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My Experience with Substance Abuse and the Prison System

In 2010, I was sentenced to four years in the Florida state penitentiary for a drinking and driving incident that injured two people. It was my first-ever offense, so when I was handcuffed in the courtroom on that fateful February afternoon, fear of the unknown almost sent me to a state of paralysis.

There were many things that my prison sentence taught me – about myself and about life. One of the most significant lessons I learned, however, was just how broken our prison system truly is.

A Lesson in Life and Prison

Behind bars, rehabilitation is virtually non-existent. Substance abuse is largely ignored and the root causes of addiction are never addressed.

Starting over from scratch is an overwhelming endeavor for anyone, but adding an unresolved addiction to the mix is a recipe for disaster.The main objective of the system is to punish. But sometimes that punishment goes so overboard that prisoners become more broken and deeply traumatized than when they initially began their sentences. Once their time is served, these men and women are released with $50, a bus pass, and advice to become “contributing” members of society. Some have little, if any, family support; others leave prison with nothing but the shirts on their backs.

Many people pick up right where they’ve left off upon exiting those prison gates, high as a kite by the time the bus reaches its destination. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to hear of women overdosing in the first few hours after they had been released from prisoin.

In fact, one girl I bunked next to actually died on her first day of freedom; she tried shooting up the same amount of heroin she’d been using before her arrest. While locked up, her body had weaned itself off of the powerful opiate drug; her mind, however, had not.

Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t uncommon.

No Surprises Here

According to a study from 2010, 65 percent of all U.S. inmates meet the medical criteria for substance abuse addiction, yet only 11 percent receive any kind of treatment or recovery education. Interestingly enough, drugs and alcohol are known to be significant factors in all crimes. The numbers are staggering; addictive substances have been directly linked to the following crimes:

  • 78 percent of violent crimes
  • 83 percent of property crimes
  • 77 percent of public order, immigration and weapons offenses, along with probation and parole violations

Given the vast majority struggling with substance abuse, one would think it would be imperative to provide treatment programs.

And yet, for some reason, the majority of all inmates go without any form of rehab or recovery.

Prison should be an environment where the people who need help can receive that rehabilitation, not a place where inmates are simply warehoused and their addictions are ignored.

According to the report, if all the inmates who needed treatment and aftercare received such recovery services, the nation would break even in one year…and that’s if just over 10 percent remained sober, employed and crime-free.

Though that number seems small, it would end up reaping an economic benefit of $90,953 per inmate per year. We may not be able to eradicate the disease yet, but we can certainly do more for those who are incarcerated as a result of chemical dependency. And sobriety is something we can all benefit from.

Additional Reading: America’s Private Prison Dilemma

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