Jail and Drug Addiction: Not Always a Dead End

By Sara Schapmann In a criminal justice system where 1.5 million of its 2.3 million prisoners meet the DSM-IV criteria for drug addiction, Lake County Jail in Waukegan, IL is making a positive impact. Substance abuse in prisoners is a widespread problem, and one that often goes unaddressed–some argue at the expense of both perpetrator and victim. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reports drugs play a significant role in 78% of violent crimes, 83% of property crimes and 77% of crimes like weapon or immigration offenses, public order offenses, and parole and probation violations. Lake County Jail offers a number of addiction recovery resources for inmates, and is aiming to improve and build upon these programs. It recently administered a survey to inmates covering several issues related to jail and drug addiction and alcohol abuse, and plans to use the results in important ways.

About the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Survey

In the midst of an opioid addiction crisis that claims thousands of lives every year, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department was getting more and more calls related to drug overdose. Law enforcement personnel were frequently administering naloxone (a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose) in homes while ER services were called. “We thought, if this is happening here, [and] we know there’s a correlation between criminal behavior and addiction, let’s figure out how deep it is,” said Sheriff Jennifer Witherspoon, Chief of Inmate Programing at the Lake County Sheriff Office. They decided to develop a survey that would help them craft programs to help addicted inmates, offer insight into nationwide problems of jail and drug addiction, and provide information on underlying issues of substance abuse. A group of students at nearby Lake Forest Graduate School of Management helped create the confidential eight-page survey and will run and analyze the data. Participation was high with 430 out of 540 inmates taking part in the survey. Questions covered a number of areas such as:

  • Why they were incarcerated
  • If they abused substances and the types of substances abused
  • Family of origin questions including family members’ substance use patterns
  • Questions aimed at identifying underlying mental health issues
  • If they thought their drug and alcohol abuse contributed to their incarceration
  • Open-ended questions about family of origin

Sheriff Witherspoon took an initial look at some of the completed surveys. “I read some of the answers. It was mind boggling,” she said. “Kids that had smoked marijuana with their father when they were 11. People who started taking their mom’s prescription without her knowing.” Sheriff Witherspoon was surprised and encouraged by the inmates’ reaction to the survey. Many said they were glad the prison was doing this because they realized they needed help. Lake County Jail’s plan for the results, which was made clear to inmates when they distributed the survey, is to base new and current jail and drug addiction programs on them. People are already offering help. After several media outlets picked up the story from the Associated Press, the prison began receiving calls from detention and prison facilities with suggestions about what has worked for them as well as requests for the results so they could use them in their own programs.

A Legacy of Hope for Addicted Inmates

The survey isn’t the first of Lake County Jail’s efforts to rehabilitate addicted prisoners. In many jails, prisoners with addictions are forced to detox “cold turkey” and are left without any help to address their history of drug and alcohol abuse while incarcerated. That’s not the case at Lake County Jail. It offers a number of support services for inmates with addictions and co-occurring mental health disorders such as:

Medical and psychiatric evaluations

The jail works closely with a medical school at Rosalind Franklin University in North Chicago, IL. Medical students with a psychiatry focus or interest help evaluate inmates for co-occurring mental health disorders and other underlying issues that frequently accompany addiction. The benefits are twofold. Inmates get specialized attention and medical students put learning into practice while getting a chance to see the different levels of criminology. Not surprisingly, they typically find there are indeed underlying mental health disorders in the addicted inmate population. “Students learn you can’t lump everyone into this or that bowl because they committed a crime,” says Sheriff Witherspoon.

Behavioral health programming

Lake County Jail uses the medical and psychiatric evaluations to improve upon their behavioral health programming for inmates. “[The inmates] don’t know they have this going on as far as the mental health issues and the fact that they were using drugs to self-medicate,” says Sheriff Witherspoon. The prison offers classes based on cognitive behavioral therapy principles, a therapeutic approach shown to be effective in treating addiction and mental health disorders. Clients gain tools that help them deal with issues like anger, aggression, and criminal and addictive thinking.

Support groups

At the Lake County Jail, prisoners can join support groups for people with addiction and mental health issues. “Secrets keep us sick,” says Sheriff Witherspoon. “With the support groups, our aim is to talk openly and honestly about what they’re feeling and what they’re going through.” The groups are run by re-entry facilitators who are former inmates. Sheriff Witherspoon says this adds credibility to the situation; inmates tend to respond better to others who’ve been where they are now.

12-step meetings

The prison offers 12-step support meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Addiction education

Inmates learn about substance abuse – the underlying issues that can perpetuate it, why it’s a chronic condition, and healthy coping skills for staying sober.

Other Offerings to Reduce Recidivism

Helping inmates address addiction isn’t the only way Lake County Jail is trying to keep prisoners from coming back. They offer a number of resources, many that are run by volunteers in the community:

  • GED classes, tutorials and testing
  • Medical, dental and behavioral health care
  • Religious services and Bible study groups
  • Work opportunities within the prison
  • Creative writing groups
  • ESL classes
  • Parenting classes
  • Health education
  • Inmate mentoring
  • Money management classes
  • Computer classes
  • Work readiness and life skills training
  • “Ted Talks” conversations
  • Yoga

Sheriff Witherspoon says they don’t want to “give” the inmates something, they want to “teach” them something. “We want to make them productive citizens so they can pay taxes like the rest of us and complain about it like the rest of us,” she says.

Why Inmate Rehabilitation Benefits Everyone

Sheriff Witherspoon is aware that Lake County Jail is in the minority when it comes to rehabilitating the incarcerated. “Our society needs to realize the majority of people will be returning to our communities and as such, we need to give them marketable skills, info they need, and the support that they need, so they don’t come back.” According to research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 67.8% of prisoners are arrested again within three years of their release and about 76.6% of prisoners are arrested again within five years. “We realize if you treat them while they’re here, it lessens the possibility of coming back,” says Sheriff Witherspoon. “I like to say, ‘Thanks for coming, we don’t want to see you back.’” There’s something to it. She says when she runs into former inmates, many say, “Hi, Sherriff. I’m not coming back.”  

Scroll to Top