In the first two weeks after leaving prison, people make life or death decisions, including whether to pick up drugs again. In their first two weeks of freedom, former inmates are 12 times more likely to die than the general public and 129 times more likely to die of drug overdose.
As substance abuse treatment providers, we are happy to hear that the United States Sentencing Commission has issued a new rule that would make nearly 50,000 drug offenders eligible to apply for early release. As someone who works with clients receiving treatment as an alternative to incarceration, I am thrilled to see greater evidence that the United States is reversing its policy of mass incarceration, especially for drug offenders who need treatment, not jail. On the other hand, we have a long way to go in making sure these ex-prisoners have a safe release that puts them well on the path to a rewarding life.
The United States keeps 2.3 million of its citizens behind bars—25 percent of the world’s prisoners and a higher percentage than any other nation. Of these 2.3 million people, 1.5 million have a diagnosable substance use disorder and another 20 percent were under the influence at the time of arrest. Without treating the root cause of addiction, we will continue to see a revolving door of recidivism and poverty, a cycle that takes a brutal toll on the children of the incarcerated and perpetuates the distress of the generation that came before. To break the cycle, we need to expand access to treatment in prison, facilitate a smooth reentry process, and provide care that takes into account the unique needs of an formerly -incarcerated population.
In 2010, 85 percent of the prison population needed treatment for substance abuse yet only 11 percent of inmates received any addiction treatment. Just because someone abstains from drugs for a time during jail doesn’t mean they’ve built the skills to sustain recovery. Once someone leaves prison, emotions are rocky and triggers for substance abuse are everywhere. We need to give people the tools for recovery while they’re in prison, through evidence-based treatment programs that help them live a life in recovery as a productive and contributing citizen.
Second, policy-makers must work on creating a smooth and seamless transition for re-entry. This is no small undertaking, but it can save people’s lives in those crucial two weeks after release. Ideally, inmates would have their care and their records integrated into the post-prison system before they leave. A substance abuse provider, health care provider, or case manager would visit the inmate prior to release, do assessments, help them finds housing and work, and be there to pick them up once they’re released.
Finally, as substance abuse treatment providers, we should provide care that answers the unique challenges, fears, and emotional struggles that newly freed people face. Many clients leave incarceration with a new identity—criminal—and they are struggling to react to a new label society has slapped on them. We have to understand that dynamic in the context of treatment, we have to help them manage the emotions they’re feeling so they can avoid relapse, and we have to advocate for them to get the services they need for a successful reentry. When the fantasy of freedom meets reality, we need to give people the skills to cope.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission calculates that inmates eligible for early release will have been incarcerated for an average of nine years. With that length of incarceration, the reentry challenges are enormous. We applaud the United States Sentencing Commission for its decision to give these men and women a new chance at life, but we can’t abandon them outside the prison door.
Phoenix House Judge John C. Creuzot Judicial Treatment Center