Kentucky Works to Give Addicted Inmates Treatment Behind Bars

An estimated 80 percent of people in U.S. prisons have substance abuse problems, but they are far less likely to return to jail if they receive treatment while behind bars, Kentucky data show.

Typically, 30 percent of Kentucky inmates with substance abuse problems return to jail, according to the Kentucky Department of Corrections. But a 2011 University of Kentucky study showed that number drops to 20 percent among inmates who receive substance abuse treatment.

Kentucky corrections officials are zeroing in on those numbers as they work to reduce the number of people in prisons — an effort designed both to cut state spending and return people to productive, law-abiding lives. The state has budgeted $7 million this fiscal year — up from $1.1 million six years ago — to provide treatment to help inmates address the addictions that led many of them to prison in the first place.

“Investing in treatment programs is absolutely a prudent use of resources,” said Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown. “Substance abuse is the number one driver in our inmate population. It tears apart families and communities in general. Anything we can do to break that cycle will improve the overall public safety of Kentucky.”

Even if prisoners stay away from contraband drugs while incarcerated, without treatment they are at risk to resume abusing drugs once they get out. And for many, prison programs offer a chance for treatment they’d never get on the outside.

The study also showed that participants in jail-based treatment reduced drug use by 60 percent following their release, and those in prison-based treatment cut it by 54 percent.

“Research has consistently shown that prison-based programs like therapeutic communities, particularly when followed by after care in the community, are effective in reducing drug use and recidivism after release,” said Michele Tindall, associate professor at UK’s College of Social Work and Center on Drug and Alcohol Research.

Inmates say the programs give them the tools to “say no” when they go back to their home communities, where temptations can be many.