Don’t neglect treatment
According to Michael Touchette, director of facilities for Vermont’s Corrections Department, there were more than 200 instances of contraband drugs entering the state’s prisons in each year of the three-year period ending in 2012.
To combat this smuggling activity, he told state legislators last week that corrections officers and other members of the prison staff soon will be subjected to searches as they enter secure sections of the state’s facilities.
The searches, which might involve metal detectors, will comply with a law passed by the Legislature earlier this year. Staff members will not be subjected to frisking, the lawmakers were told.
Only in some instances — he described them as a “tiny minority” — has the smuggling of the drugs involved members of prison staffs, Touchette said. But not everyone agrees.
Gordon Bock, who runs the prisoners’ rights group CURE-Vermont, maintained the involvement of prison staff is a larger problem than that.
Bock told the legislators it’s “an open secret” that for years it hasn’t only been visitors and the prisoners themselves who have been involved in schemes to smuggle the forbidden drugs into the prisons.
As for the introduction of the searches, Bock said “it’s about time.”
Lisa Menard, deputy corrections commissioner, said officials plan to develop the data needed to get a “firmer handle” on the scale of the contraband problem before putting the new rules into effect.
Vermont’s citizens naturally want to prevent the flow of illicit drugs into the state’s prison system, and officials obviously want to do their part to eliminate smuggling as a problem.
But the issue of drugs being smuggled into Vermont’s prisons reflects our entire nation’s problem with illegal substances.
Consider the plight of the law-abiding people of Central America, where drug cartels are responsible for a degree of lawlessness that makes our own country’s problems with crime seem mild by comparison.
These cartels live off the profits generated by the appetite for illegal drugs north of the border.
And the problem goes deeper than that. David Stack, a prominent critic of the “war on drugs” and a psychiatrist who specializes in drug addiction, frets about an epidemic of drug abuse in our nation’s prisons.
If Stack had his way, he wrote in a recently published essay, there would be a much greater focus on improving prison conditions because, as it is, he argues, “our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts.”
As chief executive officer of a network of addiction treatment centers, Stack would appear to be well positioned to know the scale of the problem.
“Inmates are likely to find a drug trade as active as the one outside prison walls,” he wrote. “Many is the time I’ve listened sadly as family members have consoled themselves about a loved one’s incarceration by saying, ‘At least he’ll have to quit using now.’ If only.”
According to Stack, of the more than 2.3 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails, more than 65 percent meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction.
“When you combine this with those who have histories of substance abuse, were under the influence when they committed a crime, committed it to get drug money or were incarcerated for a drug or alcohol violation, the percentage rises to 85 percent,” he added.
“But most disturbing is the fact that inmates who do hope to kick an addiction can’t count on getting the help they need,” he continued.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that only 11 percent of inmates with substance use issues received treatment in federal and state prisons or local jails.
“The best that most can hope for is occasional mutual support or peer counseling meetings,” Stack observed. “No wonder that more than half of inmates with addiction histories relapse within a month of release.”
Preventing the smuggling of drugs into prisons is obviously a good idea. But Stack also calls for trained staffs that understand how to use the best treatments, including medication-assisted therapy.
He also favors long-term treatment programs that continue to treat inmates’ addiction problems after they’ve been released.
The obvious problem with Stack’s prescription is its cost, but in his view “we can’t afford not to do it.”
“As it stands now,” he said, “only 1.9 cents of every dollar our federal and state governments spend on substance use and addiction go to pay for prevention and treatment; 95.6 percent pay for the consequences.”
So by all means take measures to prevent the smuggling of contraband into our prisons. But also give careful thought to what Stack, an authority on the subject, has to say.