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Why Jails Fail at Treating Addiction

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man in jail

During my time in active addiction, recovery, and in the addiction treatment industry, I have heard many parents say, “you know he would be better off in jail.” Even my own parents told me this during my using career. This is an understandable concept when you consider the type of fear parents go through day after day and night after night when their son or daughter is in active addiction. Many families lose sleep over their addicted loved ones, wondering if tonight will be the night that they get “that phone call.” Parents sometimes feel that if their child was in jail, then at least they would know where they are and aren’t using dangerous drugs. Unfortunately, this is the furthest from reality. The simple fact is that jails fail at treating addiction and often make the matter much worse.

Not only do very few people receive any type of rehabilitation in jail, there is also commonly just as many drugs in jail, if not more, than on the street. Jails are a breeding ground for repeat offenders, drug dependency, and communicable diseases like HIV or Hepatitis C. The sad reality is that many people come out of jail much worse off than when they went in. Due to poor healthcare in jail and limited access to syringes, IV drug users will share and reuse needles excessively. Additionally, drug users may discover “harder” drugs in jail if they cannot get their typical drug of choice. This can lead to more dangerous or more powerful addictions.


  • The Number of People Using Drugs

According to the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, approximately half of jail and prison inmates suffer from substance use disorder or physical dependency to drugs. This is a massive percentage compared to the number of US citizens suffering from addiction, which is about 3%. In jail, a person is constantly surrounded by people using drugs. This makes it the least ideal place to try to remain abstinent. Jails fail at treating addiction because they literally offer a place for an addict to use drugs freely.

  • Lack of Rehabilitation

Some jails do offer programs to help addicts but it is not common. Often, the only exposure one gets to recovery in jail is meetings brought into the jail by Alcoholics Anonymous or another 12 step fellowship. Jail does not take proper steps to treat underlying causes of addiction or mental health issues. Those with mental health problems have significantly higher rates of addiction. If mental health cannot be addressed, it is unlikely one will recover from addiction. This is a major reason that jails fail at treating addiction because they are not intended to nor make much effort. Our current system and social norm is to punish drug offenders opposed to treating them. Many crimes committed by jail inmates were directly caused by addiction or occurred while they were under the influence. In fact, a study of 5 major cities found that between 63% and 83% inmates had drugs in their system while their crimes were committed.

man sitting in jail cell

  • Trauma

Jail can be traumatizing. Fights can break out, sexual assault is rampant, murders occur, and inmates sometimes are deprived of basic human rights or respect. Jail can break a person down mentally and physically. Solitary confinement is still a common practice in the United States, which has been proven to cause mental illness, trauma, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts. All of these things have high correlations with drug abuse and addiction. Not only do jails fail at treating addiction, they can even cause mental torment that triggers an addiction in the first place. Currently, many jails are “treating” addiction with the exact causes of addiction.

  • Introduction to Gangs or Criminal Activities

Another major reason jails fail at treating addiction is the type of crowd that makes up the inmate population. In the most dangerous jails, and especially prisons, gang life is rampant. Often, inmates divide themselves by race, encouraging other inmates to defend themselves or carry out “jobs” to earn respect. This system can lead a person to picking up new criminal charges in jail and further extending their initial sentence. Exposure to this lifestyle can manifest into the same activities once a person is granted freedom. They may continue their gang affiliations and become involved in a much riskier lifestyle than they had before going to jail. This leads to repeat offenses, constant exposure to drugs, and lucrative ways to illegally earn drug money.

What to Do Instead

There are countless reasons why jails fail at treating addiction. Fortunately, many jurisdictions are taking notice of the negative consequences of sending a person to jail. This is leading to more alternative court mandated programs. For many first time offenders, judges will offer mandated addiction treatment opposed to going to jail. If the person completes the program and proves they are on their way to becoming a sober and contributing member of society, the charges may be reduced or dropped altogether. It is highly advisable to seek all routes the court will offer instead of jail. A lawyer or public defender can commonly make the case that a person is sick and is need of real medical help.

This is having much higher success rates, in addition to being far more humane. Addiction is a disease and should be treated as such. Punishing a person suffering from a disease is not only inhumane but often has zero benefits to the individual or society as a whole. Treating addiction will result in reduced crime, reduced disease rates, less broken homes, and happier communities.

How Pinnacle Can Help

One of the most effective ways to beat addiction is to start recovery at an addiction treatment center. Pinnacle Treatment Center is a comprehensive program that addresses the root causes of addiction and how to overcome it. The staff at Pinnacle include doctors, nurses, and licensed therapists. Pinnacle offers both inpatient and outpatient programs. If you are suffering from drug withdrawal, Pinnacle can comfortably and safely provide detoxification services that include medication-assisted treatment drugs like Suboxone.

Pinnacle provides intensive therapy along with lectures and exercises for life skills and relapse prevention. Patients will be involved in group therapy sessions as well as 12-step groups like NA and AA. Pinnacle will even help manage aftercare planning to ensure their patients remain on the right path after treatment. A well-rounded program like this is the best way to start recovery today and take control of your life.

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