12 AUG 2021

How incarceration contributes to drug use and death in the U.S.

Drug Use and Incarceration

Both Democrats and Republicans have stated that they are joining forces to reduce prison sentences in the U.S., particularly for nonviolent drug offenses. It is always a shock when the two parties can agree on something, and it’s doubly impressive that it is for this very important issue that often gets overlooked. The over prisonization in the United States has long since been a topic of discussion and debate, but very little has been done about it, so far. The key goal that everyone is focusing on is providing addiction treatment to people with substance-use disorders instead of putting them in prison.

Incarceration by nature is designed oppositely to addiction treatment programs, so it often accomplishes the opposite, as well. Going to prison is destabilizing and an incredible stressor, setting people back in recovery goals. It can cost people their housing and jobs, and create a lot of issues with family members. It uproots entire families. All of these factors can encourage a person to return to old destructive habits when the opportunity arises. National studies have shown that risk of dying from a drug overdose is 129 times greater for a person directly after being released from prison when compared to the general population.

Doctors are urging for addiction to be treated as a chronic illness instead of a crime. Brain imaging studies have shown neuroanatomical changes to the way an addicts brain is wired that leads to intensified cravings for the drug while also changing the way the brain handles motivation and control. Leading healthcare organizations like The American Society of Addiction Medicine say that addiction is not only a behavioral disorder, but has deeper neurological, genetic, and environmental roots. Addiction is a lot like diabetes in that both are chronic illnesses that require treatment.

In order to receive the treatment that they need, people struggling with drug addiction require a stable environment that is conducive to these efforts, and that is often not the case when being released from prison. Relapse studies have focused on opioid relapse after prison and saw that people were often living in halfway home-type places or in shelters where the environment was hectic and crowded, and often had people still using drugs. In addition to being a dangerous temptation, it can be demoralizing and not productive to recovery efforts.

This topic can come with a cloud of stigma from some people, so it is important for everyone to get involved and voice concern. Everyone can write to their local and national representatives and demand their action on reducing prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders that are in prison and hopefully reducing how many people go in instead of receiving treatment.