Do Drug Treatment Programs in Prison Work?

By Seth Ferranti 12/28/14

The prison system is a revolving door, through which hundreds of thousands of people, many of them with mental illnesses or drug addictions, cycle through again and again. Is it time to change the formula?

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There has been a lot of discussion in the news lately about what can be done about our country’s rising prison population. Although the United States only make up 5% of the world’s population, we constitute 25% of the world’s prison population. There are an estimated 7.3 million people in this country either in jail, prison, probation or on parole—so much for the land of the free. The real kicker is that the majority of them are drug addicts. With the "War on Drugs" raging over the last 25 years, drug addicts have become public enemy number one.

As we look back at the failed sentencing and correctional policies that have quadrupled the U.S. prison population over the last 40 years, anyone in their right mind would come to the conclusion that the current system doesn’t work. The prison system is a revolving door, through which hundreds of thousands of people, many of them with mental illnesses or drug addictions, cycle through again and again. All most of them need is adequate treatment, but are they getting it? With rising incarceration costs and bloated prison budgets it’s time to look for an alternate solution.

The Texas Department of Corrections has taken the lead by implementing a list of reforms that aims to reverse the growth of their prison population. By introducing treatment programs, like In-Prison Therapeutic Treatment and Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities, they have succeeded in helping people that are in prison succeed in the world and not recidivate by giving them the tools they will need when they get out. Texas is now funding programs, not prisons. It’s been a long time coming and that is a big change for a state that has had a history of creating the most barbaric institutions in America.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons also has a viable treatment program—Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). I am very familiar with this program because it helped me tremendously. But I am not the only one it has helped. Several thousand inmates go through the program a year. Graduates earn up to a year off their sentence and learn new ways of thinking and living that help them leave drugs and the criminal lifestyle behind when they are released. I talked to a few of my fellow RDAPers to see how they are doing in recovery on the outside and the impact the program has had on them.

“Recovery has had its ups and downs. I won’t say I’ve never used, but most definitely I am doing good. I’ve just had enough at this point,” says Chuckie, a 29-year-old Arkansas native who did a little under 4 years for MDMA possession and has been out since the spring of 2013. “I went into recovery with the right intention. The rational thinking part made a big impact on me. Some of the stuff, as far as being criminal, is relative to the situation, but learning the thinking errors sets you up to think better than your family or anyone in the real world thinks. So when you are thinking more rationally than anyone else that kind of puts you at odds, too.”

But most participants of the RDAP program, who take it seriously, are not contemplating returning to a life of crime even if they have the occasional battle with drugs. Some have stayed clean and sober, others, like Chuckie, have used, but in recovery relapse happens. It’s not the fact that you relapsed that matters, it’s what you do after that point. If you fall out of the saddle you have to get back on it and continue your ride. And this thing called life can be a bumpy road.

“Most definitely, the program can help. It wasn’t a waste of time.” Chuckie says. “This stuff actually had some sense to it. It was actually good, but if you could be in an environment with people that were more serious about doing what they are talking about instead of just putting on a show for people. It would be better.” This highlights one of the problems of the Bureau of Prison’s RDAP program. Instead of having separate prisons to house RDAPers, the RDAP unit is on the mainline yard, subject to all the politics, drugs and gang-banging that goes on inside the belly of the beast. But if you want recovery you can attain it, even in prison.

 “I am doing good in recovery. Three months out and I am still clean.” Julio tells The Fix. Julio is a 28-year-old Mexican American from Kansas who did five years on a meth charge. He is out now and enjoying his freedom and recovery. “I am working at a restaurant and just spending time with my family.” He says. “I am on home confinement now. Still going to the aftercare classes and taking drug tests weekly.”

All RDAP graduates are subject to random drug tests and must attend three hours of aftercare a week to maintain the conditions of their freedom. One dirty test and they are sent back to prison. There is a zero-tolerance practice in effect for RDAP graduates. But all the drug treatment in the world can’t help an addict from thinking about drugs.

“Do I think about using drugs? Yes. Do I want to use drugs? No. If there’s one thing the program taught me it is to weigh my costs and payoffs,” Julio says. “I know if I use, it will lead me back to prison and I did enough time already. The DTS (Drug Treatment Specialists) always said that three out of every five people go back to prison, but going through RDAP increases your odds of not staying out of jail, but staying free. I want to stay free, so I paid attention to what they were teaching and although I can’t say I have applied it all, I have applied a lot of it.”

If the statistics and testimony are so positive, why are there not more treatment programs in prison? It seems like it would be all the rave, but the problem is money. Even though the Bureau of Prison’s budget right now (6.9 billion) is twice what it was over 10 years ago, most of the funds are going to house prisoners. Because the BoP is not funding programs like the Texas Department of Corrections is, the BoP is funding prisons. Drug treatment is a proven and viable option that needs to be utilized to decrease the populations in federal prisons nationwide. At some point it has to be more about rehabilitation than punishment.

The federal prison system holds 10% of our nation's prisoners making it the largest entity that incarcerates people in the world with over 210,000 federal inmates. A large number of them are prisoners fighting drug addictions. I know, I was once among their number. But due to the RDAP program I have turned my life around. I have utilized the tools and skills they taught to change my thinking. I was a hardcore convict with the prisoner mentality—very unapproachable. But nowadays, in the real world, when I tell people I was in prison they don’t even believe me.

“Recovery is tough,” Chuckie says. “I had to ditch all my old friends. I had to make new friends. It made it a little easier since I was in prison for a while. Still, I am going to school and everyone wants to go out and party and I have indulged a few times. It is a constant battle that I fight, but I know that even if I fail, it’s not the end of the world. I can get back up, dust myself off and get back on the wagon. Isn’t that how the old expression goes, you fell off the wagon? Well, I have several times but as of right now, I am sober two months.”

Taking it day-by-day is the drug addict’s mantra. The lessons learned in RDAP and similar programs like the one offered by the Texas Department of Corrections can save lives. And that is what prison should be about—rehabilitation, not punishment. But without more viable programs in place to help addicts recover, most will never get the tools that they need to function in a pro-social and drug free lifestyle. That is the simple truth. The answer to the question I posed at the top of this article is yes, drug programs in prison do work, but we need more of them.

Seth Ferranti has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2012. He most recently wrote about being sober after 21 years in prisonHe also writes for Vice. He has a book out—The Supreme Team.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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