Drugs in Prison and Rehabilitation

Is There a Problem with Drugs in Prison?

A significant part of the prison and jail populations in the US regularly misuses drugs in prison. It’s estimated that approximately two-thirds of the individuals in correctional settings have a substance use disorder.1

A study conducted in 2010 concluded that when state prison populations, federal prison populations, and jail populations were analyzed for any type of substance use disorders, drug use in prison was:2

  • Inmates with an alcohol use disorder numbered 877,000
  • Inmates with an illicit drug abuse disorder numbered 1,043,000

Researchers and people who work in the correctional system estimate that as much as 70 to 80% of prisoners in the United States abused drugs before being incarcerated. However, only around 10% are in jail- or prison-based substance abuse treatment programs.3 Let’s take a closer look at how drug rehab is used to combat drugs in prison.

Do Federal Prisons Offer Drug Rehabilitation?

To fight against drugs in prison, federal facilities offer the following drug rehab programs:4

Drug Abuse Education

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP) offers a set of classes that provide education about substance abuse and its effects.4 The classes also help identify individuals who need more intensive treatment.

Nonresidential Drug Abuse Treatment

Certain inmates may be eligible for a 12-week CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) program.4 Provided via group sessions, therapists explore issues regarding criminal lifestyles. Also, skills training regarding rational thinking, adjusting from prison life to the community, and communication skills are also addressed.

Residential Drug Abuse Programs

The residential program is called RDAP (Residential Drug Abuse Program). It is the most intensive level of drug rehab offered by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.4 CBT is provided. Participants reside in a separate unit away from the general population. The program lasts about nine months.

Community treatment services: To help offenders avoid relapse once released, the FBP provides drug rehab through its Community Treatment Services (CTS) programs.4

Do Local Jails Have to Provide Substance Abuse Treatment?

Jails are primarily facilities that hold people who are awaiting trial and not yet sentenced.6 Also, jail populations are comprised of individuals who have been convicted and sentenced to short amounts of time, usually less than 12 months.6

The availability and effectiveness of substance use treatment in jails depends on several factors. Drug rehab, if offered at all, may not be offered to those in need because their length of stay may be too short for rehab. Others, especially those awaiting trial, may refuse treatment services.

For some, treatment services may not always be a good fit for the unique medical and mental health needs of an individual, so they don’t participate. In other cases, a complex set of issues may make the person unsuitable for a short-term program that would be too brief.

Outside Referrals on Release

Some individuals who go to jail, even for short periods, could receive a referral to drug rehab on the outside. For other individuals, going through the pre-trial or trial phase can last for months or years with many of them released without going to prison, so treatment is never addressed. Also, since most jails have rigid schedules for meals, inmate counts, recreation, academic classes, and court dates, many inmates don’t have the time to attend drug treatment.6

Do all States Offer Rehab to Fight Drugs in Prison?

In the state prison system in 2004, it was estimated that:5
  • 32% of prisoners used illegal drugs when they committed the crime for which they were imprisoned
  • 56% used drugs in the 30 days before the crime was committed
  • 53% met the criteria for drug dependence or abuse
Currently, more than 80% of state-run prisons and jails also function as drug or alcohol treatment facilities.7 Are these substance use programs effective in stopping drugs in prison? Let’s take a look at the outcomes.

Better Outcomes by Treating Drugs in Prison

Health Outcomes

Research findings show that evidence-based substance use disorder treatment improves health outcomes and decreases the rates of transmission of infectious diseases for inmates. In addition, substance use rehab programs for inmates reduce death and recidivism rates.8

When inmates with substance abuse problems re-enter their communities, the chances for relapse are high. When a person is released from a correctional facility without social, economic, or substance abuse treatment support, it creates a situation where relapse risk is high. When released inmates enter structured substance abuse programs, it helps to reduce relapse reducing drugs in prison.9

Crime Rates

Research finds that instead of putting people with substance use disorders in prison, putting them in community-based treatment programs helps decrease crime rates and saves the criminal justice system about $5 to $6 billion annually.5 These savings are realized because there is a decrease in incarceration costs.  Later on, there are reductions in the number of crimes committed by offenders who were successfully treated, which causes fewer re-arrests and re-incarcerations. These reduced criminal justice costs are used to treat offenders in the community. It is estimated that drug rehab can produce a 17% decrease in the number of crimes committed, a 16% decline in arrest numbers, as well as a 16% decline in the amount of re-incarcerations.5

Does Treating Drugs in Prison Improve Security?

A major advantage of drug rehab treatment programs in prisons and jails is that they improve the security of the facility. By reducing the number of offenders still struggling with untreated substance use problems, drug use and drug dealing decrease. Drug treatment programs and random drug tests help in this respect.

In addition, the rates of breaking prison rules, violence, and threats of violence also fall. The danger of prison riots also declines. In the past, inmates in drug abuse treatment programs squashed disturbances that could have become riots. Correctional authorities recognize that treating inmates with a substance use disorder has many benefits, and the percentage of inmates in need of treatment continues to rise.

The trend in correctional facilities has been for more inmates to receive some form of drug abuse rehab. Since legislators and the public are interested in curbing drug abuse and crime, this trend should continue. Cost-effective methods that rely on evidence-based treatment strategies can reduce recidivism, relapse, and crime rates while providing better health outcomes for released inmates.

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