Will your son’s arrest ultimately turn out to be a good thing?  Not likely.

I certainly understand how a mother could feel a sense of relief when her son is arrested.  Even her son may feel a certain sense of relief.

Finally something might actually derail the runaway train.  But what about the train wreck that follows?

For the last 10 years, I’ve run an incarceration-prevention program for people living with opiate dependence.  Our goal is to help people find a path to recovery that does not pass through the jailhouse door.

Not only is it possible to find a path to recovery that does not pass through the jailhouse door, but passing through the jailhouse door reduces your chances of long term recovery success.

Sure, arrest and the threat of incarceration can result in a new focus on the need for change, and provide motivation for change.  But this particular path to focus and motivation risks some devastating side effects.

There are other ways to elicit focus on the need for change and build motivation for change.  Ways that are more effective over the long term and less harmful.

I fear that as a society we are too ready to use the cudgel of coerced treatment.  We’ve talked ourselves into believing that incarceration is a therapeutic response to addiction.  But the many-forked path through the criminal justice system often leads every which way but stable, long-term recovery.

I think we would be smart to be wary of a system of coerced treatment for addiction through the threat of incarceration -just as we would be wary of a system of coerced treatment for any other health issue with a behavioral component such as obesity, smoking, diabetes or heart disease.

I think we should recognize and be wary of the “enablers” of this system:

1.  Desperate parents, families and communities;

2.  Lazy and unskilled treatment providers who bottom feed on coerced treatment;

3.  Politicians who get more political mileage out of putting money into the criminal justice system instead of the drug treatment system; and

4.  Unjustified stigma against drug users that grants social permission to incarcerate rather than provide effective treatment.

I feel no sense of relief when a client is arrested.  I recognize that the job of helping that person build a safe and sustainable recovery just got a lot harder.

“I’m never coming back here again.”

“I’m never going to use again.”

“Getting arrested saved my life, if I wasn’t here I’d be dead by now.”

I hear these statements often from clients I visit in jail.  I recognize the sincerity behind the statements.  After many years of experience, I also recognize that these kinds of sincere statements are often not only not actually accurate, but almost the opposite of the reality of the situation.

Once in jail, more likely to be back in jail again.

Once in jail, less likely to be able to achieve the conditions of stability necessary to achieve long term recovery.

Incarceration is more likely to put a life at risk.  Getting effective treatment would have been more likely to save a life.

Getting sucked into the criminal justice system most often delays recovery, complicates recovery and destabilizes recovery.  Most people don’t get treatment in jail, and don’t get linked to treatment after release from jail.  Instead, statistics show that a large percentage of fatal overdoses happen right after release from incarceration.

There is a basic human impulse to try to make sense of bad experiences by finding the good that might give the experience a positive meaning.  We do this with war, serious illness, and even the tragic death of a loved one.  It’s a healthy coping mechanism.

It’s healthy to focus on the good.  It’s healthy to take the bad things that happen to us and weave them into our personal narratives in way that gives them positive and hopeful meaning.  But as a society, it’s more healthy to recognize that bad things are bad.

Incarceration as a solution to addiction is BAD.

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