Inmates are some of the people hardest hit by substance use disorder (SUD) and mental health issues. Stats from the Center on Addiction show that 65% of the prison population has an SUD. An additional 20% of inmates don’t meet the criteria for SUD, but they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their offense.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 2 in 5 people incarcerated in jails/prisons struggle with their mental health, which is twice as many as the general population.
Despite this prevalence, inmates receiving treatment for SUD (11%) or mental health (37%) remains low. SUD and some mental health issues are chronic conditions, meaning they worsen over time if they are not treated, and once a person re-enters society, they are vulnerable to worsening health, recidivism, overdose, or even death.
Re-Entry is a Vulnerable Time
The time when an inmate is released back into society is called “re-entry.” It’s a time to get back on their feet and re-establish themselves with their family and community. For people struggling with substance use, it’s also an incredibly vulnerable time, and if they don’t receive proper support, they could reoffend, violate the terms of their parole, or even overdose.
Recidivism and Parole Violations
There are several causes of recidivism including:
- Lack of resources including requirements to meet parole
- Poor or no social support
- Inadequate financial resources
- Lack of continuity in healthcare especially for chronic conditions like SUD and mental illness
- Being barred from federally funded programs like food stamps
- Difficulty finding a job
With little or no support to re-establish themselves in society, former inmates may fall back into old patterns to survive whether or not they are legal.
Overdose and Death
The threat of overdose for a former inmate re-entering society is very real. If they abstained from drug use while incarcerated, their tolerance for that drug will drop. If, after release, they go back to using the same dosage as they were prior to incarceration, it could be too much for their system to process and they could overdose.
Studies have found that inmates are particularly vulnerable to overdose deaths within 1-2 weeks of release from prison. People with little or no support as they re-enter society may struggle to find support groups and avoid triggers, especially if they are in the same places and with the same people they used drugs and alcohol with prior to incarceration.
Where Peer Support Fits In
People don’t have to re-enter society alone. Peer support programs offer certified and trained coaches who use their own lived experience (e.g., they have been incarcerated and/or struggled with substance use) to deliver effective, compassionate support.
Studies suggest that peer support can provide a critical bridge as they re-enter society through social support, reduction of substance use and recidivism, and increase of prosocial support (i.e., actions that help other people like comforting and helping others).[i] Further research shows that people who’ve been formerly incarcerated prefer support from someone who has lived experience and has successfully found recovery and/or re-entered society.[ii]
Finding Purpose in Lived Experience
In our You Learn You Turn podcast this week, guest and Youturn Health peer support specialist Lauren Houck details her battle with Adderall misuse which eventually led her to steal her sister’s identity and forge stolen checks. After finding recovery and working out her case with federal authorities, Lauren became a peer coach working with inmates re-entering society.
“Anything that they need, I help with. Whatever they need: housing, help them look for jobs, support. The number one thing I want to be for them is support, like support them in whatever they need, in whatever capacity they need me to be.”
In the podcast, Houck said that in many cases, as in her own, inmates don’t have a lot of family support. She recounted that she had burned all of her bridges during her struggles with Adderall, and when she needed support, she had only her dad to turn to. Since finding recovery, she has worked to rebuild relationships, but she understands it’s not so easy for former inmates. “I tell them, ‘I’ll be that support for you until you can build your bridges back up. ‘ ”
You can listen to the episode here:
[i]LeBel, T. P., Richie, M., and Maruna, S. (2015). Helping others as a response to reconcile criminal past. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 42(1), 108–120.
[ii] Richie, B. (2001). Challenges incarcerated women face as they return to their communities. Crime and Deliquency, 47, 368–389.