Skip to main content

Addiction Behind Bars

The United States must do more to curb the spread of diseases like AIDS and hepatitis C in prison, where infection rates are high and inmates can easily spread disease through unprotected sex or by sharing needles.

Drug treatment in prison is clearly part of the solution. But by some estimates, fewer than one in five inmates who need formal treatment are actually getting it. That's alarming, given that about half the prison population suffers from drug abuse or dependency problems.

Addicted prisoners cause problems outside the walls. After they're freed, addicts with H.I.V. or AIDS can infect spouses and lovers. They feed their addictions by returning to crime, which lands them back in prison and starts the terrible cycle over again.

The most effective programs provide inmates with high-quality treatment in prison and continue that treatment when prisoners return to their communities. Such programs have been shown to reduce both drug use and recidivism.

But good programs are rare, according to a report earlier this year in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Prisons typically rely on the abstinence-only model, which fails miserably with heroin addicts. Moreover, prison officials are notoriously hostile to methadone maintenance and other chemically based therapies that have long been a standard for people addicted to opiates.

Prison treatment is particularly disastrous in New York, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch. Imprisoned addicts, the authors say, are typically shut out of treatment until their sentences are nearly over because of ill-conceived policies that give priority to those who are about to be released.

New rules created earlier this month should help address these problems. The rules give oversight responsibility for prison treatment programs to the State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, an agency that develops treatment programs and licenses treatment providers.

The agency will be required to make sure that prison drug treatments are tailored to inmates' needs. It will also monitor the programs, filing annual reports to the governor and Legislature. Drug-policy advocates hope that the new arrangement will improve treatment and provide timely help for addicted inmates. That would be good for public health. It could reduce crime, too.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.