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Substance Use “Extremely Common” Among People in State Prisons

The Prison Policy Initiative released a report in 2020 featuring their analysis of data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016 and released in 2020. The report, Beyond the Count: A Deep Dive into State Prison Populations, highlights the demographic similarities among individuals in state prisons. Namely, the data indicate that these individuals faced social inequities and disadvantages from childhood. Many individuals in state prisons were criminalized as children rather than receiving needed supports, services, and treatments. Nearly 70% of everyone in state prisons had their first arrest at or before age 18.

Of particular relevance to the field of addiction and substance use services is that 65% of the people in state prisons reported drug use in the 30 days prior to arrest and about half met the criteria for having substance use disorder at the time of the survey.

bar chart prison data substance use
Source: Wang et al., 2022

Substance use was noted as “an extremely common factor leading up to state prison” in the report, with society continuing to respond to substance use from a punitive lens rather than a public health, restorative framework. The data indicate that women are more likely to have a history of substance use disorder and/or substance use disorder treatment compared to men. The authors point out, “Remarkably, the same percentage of imprisoned women reported SUD treatment back in 1991, suggesting that we haven’t figured out a better, more humane way than incarceration to respond to problems related to substance use in the intervening 25 years.”

Source: Wang, L., Sawyer, W., Herring, T., & Widra, E. (2022). Beyond the count: A deep dive into state prison populations. Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative.

Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies.