According to an analysis of newly-released data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), from 2001 to 2018, the number of people who have died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons rose more than 600 percent, while overdose deaths in county jails also increased by more than 200 percent, reports NPR. The year 2018 brought the highest number of prison deaths on record since the federal government began collecting this data 20 years ago. Drug use in jails and prisons is not only widespread there, with the BJS recently reporting that nearly half of state incarcerees suffer from substance issues, but also uniquely dangerous due to the primarily impure and untested nature of the substances finding their way behind bars. Adding to the risk, people in prison often use drugs when they’re alone and may be reluctant to call for help if there’s a problem. Even if they do seek help, medical care is often scarce and subpar. And access to drugs is erratic, which leads to rapid changes in tolerance, putting users at higher risk for an overdose.
Interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated people in five states and the federal system, plus news reports and death data from the Texas, California and Arizona corrections departments, suggest that opioids (especially fentanyl), methamphetamine, and the synthetic marijuana drug K2 are largely to blame for the rising rate of both drug use and overdose deaths. Drugs are able to get into prisons and jails in a variety of ways, according to current and former prisoners and staff, including through visitors, packages and letters to incarcerated people, and through prison staff who either fail to catch smuggling efforts, turn a blind eye, or aid in the process themselves. The overdose numbers highlight persistent issues with the way the U.S. handles drug use: incarcerating people with addiction problems, focusing more on contraband detection and interdiction efforts, and not providing them adequate treatment.