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Addicted Prisoners Wait Years for Treatment

The waiting list for addiction treatment in federal prisons is 51,000 long, a report reveals. The Fix speaks with some of those affected.

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Thousands of addicted prisoners play the
waiting game for years. Photo via

By Seth Ferranti

12/06/12

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Federal prisons are full of drug offenders—more than 90,000 of them, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this week. Yet only about a third of those prisoners— most of them low-level drug dealers, users and addicts—are receiving treatment to combat their addictions. "Its really tragic," one longtime federal prisoner tells The Fix. "The feds lock up all these crackheads and junkies and then don't even give them any programs to get them off drugs. Worse still, the one drug program they do have, RDAP, has all types of restrictions on who can get in, for what crime, etc. If you don't fit the specific criteria, you can't get in."

The waiting list for the Bureau of Prisons' Residential Drug Abuse Program, which allows successful participants to get up to a year off their sentences, is long—51,000 inmates long, according to the GAO report. "I have been in prison 15 years, waiting to get into the drug program," another prisoner tells us. "What they do is they run you right to the door. Like I wasn't even eligible to sign up until I was 36 months short [of release]. Now I have been on the RDAP unit for seven months and I'm still not in the program. They wait until you are 28 months short or less till they put you in. Then it takes nine months or so for the program and you get 12 months off and six months' halfway house—that's how it's supposed to work. But if I don't get in by next month the clock is ticking on my 12 months off."

Bureau of Prisons policies, and the way they're carried out, mean that drug addicts serving long sentences don't get treatment until right before they go home—despite the wide availability of drugs inside. "I've been doing drugs for 15 years in prison," the second prisoner says. "And now I have to get clean so I can complete the program and go home. It's not easy: I'm a drug addict." Prisoners who relapse or violate any prison rule or regulation are kicked out of RDAP. But usually these prisoners are the ones that need the program the most. Instead of helping long-term prisoners get treatment early, the BOP supports a system that enables drug use and only entices prisoners to quit much later. "Of course I want the year off," says the addicted prisoner. "Of course I want to go home. But I wish I didn't have to wait so long to get the treatment I need, so that I can go out and live a drug- and crime-free life and not come back to prison."

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