Is it acceptable to disproportionately incarcerate people because of the color of their skin, their national origin, or their economic class? Of course not!
Is it acceptable to disproportionately incarcerate people because they have a disease? Of course not! The prisons are not, for example, flush with diabetics who cannot consistently manage their blood levels.
Is it acceptable to disproportionately incarcerate people because they are suffering from a substance use disorder involving alcohol and other forms of drug addiction and dependency? Of course, it is!
The prisons of America are flush with all sorts of people of color; people of various ethnicities; and people born and raised under the influence of a suspicious zip code.
They have at least one thing in common: they very possibly are suffering from addiction. Some people may commit crimes under the influence of alcohol and other drugs who are not addicted in a literal sense. However, according to a New York Times article (Christopher S. Wren, Jan. 1998); illegal drugs and alcohol contributed to the imprisonment of up to 4 out of 5 inmates in the nation’s prisons and jails. And while up to 65% of incarcerated people meet diagnostic criteria for addiction ~ only 11% are receiving treatment.
Way back in 1956, the American Medical Association declared addiction to alcohol and other drugs to be a disease. Four years later, in 1960, the American Psychiatric Association did the same. But over 50 years later, we are imprisoning people whose crimes may very well be symptoms of a disease that demands to be fed by any means necessary. And yet we still often act as if addiction is a moral weakness, sin, or lack of willpower for which addicted persons should be ashamed. Why? It is an illness. Have you ever tried willpower over a case of diarrhea?
America has a mass incarceration problem. America has 5% of the world population, but we harbor 25% of the world’s prisoners. And of those massive numbers of prisoners in America ~ 60% are persons of color. A staggering number of them are young, African American, Latino, and male. They may not be saints. But they very well may be addicted and thereby, by definition, incapable of consistently making healthy choices. The road to recovery, for a variety of reasons, may be inaccessible to them.
People in prison have often done some terrible things. If you do the crime, few would argue that you should do the time. However, we can, and should, talk about color, ethnicity, poverty, mental illness and their relation to incarceration.
And it is illogical, counter-productive, unjust and downright dangerous to talk about incarceration without also talking about addiction.
We cannot arrest, judge and incarcerate our way out of an opioid epidemic and into a sense of safety. Justice and common-sense demand we do better.
Dwight Lee Wolter is the author of six books in the fields of addiction and recovery; including three on blame, anger and forgiveness.