NewsBriefs BUTTONS

Drug Treatment in Prison Saves Money, New York Officials Find


March 1993

Drug treatment for prisoners saves money, creates a quieter prison environment, and reduces recidivism, New York prison officials are finding, and they are becoming more outspoken than ever in support of expanding treatment availability (Joseph Treaster, "Prisoners, and Prisons, Gain From Drug Therapy," The New York Times, 11/16/92, B1).

The ways in which drug treatment saves money are manifold, treatment experts explain. By reducing crime, treatment saves costs all along the chain of the criminal justice system. First, by reducing the demand for prison space, treatment theoretically saves on the cost of prison construction, which is about $100,000 per prison cell. By keeping people out of prison, it saves on the actual cost of incarceration, which at New York City's Rikers Island is $58,000 per prisoner per year. Inside the prison system itself, treatment saves money by reducing violence, and hence lessening the costs of medical care and overtime. And according to Catherine Abate, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections, treatment saves money by reducing stress and reducing absenteeism among prison officers on treatment units.

Inside Rikers Island, according to New York Times reporter Joseph Treaster, treatment wards are "islands of quiet in a gray, seething world of tension and violence." While in other wards, prisoners steal from each other, use drugs, and settle disputes with violence, the treatment wards are quiet, neat, and disciplined.

Several studies cited in the story support the cost-effectiveness of treatment. In the late 1980's, Dr. Harry Wexler at the Narcotic and Drugs Research Institute in New York published a study showing that three years after intensive drug therapy, three of four former inmates of the Arthur Kill state prison on Staten Island had kept their pledge to cease drug use and had not been rearrested. Another study of almost 500 heroin addicts by Dr. Marcia Chaiken, found that addicts committed 15 times as many robberies and 20 times as many burglaries as non-drug using criminals. A study by Dr. Bruce Johnson, found that although drug use does not make honest people into criminals, it drives crime, more than quadrupling the rate of offenses by people already committing crimes.

Only about 10 percent of the prisoners at Rikers Island receive treatment, although the need is much greater. In 1991, 10,679 prisoners were treated, but only 241 went on to treatment outside the jail. New York City reflects in microcosm the national shortage of drug treatment, with an estimated 600,000 heavy drug users but only 39,000 treatment slots.