Substance Abuse Among Inmates

A significant problem in our criminal justice system is the number of inmates who go back to their illegal activity after being released from custody. Recidivism rates across the country average about 43%. Some states, such as Wyoming and Oregon, have rates around 25%, while Alaska, California, Illinois, and Vermont are above 50%. Minnesota topped the list in 2007 at 61%.1

What is the Correlation Between Substance Abuse and Recidivism?

Of course, things would be a lot simpler and less expensive if sending someone to jail or prison meant they would learn their lesson and stay crime-free for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, many ex-convicts only make it a year or two at the most before committing another crime. In particular, inmates who are drug users are likely to go back to drugs once they get out. Without treatment they do not have the tools, knowledge, or resources to stay clean on the outside. The biggest threat for an ex-inmate in the community is getting back to their old life, old friends, old contacts, and old drugs.

Some inmates even find a way to keep using or selling drugs in jail. A New Jersey corrections officer was recently charged with racketeering and official misconduct for smuggling drugs and cell phones into the prison where he worked. Other inmates find a way to get drugs delivered to them in prison from relatives or friends willing to sneak them in. Allowing a substance-abusing inmate back out on the streets is dangerous, and most can be expected to be caught doing the same kinds of things that landed them in jail in the first place.

What treatments are available?

Many programs aimed at lowering recidivism rates focus on substance abuse treatment. Utah is one state that has actually decreased the number of inmates going back to jail, lowering their recidivism rate from 65% in 2002 to 53.7% in 2007. Their success stems from improving treatment for mentally ill and drug-addicted inmates. “Instead of putting the mentally ill in jail, we have teams of social workers and psychiatrists that help them,” Jean Nielsen, director of Salt Lake County’s Department of Human Services, said. “With education, training, substance abuse programs, various treatment, housing options, and counseling, we want to ensure they have a smooth transition back into society and don’t go back to jail.” (1)

Other states have begun improving treatment as well. A New York jail is putting the finishing touches on a separate wing designated specifically for mentally ill and substance-abusing inmates. The wing has cells designed for greater surveillance for some of these inmates, and prisoners have more access to psychiatric help and doctors that can treat them for both mental illness and substance abuse.

Instead of creating waiting lists for drug treatment programs, we need to find a way to fund programs that help inmates recover from substance abuse. It is important for these people to have the tools needed to succeed in society.

Unsure where to start? Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment

Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. This evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are designed to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result. Please be aware that this evaluation is not a substitute for advice from a medical doctor.