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Report: Prisons the ‘epicenter’ of state’s addiction crisis

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A new report calls Alabama’s criminal justice system the “weakest link” in the state’s response to drug addiction and makes several suggestions for treating the high number of drug offenders currently incarcerated.

According to the report by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice:

  • Seventy-five percent to 80% of people in ADOC custody have a substance use disorder;
  • In 2021, 802 inmates completed a drug treatment program in prison. That number has decreased steadily from 5,242 in 2010;
  • Since March 2020, there have been 72 suspected drug-related deaths of ADOC inmates.

The report praises multiple state efforts in recent years to address addiction, but says more must be done in Alabama prisons.

“Substance use disorder doesn’t stop being a medical condition just because the person who has it has been accused or convicted of a crime,” Leah Nelson, Appleseed’s research director, told Alabama Daily News. “But in Alabama, that’s pretty much how we approach it. Over the past five years, there has been a huge shift in our approach to the overdose crisis and it’s helping. We should be proud of that. The state’s network of peer specialists, its new crisis centers, the billboards reminding people that their illicit drugs might be dangerously contaminated, are all meaningful steps in the right direction. 

“But the good news seems to stop at the door of jails and prisons. People who are incarcerated are still dying preventable deaths because the state is not ensuring that they have access to medicine and treatment to support safe detoxing and recovery. And dangerous, illicit drugs are as easy if not easier to get inside prison as they are on the streets.”

Recommendations in the report include:

  • Expanding Medicaid and funding public and behavioral health infrastructure to reduce the likelihood that people with substance use disorder end up in the legal system;
  • Clarify that medical decisions should be made by medical professionals, not judges, lawyers or corrections staff; 
  • Expand medication-assisted treatment programs;
  • Reclassify simple possession of a controlled substance, and possession of paraphernalia, as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Questions from Alabama Daily News about the Appleseed report were not immediately answered by ADOC on Wednesday.

According to the report, ADOC said it is in the “process of developing a medication assisted treatment program with Wexford Health Sources, its contracted medical and mental health provider.

In 2015, lawmakers created Class D felonies for non-violent crimes, including possession of a controlled substance. Class D felonies, initially, do not require prison time. Earlier this week, Alabama Daily News reported law enforcement leaders would like lawmakers next year to amend the law so that prison time for Class D felonies is an option.

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