The Drug Inmate Epidemic

By Dirk Hanson 07/05/11

After release, former prisoners are 129 times more likely to die of a drug overdose than the average man or woman on the street.

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There’s one fact of prison life that non-inmates tend to forget: Almost all prisoners are eventually released, including a large number of untreated drug and alcohol addicts. This post-release period, says a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “presents extraordinary risks to individuals and costs to society.” In the first two weeks after release, former inmates are 129 times more likely to die from a drug overdose than the average man or woman on the street. They are 12 times more likely to die, period. And here’s a nice touch: Most of them don’t have Medicaid or other medical insurance, and there is usually no primary care follow-up to assure that they have access to affordable medications, if they need them. Inevitably, these are some of the people who make the local emergency room their primary care facility, at great cost to everyone involved.  According to the authors, five states now spend more on prisons than they spend on higher education. In Rhode Island, for example, the price for putting someone behind bars for a year is $41,000—or $110,000, if we are talking about the new super maximum-security facilities.

 Here is where President Obama’s Affordable Care Act could really end up making a difference. Former prisoners will have a better shot at health insurance than ever— and with just a shred of cooperation between health care agencies, it may be possible to “redirect many people with serious illnesses away from the revolving door of the criminal justice system.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]