This Is What It's Like to Be Addicted to Drugs in Prison


The war on drugs is changing.

Skyrocketing heroin and prescription painkiller abuse across the United States has prompted policymakers o to reconsider the criminal justice system's approach to drug offenses. Drug addiction is increasingly being seen as a public health crisis instead of a moral one, and as a result, rehabilitation is beginning to gain traction over punishment as the appropriate way to respond to it.  

There are early stirrings of reform. Some law enforcement officials are pursuing inventive methods for redirecting people with an addiction to illegal drugs away from the legal system and toward immediate treatment. A bipartisan group of senators have cobbled together a major bill that would reduce sentences for drug offenders. Presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle have called for a softening in the way the criminal justice system treats new nonviolent drug offenders.

For drug policy reform advocates, these developments bode well for a wind down of the war on drugs. But there remain plenty of dimensions to drug policy that continue to go unaddressed — one of the most urgent ones of which is the quiet crisis of drug addiction within the prison system itself.

Read more: One Dark Side of the Criminal Justice System That Everyone Should Know

What it's like: Incarceration typically severs prisoners' ties to the main sources of their drug habits, but it doesn't necessarily liberate them from the plague of addiction.

According to a landmark study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in 2010, about two-thirds of individuals in American jails and prisons suffer from drug addiction, but only 11% of them receive any treatment for it, a mismatch that experts say has changed little since then. The inadequacy of addiction treatment services in prison plays a major factor in high recidivism rates in the U.S., as many released prisoners quickly slide back into the destructive lifestyles that helped land them in prison in the first place.

Raymond Hawkins, 38, suffered from an alcohol and crack cocaine addiction before and between a series of stints in jail and prison that spanned most of his adult life. He found that being thrown behind bars while in the throes of addiction was an an alienating and painful experience.

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"First two days in jail you're sleeping, basically, then when you start to get energy, that's when the thoughts are really racing in your head, like, 'Damn, I wish I was out getting high right now,'" Hawkins said in an interview. "When you go in first, you don't want guys to know you're a crackhead. You keep it to yourself. You'll go through the thoughts on your bunk just by yourself, and you won't let nobody know." 

Hawkins kept his deep urges to himself, since revealing his past could result in being perceived as "weak."

"You have guys who are in prison who sold a lot of drugs and never used drugs," Hawkins said. "They tend to look down on people who have used drugs. They'll just make trouble. They'll want to take your commissary bag, they'll try to make you have sex with them, because they feel like you're weak because you've done drugs all your life."

Hawkins grew up in Camden, New Jersey, surrounded by addiction. His mother was addicted to crack cocaine, and on occasion would take him along when she visited crack houses. A number of his aunts and uncles were alcoholics. His brother, who was paralyzed from the waist down from a gunshot to his side, introduced him to crack when he was 21. 

Hawkins found that while in prison the incentives to not use crack or drink would keep his addictions at bay, every time he was released his demons were waiting for him on the outside. Despite the respite from drugs while behind bars, old habits returned fast. The last time he was sent to prison it was for theft, an act motivated by a desire to fund his urge for crack that returned, like clockwork, upon his last release.

Hawkins said that in lieu of drug treatment programs in prison, he usually sought refuge in spirituality.

"I found my peace going to church, because they don't have too many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or Narcotics Anonymous meetings in prison," Hawkins said.

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Hawkins' trouble getting the services he needed is not unique. Across the nation, a majority of inmates with a drug addiction don't receive any or adequate drug treatment services that help them gain control of their addiction. Instead, they're left to fend for themselves.

For some inmates who suffer from addiction, prison ends up imposing a kind of temporary sobriety on them, after which relapses are the norm

Other inmates end up feeding their addiction while in prison. Drugs have a way of seeping into incredibly secure correctional facilities, slipping into the hands of inmates through family visits, mail and civilian employees at correctional facilities. Payments can be made via money transfers through connections with people on the outside, or through bartering with the limited kinds of rations that prisons often provide inmates with. But when prisoners can't pay up, they often get injured or robbed.

What's the solution? Serious drug addiction is a disease whose sources are not eradicated simply through the absence of drug use, even for long periods of time. It's an issue that typically needs be addressed through various kinds of specialized treatment designed to target the root causes underlying the addiction.   

"Enforced abstinence is not a cure — even after years incarcerated, when the addicted individual nears his or her release date, the cravings, the drug dreams, all come back," Andrew Klein, senior criminal justice research analyst at Advocates for Human Potential, said in an interview. "Then once the addicted individual hits the street, he or she returns to the same environment, associates, and dysfunctional families he or she came from, plus all of the additional stress and anxiety and barriers a released prisoner faces trying to survive with a prison record."

If one of his housemates finds a bottle of liquor and gets drunk — he can sometimes feel his own old desires beckon. 

Substance abuse treatment programs, run by health care professionals and designed to rehabilitate prisoners, dramatically decrease recidivism rates. They're also cost effective — treatment is far cheaper than incarceration. And yet federal, state and local governments spend a mere 1% of the cost of processing and incarcerating substance-involved adult and juvenile offenders on prevention and treatment services. 

Boosting the availability of treatment in prisons is crucial, but so are services designed to help people to transition and adjust to life on the outside. Therapeutic communities like halfway houses have proven very effective in helping people target the kinds of issues that often lie beneath the surface in heavily controlled environments like prison, but always have the potential to re-emerge.

Adam Narducci, 35, has found his program at Integrity House, a drug recovery center in New Jersey that works closely with former prisoners suffering from substance abuse problems, to be a crucial step toward preparing for being on his own again. Before coming to Integrity House, he was in prison for over 13 years. 

"There's things you think you have under control while you're in an atmosphere like prison — until you're outside of that environment, and you find that the problems have just been lying dormant, you really haven't had any opportunity to address them, because it hasn't presented itself," Narducci said in an interview. "I'm finding that I do have more problems than I thought I did, so I'm fortunate I'm in a safe place where I can identify those things and focus on them."

Before being sent to prison, Narducci compulsively drank and snorted cocaine. While being locked up helped him sober up temporarily, he doesn't think that those temptations have vanished.

At Integrity House he's learning about his traps and triggers, and the various ways in which he can be influenced by his peers — both for the better and worse. When he sees his housemates slide back toward addiction — say, finding a bottle of liquor and getting drunk — he can sometimes feel his own old desires beckon. But since he's still immersed in a therapeutic community rather than grappling with things alone, he's able to rehearse the kind of self-discipline he'll need in the near future.

Drug and alcohol addiction "will always be a concern, and once you think you've got this sort of thing licked, that's when it can become a problem," Narducci said. "It'll always be a concern, because I know how much I used to enjoy it. ... Right now one of my main concerns is just being able to re-adjust." 

Narducci has stayed sober since he's been out of prison so far. He hopes that when he finishes his rehabilitation he can move back to Florida, where his children live, and get back into the food industry.  

"I want to learn how to live again," he said.