Prisons have become increasingly deadly since 2001. The number of overdoes is staggeringly high, but why? What is the Bureau of Prisons doing about it?
Why Prisoners are Overdosing
For most of us, prison life is the farthest thing from our understanding, and the accessibility and supply of drugs available to incarcerated people is shocking. National overdoses spiked in 2019 due to illegal fentanyl and other opioids, but what are prisoners taking, and where does it come from?
Drug use is widespread behind bars, and any substances that come into the facility don’t undergo rigorous testing by the FDA. That said, it’s challenging to know what exactly prisoners are taking and how much – most users get high in private, away from other prisoners and guards.
Additionally, access to drugs is often erratic, so those used to a regular intake may experience withdrawal in the meantime. For others, their tolerance may have diminished, and getting a new supply may be too much to handle.
One of the main reasons why inmates are overdosing could also be yet another example of why criminalizing addiction harms more than it helps. Like clockwork, a call to report an addict is made, the police make the arrest, and the person is put behind bars.
As you can probably imagine, prison is not exactly the best form of drug rehabilitation, and inmates with prior addiction issues may not get the psychological or medical care they need. Because of this, along with boredom and untreated medical conditions, non-users become users despite being incarcerated.
People Aren’t Numbers
Reporters, lawmakers, advocates, and the average Joe all have the same problem – humanizing the prison population. It’s challenging to report on prison system statistics and not drift away from the reality that these are real people, not numbers.
John, a prisoner who spoke to The Marshall Project, says the federal prison he is being held is flooded with narcotics. Before his incarceration, John wasn’t an addict, but now he says he gets high every day and has tasted almost everything on the illegal substances menu, from meth to heroin.
According to John, fellow inmates pass out regularly, and their drug of choice is a mysterious blend of paper soaked in K2 and possibly PCP. Whether these prisoners are getting the drugs from family members, friends, or the inmates themselves, these substances are untested and unsafe for consumption.
What Lawmakers Are Doing About It
It’s difficult to trace illegal substances that make their way into prisons, making it equally difficult for lawmakers to do something about the issue. Without a firm grasp of the problem, politicians aren’t likely to push the issue to the front of the line.
Alaska is fourth in the nation for prison overdoses. According to a former correctional officer, overdoses would come in waves as the supply shifted. Guards could always tell when drugs were prevalent by the amount of homemade alcohol prisoners made – the more prison wine, the fewer drugs.
For Alaskan correctional officers, helping inmates curb their addiction is a herculean task. Prison procedure doesn’t allow officers to step out of protocol to assist prisoners struggling with addiction. A correctional officer from Texas noted that even if an inmate was overdosing, they could not enter the cell unless they had backup.
Texas, in particular, is experiencing a staffing shortage, and most units are barely half staffed. Guards across the U.S. barely make more than minimum wage. Plus, the temptation of making extra money by bringing ‘packages’ into the facility is to good to pass up.
There’s another epidemic happening right now: deaths in prison due to overdose. To make matters worse, we’re doing less for inmates dying of addiction than we are to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This is a cry for help, but many states don’t have the resources or manpower to make a difference.