The System is Broken: Why Prison is Not the Place for Drug Addicts

Let me just get one thing off my chest: JAIL IS NOT THE PLACE FOR A DRUG ADDICT AND THE SYSTEM IS BROKEN. There, I said it. Do you want to know why I feel this way?

Because 95% of incarcerated addicts will return to substance abuse.

Because 60 – 80% percent of them will commit new crimes.

Those statistics alone should tell us that incarcerating an addict is not the same as rehabilitation/treatment, and that the system, as it is now, is broken. Because if it worked, this cycle wouldn’t exist, and these percentages wouldn’t be nearly as high.

You may have noticed I talk about my sister a lot in my blog posts about addiction. She has struggled for nearly 20 years. She has been to a couple different prisons… with quite a few stays at each. It is usually only for a couple of months. Part of her sentencing includes rehab or treatment immediately after she gets out of prison. And they give her a whole 30 days because that is the maximum amount of time that insurance will cover. 30 days. For someone who has had an addiction problem for almost 20 years. Do you want to take any guesses as to how that has been going? Honestly, I have lost track of the amount of times she has been to prison and treatment over the last 7 years when her addiction has been at its peak.

Let’s start with the first problem here. Yes, people are serving time for crimes they committed, but what is at the root of that crime? In other words, why did they commit the crime in the first place?

80% of crimes that lead to incarceration involve drugs or alcohol.

60% of all people arrested for any crime test positive for at least one illicit substance at the time of their arrest.

So there you have it. Drugs and/or alcohol are involved, and sometimes in their system at the time of their arrest. We know that both of those things can drastically change behavior. So this seems like a no-brainer.

Another problem is that addiction goes untreated in prison. So all of that rewiring done to their brain from years or decades of drug use is left to fix itself. As I said above, the underlying reason for committing a crime, addiction, is not dealt with. They serve their time for whatever crime they committed, and then are put back out on the street with the underlying problem left untreated. Which is why we see this cycle occur.

But wait…drugs get smuggled into prison. You may think that locking an addict up is safe because you don’t have to worry about them getting drugs while on the streets. FALSE. That isn’t the case anymore. Drugs get smuggled into prison. In fact, I live in Pennsylvania. The two closest prisons – Lancaster County Prison and Lebanon Correctional Facility – have both been in the local news the past couple of months because it was suspected or proven that staff were smuggling drugs into the facilities.

Lastly, let’s not forget about the dangers of putting an addict in prison. Let’s say they are high on drugs when they are arrested. They eventually come down from that high. Now we are looking at withdrawal. It is not safe to detox without proper medical care. Yet we see stories of prisoners in the news who died from withdrawal and they were simply ignored by prison staff. In fact, this was also in the news recently.

Does prison sound like a great place for an addict? No. But what is the answer? How do we fix this broken system?

First of all, the stigma around addiction has got to go. We aren’t doing anyone any favors by arguing with each other about whether or not addiction is a disease or a choice. That addicts should be able to “just quit.” Or that naloxone shouldn’t be used because they deserve to die. Or just lock them up.

But let’s get back to locking them up. What good does it do to lock someone up, when it’s been proven that they will more than likely end up back in jail? What people don’t realize is that the costs associated with repeatedly jailing an addict are extremely high. However, initial drug treatment is less expensive. This then creates a domino effect on other systems. Costs related to incarceration decrease as addicts are able to recover and not remain in this cycle. Then costs for law enforcement and court costs will be cut as the crime rate drops as less arrests occur. It may be hard to wrap your mind around, but here are some numbers that may help.

If only 10% of drug-addicted offenders received drug rehabilitation instead of jail time, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion compared to current costs.

If 40% of addicted offenders received treatment instead of jail, those savings would rise to $12.9 billion.

What we need is better access to rehab and treatment, and longer time in treatment allowed by insurance, instead of incarceration. We need to advocate for that.

I can rattle off facts all day. But it won’t show you the frustration I have experienced, mostly over the last 7 years, watching my sister go through this particular cycle. How many times can someone be put in prison, given 30 days in rehab, and expect to turn their lives around after heavily using drugs for so long? It just doesn’t happen that way.

Albert Einstein is credited with exclaiming “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. This system is literally insanity. And exhausting. And frustrating. And we have to do something.

In researching statistics for this blog post, I came across Anthony’s Act. Cris Fiore is Anthony’s father, and has taken charge of trying to get this Act turned into legislation. His son died of an overdose in 2014. Anthony had been to rehab several times, but insurance would not cover more than 30 days. Which is insane, because experts will tell you that anything less than 90 days WILL. NOT. WORK. Taken from the Anthony’s Act website, “The Affordable Care Act must be amended to provide for a minimum of Ninety (90) days inpatient drug or alcohol treatment up to a maximum of One Hundred Eighty (180) days per year at a facility certified to provide such care by the Secretary of Health of the state in which it is located.”

There is a petition you can sign here:

You can also visit Anthony’s Act website here:


Get out there.

Advocate and educate.

Be the change.

Sign the petition.

Support your local nonprofit with programs that aim to end this cycle.

I know I will.

Will you?







Zarkin, G., Cowell, A., Hicks, K., Lifetime Benefits and Costs of Diverting Substance-Abusing Offenders from State Prison. Sage Journals.1 Aug 2015.