The opioid crisis that is now devastating many communities nationwide is the societal byproduct of decades of poverty, drug abuse, unemployment, healthcare disparity, and broken regulatory systems. In addition to the socioeconomic players, rapidly growing and vicious illegal drug trafficking networks are working behind the scene, fueling this toxic calamity. Although the federal and state governments have spent billions of tax-payer dollars on prosecuting, incarcerating, and supposedly correcting drug traffickers, the statistics strongly suggest that “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem” 1. Most corrected drug-related criminals cannot find a smooth transition back to society after being released from prison. Instead, they resume their criminal activities, now more professionally and efficiently, and make it harder for the law enforcement and rehabilitation sectors to proceed with their milestones on the opioid crisis. Many of these ex-felons are rearrested only after a few years and sent back to prison for new criminal incidents. The high recidivism rate of ex-drug offenders indicates how the mass incarceration policies have failed to prepare inmates for practical post-prison lives. Also, the mainstream has largely failed to help ex-felons regain their dignity and play positive social roles when they re-enter society. In addition to intensifying the opioids crisis and infecting more areas with opioids, recidivism also harms inmates’ families and local communities. Therefore, it is critical to carefully identify the many factors that contribute to recidivism and the social barriers intercepting the former drug convicts’ resocialization process.
In her book on the severity of the opioids crisis 1, Beth Macy introduces Ronnie Jones and some of his many victims. Ronnie, who was first arrested for “3 grams of crack cocaine tucked into his sock”, is now serving his third time in prison as a big-time heroin dealer. His latest sentence is a twenty-three-year prison time for armed smuggling. Learning about heroin during his first prison sentence, Ronnie saw an opportunity to introduce heroin to the large population of pill addicts in rural areas of Appalachia and Shenandoah Valley. He created a network of drug runners to smuggle heroin from New York into the region by packaging heroin in Pringles cans. Ronnie’s mostly young female addicted runners used to carry the heroin cans with them on the bus as snacks. By the time of his last arrest, he had run a mini-armed heroin distribution empire, and many of his heroin users have already overdosed. Ronnie faced many difficulties upon his first release to find a job due to his felony records. Macy argues that the misery that Ronnie brought to the region could have been prevented if his reentry was managed correctly, not by a broken bureaucratic system but instead by caring social groups. A complex combination of systemic barriers such as outdated local and state-level policy-making procedures, accumulated poverty, social disparity, and unstable families who fail to support their children in critical development stages contribute to the emergence of criminals like Ronnie Jones. The typical form of incarceration and parole mechanisms do not seem effective in breaking this deficiency chain.
Drug criminals account for more than half of the rapidly growing number of people imprisoned in America. According to recidivism data published by the Congressional Research Service 2, more than 75% of drug offenders are rearrested within five years of the first release, primarily for more serious criminal activities.
Ex-drug offenders have significantly fewer economic opportunities when they attempt to re-enter the labor market. With the recent technological advancements and the automation revolution, job opportunities for the population with low education levels have been steadily vanishing. Statistics indicate that about half of the drug-offenders did not graduate high school 3, and therefore are less employable even before incarceration. Imprisonment makes it even harder for them to re-enter the market. While in prison, most inmates fail to expand their job experiences, update their skills and grow their professional network. Therefore, their eligibility declines significantly compared to their nonincarcerated counterparts. Also, most employers prefer employees with clean criminal records. They refuse to hire ex-prisoners as they fear that a former drug offender is not reliable or might cause legal liability in the workplace. Data suggests how the ex-drug offenders may struggle in the labor market to find an alternative to drug trafficking.
According to a Brookings Institution study 4, only 55 % of ex-offenders could make any earning in one year following the release. Shockingly, the average annual income of the former inmates who could find jobs was only $10,090.
Limited contact with supportive friends and family during prison time contributes to the high recidivism rate among former drug convicts. Many inmates start to lose their former emotional relationships with family, children, and non-criminal friends they used to have before incarceration. This loosened tie with the pre-prison life makes it more difficult for the drug violators to re-adjust to their new lives out of prison. For many of them, there is no home to go back to after release. They have lost spouses and children to divorce or dislocation. Being on parole, it is now hard for them to relocate to reunite with the family and friends. On the other hand, the inmates’ families, already struggling with numerous social and economic issues, usually see the returned drug offender as an additional burden that heavily depends on the family’s support emotionally and financially. Some prisons have established workshops and educational programs to promote modern parenting skills for inmates who have missed parenting experiences. Some prisons offer incentives such as gas vouchers for family visits to re-establish family bonds and ease the transition process upon release. However, these small stimulus strategies are usually insufficient to preserve mostly fragile relationships, especially for the inmates with long prison sentences.
The contemporary mass incarceration model that penalizes drug violators via confinement gradually exposes them to a permanent social degradation that impedes their reintegration into society. In his book, Prison and Social Death 5, Price refers to this phenomenon as social death and links it to prisoners’ social mandatory disconnection from parents, spouses, friends, and children. He argues that the isolation of inmates, particularly drug felons, makes them vulnerable to severe types of violence, including sexual assault, that have detrimental effects on their mental and recovery capabilities. According to Price, inmates are also highly vulnerable to other forms of mistreatment, such as poor health care and emotionally stressful prison routine practices like pat-downs and drug cavity searches. The social death that Price introduced in his book accompanies the drug-convicts even after they finish their sentences and are supposed to rejoin the mainstream. Even though they have served their time in prison, former prisoners face endless types of distrust. They are permanently labeled and prejudged by many social entities, legal organizations, employers, and individuals. Ex-prisoners face excessive hardship to secure basic life needs such as housing and employment. Unlike other citizens, they encounter many legal obstacles and complex bureaucracies to receive welfare benefits or get their voting rights back. The allegedly permanent and never-ending consequences of social death and how the world around them treats them ultimately make former drug criminals recognize themselves as second-class citizens who do not need to show sympathy for what may happen to society.
Besides failing in its mission to slow down the drug stream, mass incarceration deepens racial and social disparity. The classic penal system not just disciplines the drug convicts, but it also penalizes the communities and families who are then supposed to host the reentry of the released inmates. Most prisoners come from already disadvantaged communities, where according to Western et al. 6, “serving time in prison has become a normal life event.” For instance, decades of racial disparity resulted in astonishingly high incarceration rates in African American communities and minorities. In 2008, about 37% of young black male high-school dropouts were in prison 6. The biased penal patterns hurt families and impair their ability to help former inmates with their post-incarceration recovery. The embedded inequality in incarceration has three essential attributes: collectivity, generation-transmissibility, and invisibility 6. The collective feature arises from the fact that imprisonment imposes its social and economic sanctions on a group of outcasts who already have poor economic chances. This form of inequality is also intergenerational because it strongly impacts families and is transmitted to the next generations. Finally, carceral inequality is invisible because we do not officially account for prisoners when evaluating society’s economic status. Prisoners are usually not accounted for in estimations of poverty, unemployment, and disparity.
The social gap between the prisoners and the prison wardens, the judiciary staff, and even the social workers prevents a mutual understanding to form among the prisoner and the corrective environment 7. Because of this social distance, the prisoners may feel that the correction personnel have little knowledge of their socioeconomic status. This gradually results in a deep mistrust, which ultimately convinces the prisoners to refuse to accept that what he/she is being told or taught in prison is socially correct. This social distance also inhibits a cognitive development environment to be established in jail. Such an environment is needed for the inmates to learn to think critically, weigh circumstances, and develop social consciousness. Without cognitive development, the inmates do not gain the skill sets they need to re-align themselves with the social norms once released from prison.
In the lack of a trustworthy, healthy, and socially stable connection between the prisoners, especially the younger inmates and the prison staff, senior prisoners take the lead on training and shaping the next generations of traffickers. Prison exposes the mostly young vulnerable 1st-time drug offenders to a strong peer effect as they room and interact with experienced drug traffickers. Instead of serving as a corrective setting, public prisons may allow low-profile drug dealers to build an extensive network with their fellow felons. The amateur dealers learn about the more potent types of illegal substances and how they should effectively and securely acquire, market, and distribute drugs. Due to this form of harmful schooling, the former low-income small-time drug offenders now go back to the streets trained, ready, and up-to-date.
The disproportionality in corrections funding has also fueled recidivism. According to 8, the state and federal correctional agencies spend more than $80 billion annually. However, most of this funding is spent on accommodating an incarcerated population of more than 2 million nationwide. The expensive housing leaves prisons with minimal resources to support proven rehabilitation and instructive technologies to reduce recidivism. For example, earning a college degree during prison time is proven to correlate with post-prison employability, higher wages, and finally, less recidivism 9. However, this opportunity is not equally available for all drug-related prisoners.
The federal government launched the Second Chance Pell program on a trial basis in 2015 to let 12,000 prisoners enroll in college-level courses in prison. The outcome was more than 4,000 credentials and degrees (associates and bachelor’s) over three years. Although the statistics indicate that the participants in these programs were 43% less likely to be rearrested 10, it is unclear whether prisons will continue to have access to Pell Grants for The Second Chance programs as Congress revisits the Higher Education Act.
Providing high-quality and adequate educational opportunities continues to be minimal for most of the prison population due to a substantial lack of funding and limited access to the materials needed for these educational initiatives’ development and success.
Recidivism will continue to stimulate the opioid crisis and hurt already disadvantaged communities as long as we employ the penal methods that prioritize isolation over effective preventive solutions. Imprisonment ends with an enduring social stigma that diminishes life chances long after regaining freedom. Former drug convicts should be allowed to restore dignity both officially and culturally and find a robust pathway towards an orderly and predictable life in which crime is deviant. They should be released in a society that embraces them with new employment opportunities and family stability. Reentry incentives such as family support, housing assistance, healthcare access, post-secondary education, and professional career training may give a chance to the less employable drug-involved ex-prisoners who usually struggle in the labor market. For the sake of our social well-being and to have a chance in the battle against illegal drugs, we need to first recognize carceral inequality as a social inequality that does not only hurt a large population of vulnerable young men but also threatens the integrity and the social safety of our country.
1. Macy B. Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America. Little, Brown; 2018.
2. James N. Offender Reentry: Correctional Statistics, Reintegration into the Community, and Recidivism. Congressional Research Service; 2014.
3. Harlow CW. Education and Correctional Populations. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs Washington, DC; 2003.
4. Looney A, Turner N. Work and opportunity before and after incarceration. Washington, DC Brookings Institution Accessed Oct. 2018;5:2018.
5. Price JM. Prison and Social Death. Rutgers University Press; 2015.
6. Western B, Pettit B. Incarceration & social inequality. Daedalus. 2010;139(3):8–19.
7. Meško G, Hacin R. Social distance between prisoners and prison staff. Prison J. 2019;99(6):706–724.
8. Kearney MS, Harris BH, Jácome E, Parker L. Ten economic facts about crime and incarceration in the United States. 2014.
9. Duwe G, Clark V. The effects of prison-based educational programming on recidivism and employment. Prison J. 2014;94(4):454–478.
10. Davis LM, Bozick R, Steele JL, Saunders J, Miles JN V. Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education: A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. 2013.