Jail or Rehab

Jail or Rehab? Why Prison Doesn’t Cure Drug Addiction

Only relatively recently have we begun to see addiction as a disease of the brain, chronic and progressive and deadly. Some years ago, the consensus was that addicts were merely selfish, weak of will and character, substance abusers due to being bad people. As such, individuals who suffered from the disease of addiction were also frequently put in jail instead of rehab. With substance abuse being a widely criminalized behavior, individuals were not only breaking many laws by being addicted, but their addictions often led them to criminal behavior in order to sustain their addictions.

Nowadays we have a more enlightened and informed view of addiction, which has allowed us to devise recovery programs consisting of a number of treatments and therapies that allow individuals to overcome physical dependency. With more and more facilities available to offer these programs, more people in need of recovery have access to the treatments that are most effective. However, substance abuse is still largely criminalized. Individuals suffering from alcohol and drug addiction still receive prison sentences at incredibly high rates.

Moreover, addicts who are sentenced to prison often return to substance abuse behavior, indicating that jail time doesn’t offer a viable alternative to treatment as a means of overcoming addiction. As such, understanding why prison can’t help those with addiction—and might actually make the situation worse—is an important step in ensuring that more individuals receive recovery rather than punitive treatment.

How Addiction Can Cause Criminal Behavior

Substance abuse begins as a relatively controllable behavior. However, as individuals increase the frequency with which they abuse alcohol and drugs the behavior becomes less controllable. When the body develops a dependency to a chemical substance, the individual will experience withdrawal symptoms after a period of time without the substance. This results in the desperation that most addicts feel to sustain their substance abuse habits.

However, as the frequency of abuse increases the amount imbibed in each dose increases as well, meaning that the expense of a substance abuse habit will continue to escalate and require a growing percentage of an individual’s income. Addicts will often reach the point of being unable to pay their bills since all of their money goes toward obtaining their substances of choice. In desperation, addicts will begin resorting to crime as a means of sustaining their habits.

Prison is More Harm Than Help to an Addicted Offender

When addiction was widely criminalized and addicts were met with lengthy prison sentences, it was thought that by forcing these individuals into abstinence they could be cured of their addictive urges. In other words, if the individual was physically unable to consume alcohol or drugs due to being in prison, he or she could not be an addict and would be unlikely to return to addiction after release from prison because they would want to avoid returning to prison.

Over time, however, we realized that many addicts who were sent to prison would defy logic and begin abusing alcohol and drugs once again. This high recidivism helped us to realize that while prison may force individuals into abstinence, it doesn’t help with any of the factors that are causing addiction in the first place. After an addict is released from prison, it’s incredibly likely that he or she will fall right back into the throes of addiction since the sentence forced sobriety onto the individual, but not recovery.

The logic behind giving prison sentences to addicted offenders is that punishment will deter both the crime and the addictive behavior. However, experts have found that the disease of addiction—like other mental health afflictions—defies the logical notion that individuals will avoid behaving in ways they know will result in punishment. This is why the debate of whether jail or rehab is the better option has reached its zenith.

Instead, the disease of addiction compels individuals to compulsively pursue alcohol and drugs despite the severe consequences they may face. If punishment was an effective way of deterring individuals from being addicts, there would no longer be any addicts; however, the disease of addiction continues to persist, even in individuals released from prison.

Additionally, with 81 percent of all arrests being for charges of possession of a controlled substance, it’s clear that there are a number of drug users who are being forced through the penal system rather than given the medical treatments that address their actual needs. In short, rather than punishing for the crime experts are saying that we should be considering why the crime is occurring in the first place.

Considering the actual time spent in prison during a sentence, there are many reasons why jail time is more harm than help to those with a history of substance abuse. There have been numerous enlightening studies that have found high instances of prison inmates becoming addicted to drugs while actually in prison. 

Recent estimates have estimated as many as one in six inmates becoming addicted to drugs while serving a prison sentence. Moreover, the many individuals who are arrested and put in jail while in active addiction often do not receive the treatment and medical supervision they need, having to undergo an intense and dangerous detox over the course of their first days in prison. In fact, it’s been documented that inmates such as

In fact, it’s been documented that inmates such as one woman in Florida died in solitary confinement due to her body shutting down from dehydration brought on by severe withdrawal. In short, prison has failed many addicts.

Jail or Rehab: Better Options for Inmates & Offenders Suffering From Addiction

In light of the problem many inmates have had in receiving the necessary treatment for addiction while in prison, there have been a number of initiatives to provide better support for those suffering from chemical dependency. It’s estimated that more than 1.5 million inmates meet the diagnostic criteria for addiction or dependency, making it important for these individuals to receive the appropriate medical support so that their lives aren’t put in immediate jeopardy when serving a prison sentence. 

Some of the options that are increasingly available to inmates include tapered methadone detoxification, which helps makes the detox process more manageable, as well as Suboxone programs for inmates. A number of prisons offer group sessions and addiction education; while only up to 20 percent of state and federal prisons offer addiction services currently, it’s a step in the right direction.

Alternately, a number of states are offering drug court for addicted offenders rather than a trial in the traditional penal system, allowing them to enter rehabilitation programs instead of serving lengthy prison sentences where they would be unlikely to benefit from recovery services. And in cities like Seattle and many others, more proactive programs are connecting criminal offenders suffering from addiction to the appropriate avenues of treatment and cutting out the justice system as the “middleman.”

This initiative is called the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in Seattle, grown from the realization that arresting addicts for the purpose of sending them to jail isn’t forging them a path to a new, healthy life. Instead, they need their disease to be treated appropriately so that they are no longer beholden to uncontrollable impulses. Law enforcement representative from other cities—Houston, San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta, and others—have gone to Seattle to take notes on the city’s new perspective on curbing addiction rates, which has shown to be incredibly effective so far.

Find Recovery Through Treatment — Call Drug Treatment Center Finder

As a disease, addiction is progressive and potentially deadly. Individuals who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction are often not in control of their own behavior, which can turn good people into criminals. However, if a decision must be made about whether to send them to jail or rehab, there are many effective treatment programs available. If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction, Drug Treatment Center Finder is here to help. Call us at 855-619-8070 to speak with one of our recovery specialists who can match individuals to the treatments and programs they need to return to the lives of sobriety, health, and fulfillment.