatment for inmates reduces recidivism rates from 50 percent to 20 percent.
So why aren’t more prisons providing treatment?
While studies have shown that most Americans favor laws that require treatment, many state legislators resist allocating funds because they don’t want to appear to be soft on crime, and prisons willing to offer treatment are left to operate under severe cost restraints.
The rising death toll among heroin users, the rising crime rate associated with drug use, and the high rate of recidivism among drug users may force legislators to reverse course as the cost to taxpayers continues to grow.
“We can completely change everything we do – we are spending more money in the state of Ohio per capita than we have ever spent in the history of Ohio on drug treatment, on jails, on prison” Rogers says. “Ohio is number one in the United States for drug overdose deaths. At some point we’ve got to start measuring our results. We’ve got to do something to improve what we’re doing because what we’re doing isn’t working.”
Is the goal to punish addicts, or rehabilitate them?
One way or the other taxpayers will have to deal with the costs of addiction. Many argue that choosing the cheaper and more humane option of treatment would best serve the communities most effected by the heroin epidemic.
“People’s outlook on this entire situation has to change,” says Kelleyanne, “We have the statistics to show that what we’re going isn’t working, we’re pouring money into programs that aren’t having an impact on the drug problem.”
A lack of understanding about the nature of addiction certainly contributes to the problem and has led to years of debate – is it a choice or a disease?
Greg Williams, of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange says, “Regardless of whether any one of us thinks, knows or believes that addiction is a disease, people are dying. If any one of us thinks, knows or believes that addiction is a choice, people are still dying. I’d say it’s time for a new debate, wouldn’t you?”
According to Addiction and Recovery.org, opiate addiction causes long-term biological changes in the brain, which is why it is classified as a disease.
“Consider heart disease, the leading cause of death in the developed world. It’s partly due to genes and partly due to poor life style choices such as bad diet, lack of exercise, and smoking. The same is true for other common diseases like adult-onset diabetes. Many forms of cancers are due to a combination of genes and life style. But if your doctor said that you had diabetes or heart disease, you wouldn’t think you were bad person. You would think, What can I do to overcome this disease? That is how you should approach addiction. It is not a matter of personal weakness. The fact that addiction crosses all socio-economic boundaries confirms that addiction is a disease. People who don’t know about addiction will tell you that you just need to be stronger to control your use. But if that was true then only unsuccessful people or unmotivated people would have an addiction, and yet 10% of high-functioning executives have an addiction. If you think of addiction as a weakness, you’ll paint yourself into a corner that you can’t get out of. You’ll focus on being stronger and trying to control your use, instead of treating addiction like a disease and focusing on stopping your use.”
If addiction is a disease can it be cured?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) it is a lifelong disease that has no easy fix.
“As with most other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, treatment for drug addiction generally isn’t a cure. However, addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed. People who are recovering from an addiction will be at risk for relapse for years and possibly for their whole lives. Research shows that combining addiction treatment medicines with behavioral therapy ensures the best chance of success for most patients.”
Some 23.5 million Americans are currently living in recovery — that’s 10 percent of all American adults 18 and older.
Regardless of whether we label addiction as a disease or a choice – there is a solution, as is evidenced by the millions of people who have been successfully treated.
Further good news is that drug use and addiction are preventable and many communities across the country are choosing to focus on prevention.
“We’ve been on the wrong end of this problem for too long,” says Sheriff Rogers. “We need to reach out to our kids to help them make a better decisions when they’re faced with the choice to use or not use drugs.”
Research has shown that prevention programs involving families, schools, communities, and the media are effective for preventing or reducing drug use and addiction, according to the NIDA. “Although personal events and cultural factors affect drug use trends, when young people view drug use as harmful, they tend to decrease their drug taking. Therefore, education and outreach are key in helping people understand the possible risks of drug use. Teachers, parents, and health care providers all have crucial roles in educating young people and preventing drug use and addiction.”
The importance of prevention can not be overstated. Multiple studies have revealed that all human beings have a genetic predisposition for addiction.
There is an evolutionary advantage to it, according to Addiction and Recovery.org.
“The potential for addiction is hardwired into our brains. Everyone has eaten too much of their favorite food even though they knew it wasn’t good for them. Although everyone has the potential for addiction, some people are more predisposed to it than others. Continued, long-term use inevitably affects the addicts judgement, memory, behavior, and ability to make sound decisions. Despite being aware of these harmful outcomes, many people who use drugs continue to take them, which is the nature of addiction.”
Even the escalating number of deaths associated with heroin use is often not prohibitive to the addicted. To the contrary, addicts will often seek out the drug made stronger by the addition of fentynal and carfintinal.
“You defintiely don’t think it won’t happen to you,” says Kelleyanne. “Using meth was another side-winding short cut of my addiction that allowed me to think, well, you’re not using heroin, you’re not risking overdosing – you’re using meth, that’s different. You’re kind of playing the odds, and for the longest time I got so tired of playing the odds.”
(Following is a list of agencies, organizations, and churches that offer drug counseling to addicts and their families in the Adams County area. It’s never to late to begin the healing process.
The Counseling Center, West Union, (937) 544-5218; the Addiction Outreach Clinic, West Union, (937) 544-2222; FRS Counseling, West Union, (937) 779-3021; FRS Counseling Inc., Manchester, (937) 549-1005; Reformers Unanimous Addiction Recovery Program, West Union, contact Phil Fulton at (937) 587-1797 or Ron Baker at (937) 544-4110; Celebrate Recovery, (a Christ-centered recovery program at Church 180, Seaman, contact Dan Sheridan at (937) 205-5464 or Carol Sheridan at (513) 509-3911; Solace of Adams County, a community group supporting individuals who have lost loved ones to drugs as well as providing support to recovering addicts, (937) 217-1527; Narcotics Ananymous 12-Step Recovery meetings are held every Thursday at 7 p.m at the Holy Trinity Parish, West Union; The Watershed Treatment Programs, 1-877-206-1872; Luminance Recovery Centers, 877-216-8338; Palm Partners 1-877-221-5619; the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, West Union, (937) 544-2314.)
Is prison really the right place for the drug addicted?