How Addiction Affects People Entering Prison

If you have somehow managed to avoid the news for the better half of a year, you may not be aware – 2016 is a presidential election year. One issue has proven to be rather pertinent across candidates and party lines, and only grows more topical as each day inches closer to November. That issue is the criminalization of addiction. Quite frankly, the more people talking about it, the better. Addiction and those serving time for non-violent drug offenses at the hands of their illness is a persistent issue in need of resolve.

In 2014, over 1.5 million Americans were arrested on drug charges. Yet currently, there are states deliberating on the legalization or decriminalization of the very drugs those offenders were arrested for. Marijuana is legal in Colorado, for instance, while there are prisoners still serving sentences for possession. What is necessary is a reclassification of drug addiction to a brain disease altering behaviors, and in place of apprehension there must be effective treatment.

Currently, the approved course of action is to lock away an offender in the same manner as any other criminal. Yet incarceration does not equate to rehabilitation. Offenders require special attention to their treatment needs in an environment where the disease will actually be combated instead of ignored or ecouraged; drugs are notoriously easy to obtain even while behind bars. Treatment requires respect in a safe environment, and that is ground floor for what can be accomplished.

Mental Healthcare in Prisons

Over the last three decades, mental institutions as a whole have received a largely negative connotation in the court of public approval. Institutionalizing a loved one with a mental disability has become taboo as alternative care options are sought out, as more and more recognize mental health issues as something that cannot simply be shut away. This has not ended the shut-away process, however. While the country scrambles to find an alternative solution and Congress and the Senate debate the appropriate manners in which to aid the mentally ill, the de facto way of “handling” those with disabilities has instead become prison. A recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that more than half of all prison inmates have some sort of mental illness, in contrast to just 11% of the overall population.


Often, those in prison with mental illnesses find themselves in solitary confinement. Solitary for the mentally ill is intended as a protective measure from themselves. Depression and other mood disorders are feared as leading to self-harm, and solitary is far from adequate care. The real issue with healthcare for the mentally ill is that many enter prison undiagnosed, and symptoms do not reveal themselves until a victim is already incarcerated.  The immediate jump to solitary is little more than a severe form of punishment than care from the hand of a failing system.