Every July 4th, Americans celebrate Independence Day. We fly flags, barbecue hot dogs and hamburgers, and gather to watch as fireworks light up the night sky. Our festivities celebrate the freedoms our nation’s founders established in the Declaration of Independence. Sadly, for individuals suffering with addiction and/or mental health issues who are trapped in prisons and jails, the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are but a dream.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that substance use disorder is a treatable brain disease, negative public perception exists around the chronic illness of addiction and prevents individuals from getting the help they need. Furthermore, the perception that substance misuse is a morality problem rather than a medical condition results in discriminatory practices that can be devastating for individuals, disproportionally for people of color, who become involved with the criminal justice system.

Chilling statistics suggest that of the 2.3 million individuals who are incarcerated, over 65 percent meet the medical criteria for substance use dependency. Yet, according to a report released by the Center on Addiction at Columbia University (CASA-CU) only 11% of people with substance use and addiction disorders receive any treatment while they are incarcerated. The report found that “if all inmates who needed treatment and aftercare received such services, the nation would break even in a year if just over 10% remained substance and crime free and employed. Thereafter, for each inmate who remained sober, employed and crime free the nation would reap an economic benefit of $90,953 per year.”

There are tragic collateral costs to treating addiction as a criminal justice issue rather than a public health issue. Almost three million children in the US have one or both parents behind bars. A significant number of these parents are incarcerated because of non-violent drug offenses. The long-term consequences are that parents are relegated to a permanent second class status that extends far beyond their incarceration. They are branded as criminals and felons, stripped of the right to vote, the right to be free of legal discrimination, the right to further their education, access to public housing, employment, and a variety of other civil liberties (DPA, 2018).

Not long ago, I visited a young mother who is incarcerated in upstate New York. During our visit, she informed me that she had been left to go through opioid withdrawal in solitary confinement for 16 days. Coming off of opioids is a particularly brutal process. There were no mutual aid meetings she could attend and no medication to assist her withdrawal process. She was left to writhe in pain alone without treatment services or recovery support. I am not aware of any other illness but addiction that is treated with such a level of intentional lack of compassion and care, particularly for those who are involved with the criminal justice system.

The good news is there is ample evidence supporting the public safety benefits of providing incarcerated individuals with drug treatment and recovery-oriented systems of care. Treatment for those involved with the criminal justice system have already resulted in a 28% reduction in recidivism through the Albany County Sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (SHARP) and a 50% reduction in recidivism in the Monroe County jail (CLMHD, 2018). Treatment not only reduces public sector costs – it saves human lives.

FOR-NY, in partnership with our allies around the state, are working diligently to improve outcomes for those with current or former criminal justice involvement. We support the removal of barriers that make it difficult for individuals with criminal records to access treatment and recovery support services. In order to sustain recovery, incarcerated people must have the same access to housing, employment, healthcare, and education as other New Yorkers. We seek to support efforts to reduce incarceration and promote reentry through policy advocacy and education that helps people support their recovery.

The fact that so many individuals through no fault of their own, find themselves cycling in and out of the criminal justice system as a direct result of their untreated addiction and mental health issues is unconscionable. Addiction is not a moral failing: it is a physical allergy, coupled with a mental obsession that results in a malady of conscious choice. It is, by its very definition, the inability to choose something different. Effective treatment and recovery supports are necessary to end the cycle of addiction and start the healing process.

If you haven’t yet registered for the Recovery Conference, please do so. Your presence and participation will enrich our conversation as we look at ways in which we can support the journey to recovery along multiple pathways. Prepare to be moved and inspired by stories of hope and healing that will begin on Sunday, August 19th with a Pre-Conference and dance. We hope to see you there!

Stephanie Campbell