The current state of the prison system is dismal at best. There are currently more than 2.3 million individuals incarcerated in the United States, and of these, nearly 85% either have a drug problem serious enough to meet the DSM-IV medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction, or are a part of the penal system as a result of a drug-related offense.

Obviously, this is a problem that desperately needs to be addressed. Whatever correlation you wish to draw from the data, there is obviously a connection between chemical abuse and being in prison. For this reason, it is important to consider how instituting strong drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs are essential to prison reform.

These numbers need to come down.

Obviously, the overall number of prisoners in this country needs to be reduced, but the statistics above need to faced. We are not currently running a crime-prevention system, we are running a holding and breeding house for the country’s worst drug addicts. Nothing good can come from that.

The need to get high is a good reason to commit crime.

That should, of course, be taken in context. Many of the people in prison are there because of drug-related crimes, or because they needed money to get high. If you aren’t dealing with the drug addiction, you’re not dealing with the heart of the problem.

For many people, prison isn’t a great deterrent to what they are doing, because all they are thinking about is the next opportunity to use. Deal with that problem; let less junkies back out on the street, and watch your recidivism rate drop.

You have a captive audience.

For better or worse, these people are prisoners and wards of the state. Though you obviously can’t force them to change their behaviors, you have already embarked on a commitment to help them change their lives. Why not make a practical use of that time; requiring these inmates to face the issues of their addictions?

While already within the confines of our prison system, it only makes sense to show prisoners better options for conducting their lives. That means extending rehabilitative services on all fronts, rather than just dealing with the daily doldrums of being locked up, and the ongoing tension of prison life.

The system is there to rehabilitate these captive members of our community, and that means not only giving them time to think about the crimes they’ve committed, but mechanisms to understand the reasons they committed them, as well.  Helping prisoners understand what led them down the wrong path is the first step toward avoiding it in the future.

Many inmates are ready for a change.

On the other hand, for many addicts, landing in prison is their taste of hitting the bottom – hard. They are well aware they have problems, and desperately would like to get out of the rut that put them in prison – if only they were given a serious opportunity for a second chance.

It’s a better option.

Ultimately, whether you want to believe it or not, being behind bars doesn’t mean you can’t get high. Certainly, there’s more trouble and risk involved, but if you’ve reached this level, it’s hardly a concern. Depending on whom you are and who you know, many of the obstacles of using drugs when you’re behind bars can fall away. And regardless of your access inside, there is plenty of availability once you are out on the streets.

Rehabilitation efforts change prisoners’ perspectives, furnishing hope for better lives outside incarceration. Filling inmates’ time with positive intervention opens their eyes to the greater possibilities both on the inside and outside. Rehabilitation reminds inmates there is a path to salvation, enabling them to break free from their own limiting addictions.

Daphne Holmes is a writer from and you can reach her at

What is your opinion? Which came first, the prison or the addict?

  1. Daphne Holmes’ focus on the need to have drug rehabilitation become an essential component of incarceration is a welcome and needed voice. One sadly wonders whether she is crying out into a wilderness or into prejudiced populace whose senses are dulled by what it thinks it already knows about both incarceration and drug addiction. Truth would require a paradigm change and few there are who change their perceptions readily or willingly. Most people, including most adicts themselves, tend to believe that many of the deplorable crimes committed by addicts occur simply because the individuals merely want to get “high.” Thus, the logic seems to be, they are not worthy of our time, tax monies, or attention. Perhaps that is true for some, but Daphne is addressing the others, the majority of those caught up in the criminal/penal system world. Addiction by its very nature is decidedly beyond “getting high.” A comparison of the brains of addicts and non-addicts reveals that the former are not simply desiring a high; they are literally struggling with what feels like survival. There are powerful differences in the brain chemicals and neural pathways in addicts that by-pass the parts of the brain that control judgment and conscience. Addiction becomes neither only a moral weakness nor only an act of the will. The loss of the ability to exercise wise judgment has serious implications for society and hence should wake us to the need for rehabilitation if compassion does not. Sadly, most prison systems cut rehabilitation to a bare minimum; and worse, the programs they do have are woefully inadequate and certainly miss the mark. The circumstances determine whether the addict or the prison comes first, but for those many sent to prison, vulnerable and scared, prison is definitely a change process; survival demands that one conform to the dominant values of other inmates if one is to survive; and that is a tragedy. It means that society by its very apathy fosters criminal thinking and that fosters a return to addiction when the inmate is released. And make no mistake, most are released. Dixie Miller Stewart

  2. jcommittedk says:

    Well, there’s a lot to consider in this post.

    First, the Canadian federal prison system has offered drug rehabilitation programs for a very long time. The programs have changed in intensity and content over the years, but they have been there. I am sure they are effective for those who wish to change.

    Second, many prisoners say that forcing someone into a program is not the way to go. As the joke goes, the light bulb has to want to change.

    Third, the prison system as it now stands seems to be quite forgiving of drug use as a cause of crime and as such, substance abusers seem much more likely to get parole. The argument goes, that if those people stay away from substances, they are not likely to commit another offence. This means they are theoretically more manageable in the community. As soon as they get caught using, they get put back in. Unfortunately, the majority eventually use again and get put back in prison.

    The bottom line is that forced rehabilitation does not work.

    Are people exposed to drugs in prison and become addicts there? That is another issue alluded to in this post. I believe this can and does happen. Prisons do not offer much and bored, frustrated, and fearful people often turn to substances to cope. Prisons do keep drugs out but only certain kinds of drugs. Correctional officers do not like alcohol or stimulants (methamphetamine, cocaine, etc.) because they lead to dangerous behaviour but they don’t mind cannabis and heroin, as these tend to mellow prisoners out. Heroin and cannabis products are easier to obtain in prison than out in the community. Unfortunately any addiction is difficult to cope with once back out in the community and the consequences can be harsh both for the user and their victims.

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