Of the 2.3 million inmates in the U.S., more than half have a history of substance abuse and addiction, says Newsweek. Not all those inmates are imprisoned on drug-related charges (although drug arrests have been rising steadily since the early 1990s; there were nearly 200,000 in 2007). Josiah Rich, a professor of medicine and community health at Brown University, is worried that, by refusing or neglecting to provide treatment to these addicts, many U.S. prisons are missing the best chance to cure them–and in the process to cut down on future crime.
Treatment can reduce recidivism rates from 50 percent to something more like 20 percent, yet it is not widely provided. “Our system has taken the highest-risk and most ill people and put them in a place where they have constitutionally mandated health care,” Rich says. “What a great opportunity to make a difference. Are we just trying to punish people? Or are we trying to rehabilitate people? What do we want out of this?” The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that just one fifth of inmates get some form of treatment. That number may be lower in the near future: tight budgets are forcing many states to reduce or close existing treatment programs. Kansas and Pennsylvania have already done so; California and Texas may may follow suit.