Treatment for substance abuse vital to reduce prison recidivism rate

For newly released prisoners, successful substance abuse treatment on the outside may be the most important factor in keeping them from returning to jail - trumping issues such as transitional housing and finding a job.

“Treatment for substance abuse is vital to reduce the recidivism rate,” says Lindsay A. Phillips, instructor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, PA.

Phillips interviewed 20 men incarcerated in a large urban eastern prison system. Each had been released and then jailed again after committing crimes. All 20 said they relapsed on substances such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, crack-cocaine, or heroin, after their release. Fifteen of the 20 identified drugs as the reason why they were back behind bars.

Drugs were “the most commonly identified barrier” to successful re-entry into society, Phillips says, “…identified at a higher rate than other key barriers including employment, housing and financial difficulties.”

Phillips presented a paper on the research titled, “Substance Abuse and Prison Recidivism: Themes from Qualitative Interviews,” at the annual meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in Boston, MA on March 14.

Of the 20 prisoners interviewed, two relapsed on substances within hours of their release from jail. One spent a few hours in a court-stipulated rehab program then absconded and relapsed. Nine relapsed before they even began seeking employment. Four relapsed when they become frustrated over difficulties in finding a job.

“Many participants said that substance abuse was a habitual way of managing stressors,” reports Phillips. “A 42-year-old man stated, ‘Every problem I've ever had, I've drowned in drugs and alcohol.' A 48-year-old man stated, ‘I get into a rut and turn to using and avoiding. I've always done this.'”

All participants in the study were enrolled at the time in prison-run substance abuse programs. And all said that such programs were helpful. Many, however, perceived a lack of clear connection to post-prison help for their substance abuse problems.

“This research clearly supports aftercare and the need for increased coordination between treatment and criminal justice systems,” says Phillips, “because there was a sense of disconnection from other people and the community that emerged as a theme for participants.”

“If re-entry programs focus solely on case management and job attainment they will miss the vital role of substance abuse treatment and referral. This research not only identifies substance abuse treatment as imperative to successful re-entry, but actually places the priority of this treatment above other commonly used strategies within the criminal justice system.”

Federal initiatives to aid the transition from jail to society, such as “Community Correction Centers,” “Going Home Initiative: Serious and Violent offender Initiative,” and the “Second Chance Act,” tend to focus on transitional housing, employment and mentoring programs, Phillips says.

Nationally, previous studies have shown that around two thirds of the more than half-a-million released prisoners annually find themselves back behind bars within three years.

“One study found that more than 20 percent of individuals released are rearrested for a violent offense within three years, making improving the re-entry process a priority for community safety,” notes Phillips.

The ethnic background of the prisoners interviewed by Phillips was diverse. Seven identified as Black, six as White, three as Latino, one as Native American, one as Pacific Islander, one as bi-racial Black and White and one as bi-racial Black and Native American.

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