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Drug Treatment in Prison: Orientation

In the first phase of RDAP, prisoners start preparing to re-enter society. It doesn't always go perfectly.


Learning to change. Photo via

By Seth Ferranti


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Prisoners who qualify for the Bureau of Prisons' Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) can get up to a year off their sentence for completing the 500-hour, 10 month-long course. Upon admission, each prisoner is given an orientation handbook to introduce the rules, expectations and concepts of RDAP. To successfully complete Phase 1, a prisoner must cooperate and participate fully, building rapport with others, and demonstrating a positive attitude and a willingness to accept feedback. The idea is for him to learn to recognize self-defeating thoughts and attitudes that will stunt his development; by understanding the damaging consequences of addictive and criminal behavior, he can mentally prepare himself for successful re-entry into society.

But it doesn't always go exactly to plan: "What we actually do is different than what is supposed to happen," one current RDAP participant tells The Fix. "We are supposed to have class five days a week, and usually we only had it once or twice a week. When we did go to class, the DTS [drug treatment specialist] would repeat the same stuff over and over again, giving the equivalent of a halftime speech and telling us how we hit the lottery [by being admitted to the program]." He continues, "We watched some movies and wrote papers on them, and we had to write a 15-page autobiography detailing our drug use and criminal behavior, which we had to turn in."

"Ideally what we were supposed to learn was the eight attitudes of change, which go from honesty to willingness and the roadblocks to change, which can stop us from changing," the prisoner says. RDAP teaches residents how to perform an attitude check and at a minimum, expects a participant to prepare a readiness statement and develop a realistic individual treatment plan. "Phase 1 is to pretty much get us to see how in our lives what we were doing wasn't working," says the prisoner. "That is the first step: realization. It's kind of like in the 12-step NA program where we realize we are powerless over our addictions. The same philosophy, but we are in prison."

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