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Dealing with Addiction in Prison

Dealing with Addiction in Prison
Written by Seth Fletcher on August 26, 2019
Last update: May 15, 2024

Are prisons doing enough to help prisoners with addictions? This is a topic that can fuel an argument. There are some who may say a person should be able to overcome their drug or alcohol abuse when they’re sent to prison. As soon as they’re incarcerated, they can’t use drugs anyway! There are some who think, do they deserve help? They’re the ones choosing to use drugs in the first place.

Well, there couldn’t be a worse way of thinking, especially if these are family members who you want to see getting better.

Simply put, substance abuse is a disorder. It’s a disease. It’s an addiction. It’s a way of life for alcoholics, heroin users and suboxone or opioid addicts. Being incarcerated and sitting in a prison cell until your sentence is up is not enough to help addiction. More psychiatric help and treatment services may be needed for addicts in order for them to overcome their addiction, and to be released, not just back into the world, but back into the world they dreamt they’d find again.

Why Are Drugs Addictive?

It’s not just about lack of willpower. Drugs and alcohol ultimately change a person’s brain to the point where the brain thinks it needs it. Even though repeated use leads to harmful or severe health issues, the brain still thinks it needs the drug. Drugs affect the brain’s “reward circuit” that causes the feeling of pleasure, like getting high off drugs and entering a state of euphoria. This is why you want to do it again and again and again. Genetics can play a huge role in addiction too.

Where Is Addiction A Problem In Canada?

Well, everywhere. According to the United Nations, Canada is actually the world’s largest producer of ecstasy and methamphetamines, and 85% of meth seized in Australia has been traced back to Canada.

How Many Prisoners In Canada Are Addicts?

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction found that over 51% of prisoners in federal correctional institutes had an alcohol problem, and 48% have had problems with drugs. Over half of the Canadian federal offenders admitted that substance use or abuse was directly or indirectly related to one or more of their convictions.

Despite the efforts of prison administrators to eliminate the possibility of drug use in prisons, it’s still a large problem. Conducting random cell searches or testing urine samples won’t stop addicts from obtaining their way of getting high. If there’s a will, there’s a way.

But not only does this decrease their chances of finding sobriety once they’re released, it increases their risk of exposure to HIV, Aids, and hepatitis C. These diseases are transmitted through the blood and worst of all, there is no cure.

But there is a cure for addiction, if it’s offered. Some prisoners in British Columbia’s Kent Institution don’t receive psychiatric help for their addictions until their release date edges closer.

Fentanyl is the primary drug of choice in B.C., and because of this, the average lifespan in beautiful province of B.C. is starting to get lower.In 2012, fentanyl overdose deaths were at 4%. In 2018, that number rose to 85% in B.C. alone. It’s no wonder the province is facing a public health emergency involving drug overdoses.

In fact, opioid addicts who have been released are at a much greater risk of suffering a fatal overdose. But an even more shocking statistic? There are roughly 7 million incarcerated people in the U.S. and over half of them have a substance abuse disorder. Just 20% receive the help they truly need.

So next time your family member is released from prison and relapses, instead of judging or asking them why, ask the judicial system. Why didn’t they help your family member who was in desperate need of treatment? Ex-inmates are at risk of suffering a fatal overdose within the first two weeks of being released - 12 times the risk faced by other addicts.

What Exactly Is Fentanyl & Opioids?

Of course, understanding addiction starts with understanding the main drug of choice. Why? Because treatments and interventions will differ depending on the drug or substance of abuse.

Fentanyl is a pain medication that can be prescribed to patients with severe or chronic pain. Side effects typically last for no longer than a couple of hours, which is why users will mix it with other drugs like heroin or cocaine.

Part of the reason fentanyl addiction could be on the rise is because it is actually cheaper than heroin, and much easier to obtain since it can be medically administered through patches, nasal sprays, or tablets. Fentanyl is stronger than heroin too, so smaller doses create a longer lasting effect, which can also lead to a faster overdose.

Opioids are substances that act as a morphine-like medication for pain relief. This includes fentanyl, oxycodone, and more. Opioids attach to proteins on the nerve cells in the brain, gut, and other parts of the body, called opioid receptors. So while pain is being relieved, opioid addiction risks become high because those receptors are being told that they can’t live without opioids. The body will fully believe that the drug is necessary for survival.

What Happens When Addicts Suddenly Stop Taking Drugs?

Unfortunately, curing addiction isn’t as easy as just taking that drug away from the user, especially if they’re sent into a correctional facility and put into a cell where they’re barely being monitored.

Addicts will suffer withdrawals that can include severe symptoms such as:

  • anxiety
  • acts of violence
  • insomnia/restlessness
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • tremors
  • depression
  • seizures

In some cases, abdominal pain and seizures can last for months.

What Can Be Done Differently For Incarcerated Addicts?

It’s not just addiction that needs to be addressed. Addressing where these prisoners will be released is another important issue that needs to be considered, like housing situations. Being released back into a society where drug addiction still occurs is just another way of lowering sobriety chances.

Many U.S. states don’t offer the necessary access to medications to treat opioid addicts who are incarcerated, nor do they offer the proper counselling services. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 68% of patients who received counselling and methadone treatments (used for those detoxing from opioids) entered into similar treatment facilities when released. They were also more likely to stay in treatment longer when given treatment for 20 weeks (four to five months) prior to their release.

Perhaps prisons need dedicated rehab centres? Or dedicated sobriety wards? But then again, how do you force someone into treatment who doesn’t even want to help themselves?

What Services Are Actually Being Provided?

The Correctional Service of Canada has been trying to establish successful programs for the 70% of men and women who enter into the system already in need of an intervention, such as Offender Substance Abuse Pre-release Program (OSAPP), Choices, the methadone maintenance program, the urinalysis program, using drug dogs, and more. Though it’s encouraging, are these measures enough to ensure these patients remain sober when released?

The health care delivered to prisoners in each province in Canada varies too, which could deem the release of inmates back into the population as a health hazard. Nova Scotia and Alberta prisons’ health care is delivered by provincial authority. In Ontario, they are looked after by the government. In B.C., the province with the highest number of overdose deaths, the prisons deal with private companies.

Prisons We Should Learn More From

Bastoy Prison, Norway

  • the lowest reoffending rate in all of Europe
  • inmates live in individual homes, not crammed together
  • support prisoners and offer them help rather than just punishing them for their crimes
  • treat them like human beings and respect them
  • want to make prisoners as comfortable as possible

Otago Corrections Facility, New Zealand

  • inmates get comfortable rooms
  • offer classes to increase skill in trades like engineering and carpentry, and other classes like cooking and horticulture
  • believe that prisoners who find sustainable work after release are almost 60% lesslikely to reoffend

Sollentuna Prison, Sweden

  • provide inmates with comfortable, individual cells
  • four prisons in Sweden were closed due to diminished need
  • reoffending rates 40% lower than UK


Prisons simply aren’t rehab. When a prisoner is put in jail, there are more issues to deal with than cessation of the drug use. Addiction has a lot to do with mental illness too. There are triggers that need to be addressed, as well as the environment the inmates are likely to be released back into.

The proper psychological approach, and the necessary medications need to be administered to detoxing patients. Not only is it dangerous for inmates to detox in an unmonitored environment, it is also extremely unhealthy for addicts to be placed in a general population where they can share needles and contract HIV, Aids, or hepatitis C.

Correctional facilities, like the ones listed above in Sweden and Norway, provide a comfortable and knowledgeable experience for their inmates, who consequently are more likely to succeed when they’re released.

If everyone understood addicts a little better, maybe it would be easier for correctional facilities and the public to accept them and administer the help they need to live a happier and healthier life.

An addict isn’t a bad person. Just because they have to go to prison for a drug related charge, that does not make them a bad person either.

You know that feeling of pleasure (and possibly guilt) you get when you eat your absolute favourite meal? You end up justifying, in your mind, that the reason you gave in and had that high-calorie favourite meal of yours is because you deserved it after all your recent hard work at the gym. This is the same for an addict. They justify their drug-related actions in their minds because they feel that they deserve to enter that euphoria.

You know how you have trouble talking about your feelings or your relationship with others? An addict will feel the same about their relationship with their substance of choice. It’s not easy to talk about or even admit that they have a problem.

You know that feeling of waking up in the morning and instantly feeling like you need a cup of coffee? An addict gets that feeling too.

Opioid addiction, alcoholism, heroin use, and meth addiction are serious problems in both Canada and the U.S. If the federal and state prisons addressed these issues more effectively, by offering the proper medication, counselling services, programs during and after a drug addicts incarceration, and assessment of the environment they’ll be released into, an addict could successfully thrive after being released from a correctional facility.

Sources used for the article

  • available-as-he-feared-return-behind-bars-1.5064658
  • investigation/
  •\ why
  • prisons-a-companion-document.pdf? la=en&hash=DA0F1AA67F868820FF5FD00608AC8E44EBDB816C
  • Photo credit: meesh. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.

Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

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