A recent article out of York, Pennsylvania, highlights the efforts being undertaken to combat addiction in the prison systems. York is a well known hub of both heavy drug addiction, and of recovery. However, while Pennsylvania’s struggle with opiate addiction is not unique, their recent efforts to help prison inmates is certainly newsworthy.

Addiction Treatment for Prisoners

While recent data is scarce, a 2004 US Department of Justice survey estimated that from 64-70% of state and federal prisoners were regular drug users prior to incarceration. Given the massive increases in general rates of drug use and addiction in the last few years, and the opioid epidemic that is sweeping the nation, it can only be assumed that these statistics are even higher now. Whether they are in jail for drug-related offenses or not, addicted prisoners still present a large percentage of the population currently in need of treatment. On one hand, these inmates have the unique opportunity to get clean in prison. Forced time away from their normal environment, while undoubtedly less comfortable than a rehab, still holds the potential to rehabilitate these people not only from a life of crime, but from the unhealthy addictions that may have contributed to their offenses. However, this should not be a “cold-turkey” process- drug detox is a dangerous process, and if not overseen by medical professionals and supplemented with the right medications, can provide a significant health risk and create unwarranted discomfort. Further, this “forced clean time” will mean nothing if inmates are not given the tools they need to stay sober once they are released. Arresting addicts, locking them up for a period of time, and releasing them with no physical or mental rehabilitation, will only send them right back into the life that sent them to prison in the first place.

Steps Being Taken in York, PA

Several prison systems in south central Pennsylvania have started to implement promising programs and systems that provide treatment to inmates. These programs include:

  • Giving inmates an injection of vivitrol upon their release. This drug functionally blocks the effects of opiates, eliminating their chances of “getting high” for a month following their release.
  • Allowing inmates the use of methadone to combat heroin or other opiate withdrawal.
  • Incorporation of holistic treatments and mental health counseling in order to promote lasting recovery following inmate release.

While all of these programs hold promise and indicate a shift in a positive direction for the treatment of (and attitudes towards) addiction, many of them are still in the “testing” phase, meaning not all those that need treatment are getting it. Further, there is a long way to go before these sorts of programs become widely implemented, both due to cost and to the need for proven efficacy in these populations. In an ideal world, all prison systems would provide comprehensive addiction recovery services, including giving inmates the tools to find steady work and stay engaged in recovery following their release. For now though, these efforts are a good sign, and suggest that stigma of addiction is giving way to a more caring and proactive view towards those that struggle with the disease.

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