The current war on drugs seems to focus on this nation’s opioid epidemic, and more people are being incarcerated for drug and related crimes. While a person with a substance use disorder may be seemingly safer from drugs while in prison (there is still drug use in prison, but this is harder to maintain), there are some real dangers associated with opioid addiction and the prison system.
Since most states do not provide any type of opioid addiction treatment for prisoners, a person that has been incarcerated will still walk out of prison with an active substance use disorder, even after a period of abstinence. A recent study has found that released prisoners have an incredibly high risk of opioid overdose deaths.
The Risk of Opioid Overdose Deaths is High Among Released Prisoners
Nearly 80 percent of inmates end up back in prison after being released. However, a much more permanent end to this cycle is possible if you are addicted to opioids. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health determined that former inmates are 40 times more likely than the average citizen to lose their lives to an opioid overdose within just two weeks of release.
Researchers studied close to 230,000 former North Carolina inmates over a five-year period and compared the rates of fatal opioid overdoses to those of the state’s general population. Even 12 months after release, inmates were 11 times more likely to experience a heroin overdose than the average citizen.
The study determined that nearly 70 percent of people in North Carolina’s prison system have a substance use disorder. When they are incarcerated, these people are forced to opioid withdrawal without assistance. They subsequently have lower tolerance levels which makes them susceptible to an overdose just after release.
The Need for Addiction Treatment Within the Prison System
One of the reasons that the overdose rates are so high is that there is a relationship between addiction treatment and overdose deaths. Specifically, when prisoners are provided with addiction treatment services, there is a lower chance of drug use and overdose after release.
Unfortunately, not many prison systems in the U.S. provide these services. Vox reported on this issue earlier this year. It found that, of the 46 state prison systems that responded to its requests for information, only Rhode Island provided inmates with Buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone. Seventeen other states offer just one or two of the three drugs to inmates. A majority of states have no programs available to help prisoners who have a substance use disorder.
Aftercare Program in Kentucky Prison Helps Inmates Avoid Relapse
Kentucky prison inmates can now benefit from addiction aftercare programs. A support program called Supporting Others in Active Recovery (SOAR) will provide residential treatment for substance abuse. The first facility to participate in this program is Northpoint Training Center in Central Kentucky. Ample evidence has illustrated that providing mental health and substance abuse treatment is the best way to prevent relapse and reincarceration for offending individuals.
Justice Secretary John Tilley has spearheaded numerous other substance abuse-related legislation in the state. He and other officials in Kentucky have worked to enact legislation that addresses multiple elements of the opioid crisisand other drug-related public health issues, including response criteria for the Department of Corrections to reduce drug overdoses among inmate and paroled persons.
Nationally, drugs in jail represent a significant issue. People who struggle with drug addiction are statistically more likely to commit crimes. This is evidenced by reports from the U.S. Department of Justice, which indicate that 58%of state prisoners between 2007 and 2009 met the official criteria for drug dependence or drug abuse. The American Journal of Public Health reports that people who are released from prison without receiving treatment are at a higher risk for a drug overdose.
The SOAR Program
Addiction recovery is an important journey. People who struggle with addiction often use illegal means to obtain drugs. Sometimes possession of the drugs themselves or the means used lead to prosecution. When these individuals are incarcerated, it is vital that they have access to drug rehab in jail.
Kentucky’s important work instituting the SOAR program is a helpful step toward providing the right resources to inmates. This program will include:
- Residential treatment programs
- Group support
- Substance abuse treatment
- Re-entry and relapse prevention skills
Separate living spaces will be provided for inmates in the SOAR program. The environment, daily schedule and program elements are all designed to provide support in recovery and reduce relapse and return to crime.
The Department of Corrections has a variety of requirements for inmates who want to participate in this program. Inmates who are eligible for the SOAR program must:
- Have completed the Department of Corrections substance abuse program or graduated from moral reconation therapy
- Have clear conduct for a minimum of 60 days
- Be in the appropriate risk classification category
- Actively maintain a job assignment while in the program
Participants will be assisted by a clinician and receive an individualized treatment plan. A standardized curriculum and system of rewards or credits are integral aspects of the program. Additional modules or supportive educational resources include classes in soft skills, parenting and anger management. Kentucky’s Department of Corrections has high hopes for the effectiveness of this program in helping individuals recover from addiction and maintain long-term sobriety.
Benefits of the Program
Substance abuse treatment and recovery programs in prisons have a long history of celebrated success. Early research indicated that there are several elements that contribute to the success of correctional facility treatment programs for addiction, including:
- Self-help and empowerment approach to mental health
- A variety of treatment options
- Providing immediate help to individuals who use drugs chronically
- Physical separation of inmates in treatment from other residents
- Clearly established rules and rewards
- A staff of empathetic persons, including peers and previous offenders
- Follow-up community care (after release)
- Ongoing program evaluation
The recovery process for drug and alcohol addiction varies based on the nature and duration of drug use. Recovery support can be created in an environment where peer relationships are formed and strengthened. Recovery skills will need to be cultivated to prevent relapse after release.
Crime is a drain on government resources. Imprisonment represents the highest cost to a local, state or federal government. Lifetime simulation models created by researchers for the Health Economics Journal indicate that with as many as 61% of prisoners who tested positive for substance abuse are recommitted to prison for subsequent crimes. If treated in prison, many of those people will have success in remaining sober. This, in turn, significantly decreases their likelihood to commit a crime and be reincarcerated.
Providing effective medical and mental health treatment for addiction can decrease criminality and contribute positively to society. Treatment programs that occur in detention facilities may provide a helpful source of support for people in addiction recovery.
AJPH. “Opioid Overdose Mortality Among Former North Carolina Inmates: 2000–2015.” American Journal of Public Health, August 8, 2018. Accessed September 10, 2021.
Bronson, Jennifer, et al. “Drug Use, Dependence, and Abuse Among State Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2007-2009.” U.S. Department of Justice, June 2017. Accessed July 27, 2019.
Fallin, Gregory P., et al. “Drug Treatment in State Prisons.” Institute of Medicine Committee for the Substance Abuse Coverage Study,1992. Accessed July 27, 2019.
Kentucky Department of Corrections. “Kentucky Department of Corrections Launches New Aftercare Program for Inmates in Recovery.” July 9, 2019. Accessed July 27, 2019.
Lopez, G. “How America’s prisons are fueling the opioid epidemic.” Vox, March 26, 2018. Accessed September 10, 2021.
Ranapurwala, Shabbar, et al. “Opioid Overdose Mortality Among Former North Carolina Inmates: 2000–2015.” September 2018. Accessed July 27, 2019.
Tilley, John. “Combating the Opioid Crisis: Battles in the States.” Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, July 12, 2017. Accessed July 27, 2019.
Zarkin, Gary A., et al. “Benefits and costs of substance abuse treatment programs for state prison inmates: results from a lifetime simulation model.” June 2012. Accessed July 27, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.