The Case for Treating Drug Addicts in Prison

The Case for Treating Drug Addicts in Prison

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Kevin McCauley is a medical doctor and recovering alcoholic/drug addict. He has spent the last ten-years studying addiction and the theories behind the causes of addiction. He imaginatively uses the backdrop of some of Utah’s most beautiful state park scenery to illustrate his analogy of how the brain of an addicted person functions in his documentary entitled Pleasure Unwoven.

McCauley challenges the addiction controversy of “Choice vs. Disease.” He concludes that addiction is a “brain disease” and goes on to explain how the prefrontal cortex of the brain and subcortical part of the brain work together to create addiction. He claims addiction is a disorder in the brain’s reward system. Therefore; he concludes that addiction is a disease of the brain which causes poor choices.

There are two key-steps to treating drug addiction:

1. Provide the addict with workable, credible tools to proactively manage stress and decrease craving

2. Replace the drug of choice with a more emotionally rewarding and meaningful activity than the drug

Most of McCauley’s therapy takes place among the mountains and deserts of Utah, but when he enlightens viewers about who America has nominated to be in charge of handling addiction, a picture of a U.S. prison shows up in the background.

Of the 2.3 million inmates in the U.S., more than half have a history of substance abuse and addiction.

Are these bad people that have done something wrong or is the American prison system doing something worse? After all, we need to blame someone for the mess.

Even though the “War on Drugs” has managed to overcrowd our prisons, not all offenders are being housed for drug crimes, but many are in for offenses to feed their addictions, such as burglary.

Is America missing an opportunity to cure addicts and provide safer communities in the future by lowering the recidivism rate? What better way to capture an addicted population than to lock them all up.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), treatment can reduce recidivism rates from 50 percent to something more like 20 percent.

What is the purpose of the criminal justice system? Is it to punish people or rehabilitate them?  

Sadly, according to the DEA, only one-fifth of incarcerated addicts are treated for addiction because of budget cuts and some states are being forced to cut-back on existing rehabilitation programs. It is unfortunate that the justice system is missing the big picture. If it was possible to envision another budget angle, legislators would base their financial decisions differently. According to Human Rights Watch, every dollar spent on treatment programs could save $2-$6 by reducing the cost of re-incarceration by about $47,000 per inmate.

According to Texas State Sen. John Whitmire “You either pay now, or pay later—and you pay a lot more later.”

The reasoning behind limiting addiction treatment programs is the high cost and high risk of pharmaceuticals, such as methadone and buprenorphine used to treat drug addiction. However, conservatives, who know little about addiction have moral beliefs that drug addiction should be addressed with abstinence. They have a punitive belief system that warrants punishment for addiction. Some people even think treating drugs with drugs is ineffective when in actuality this is untrue.

Whitmire would have gone along with budget cuts for treatment before he was held at gun point by a desperate cocaine addict begging for his life. Since experiencing the type of crime that occurs when rehabilitation is absent, Senator Whitmere has changed his tune and is making efforts to add more funding for rehabilitation and has added 6,000 beds for non-violent drug offender treatment. His new approach is, “This isn’t about being soft on crime. It’s about being tough, but also smart.”

 No matter what your opinion is about how to address drug-addicted inmates, you’re going to pay for dealing with their addiction one way or another, so why not choose the more cost effective—and arguably more humane—option?