Handcuffs, a syringe, pills and a 100 dollar bill

Ohio is full of vibrant and progressive communities, and it is a proud state to be from. But we are in the middle of an opioid crisis that is hurting people who are struggling with addiction all across the state, and their friends and families as well. Right now, many people who use drugs are being incarcerated for drug-related charges, and when they are released they come back to their communities. But they don’t always get the the help that they need to stay away from drugs. This crisis is hurting the whole country, but the National Institute on Drug Abuse recognizes that it’s hitting Appalachian states the hardest, and Ohio is in the top five states for opioid-related overdose deaths.

Some people think that if a person can’t stay in treatment after being released from prison, it’s because they made a choice not to. But we have to remember that it’s hard to reenter society after being in prison, and it’s hard to recover from drug addiction, so it’s very difficult to do both. In fact, many common ideas about reentry and drug recovery are not helping people as much as we think they are.

Myth #1: Prison cuts people off from drugs and keeps them away from them.

Many people believe that putting someone in prison for a drug-related charge is the quickest option for an emergency because it takes them away from the drugs and keeps them safe. They might not realize that there are still drugs in prison. Last December in Georgia a former prison guard was charged with smuggling drugs into the prison, and in January a North Carolina man was charged with smuggling drugs while pretending to be a pastor. Just this April in Ohio a prison guard has been convicted of bringing drugs into Belmont Correctional in St. Clairsville. There are many stories just like these that occur all over the country.

Drug use inside prison is more risky because the drugs are more likely to be contaminated and diseases spread quickly because of needle sharing. Plus, drug overdoses for people who have just been released is the highest death rate of all former inmates, according to a study done by World Health Organization researchers. Even though drug use happens in prison, many inmates lose their tolerance for stronger drugs. When they get out and buy drugs on the street, it is far easier for them to overdose because they use the amount that they are used to using, even though their bodies cannot handle it.

Myth #2: People who are addicted to drugs need to change their habits and their minds, they don’t need more drugs.

Everyone is different when it comes to recovery. Many people need more than one form of treatment to recover, like a combination of therapy sessions, a housing facility, and possibly different medication to curb the cravings for more drugs. Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) brings together therapy and medications, like methadone, to help treat addiction. It can help in the long run after release, because recovery can take years, even the rest of someone’s life.

Using MAT can help someone who has just been released from prison to focus on their mental health and recovery without being distracted by a need for drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration supports using MAT for recovery from various substances, including drug use. Vivitrol, for example, blocks the part of your brain that craves opioids. The Gillings School of Global Public Health recognizes that the first few weeks after being released from prison is so important because it is the most difficult and dangerous window of time that someone can go back to drug use. Therefore, it’s important to have all of the possible treatment options available for people right away, as soon as they are released.

Myth #3: Drug addicts need to realize that they are addicts first, so that they can work on recovering from their addictive lifestyle.

This myth imposes the identity of “victim” and “addict” onto people and then centers everything that they think, do, and say around this identity. When the identity of an “addict” becomes the center of attention, it’s no wonder people connect everything with their addiction and have trouble escaping it. If they cannot escape that identity, they have a difficult time separating from that identity and visualizing themselves as a healed person. Right now, society believes that using drugs is a criminal activity. People who are willing to admit to drug use are threatened with more jail or prison time. Yet prison doesn’t make it easier for them to recover.

Researchers in the Department of Social Work and the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at the University of Glasgow have studied how the narratives of professional drug workers attach to “addicts” understanding of themselves. It showed them that people who were recovering from addiction used the same explanations as their recovery workers, when instead it might be more helpful for them to create their own identity of a non-addict. When someone is returning home from prison, their identity as an “ex-prisoner” or a “former convict” can limit their attempts to start fresh. Detaching from these harmful identities is a positive step forward in reentry and recovery.

Having a criminal record, plus the social stigma, plus the disease of addiction makes for a shaky picture, filled with doubt. The editorial board of the New York Times wrote in an opinion piece, “The irony is both dark and profound: Only in death do drug users become victims. Until then, they are criminals.” We need to rethink the way we look at people who have been to prison for drug-related charges and how we treat them when they are released. We need to focus less on their “crimes” and identity as a “criminal” and an “addict,” and more on getting them the treatment that they need to begin better and happier lives.

Joannah Tindongan is a Master of Arts candidate in the Law, Justice & Culture Program at Ohio University. She is also a former Southeast Ohio Organizer for Faith in Public Life working for criminal justice reform and addressing the opioid epidemic in Ohio.