Achieving Substance Use Recovery While Incarcerated

Man Achieving Substance Use Recovery While Incarcerated

Achieving Substance Use Recovery While Incarcerated

It seems as if prison would be the perfect place to recover from a substance use disorder.

After all, there’s no way to obtain drugs or alcohol, right?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

Of the 2.3 million inmates in United States prisons, 1.5 million met the criteria for a DSM-IV diagnosis of substance use disorder. An additional 458,000 don’t meet criteria for a disorder but have a history of substance use [1].

With so many inmates having a history of abusing harmful substances, people have found creative ways of maintaining their addiction on the inside.

Recovery behind bars due to lack of availability isn’t a given. Inmates will smuggle contraband in through visitations with friends and family. Prisoners will also successfully bribe prison staff to get their drugs.

As such, the road to sobriety while incarcerated takes, first and foremost, personal motivation. Just as on the outside, an individual has to want to change their life and be free from addiction. Only then will they be willing to avoid drug abuse in prison and seek out and engage in opportunities to get clean.


With so many incarcerated people struggling with substance use issues, it is no surprise that many prisons offer treatment opportunities behind bars. Even so, statistics show that only approximately 11% of the individuals mentioned above receive this treatment [1].

In some cases, this is, unfortunately, due to lack of treatment options since some prison’s programs are more advanced and supportive than others.

However, this can also be due to lack of interest or engagement. Most prisons do not require prisoners to attend substance use counseling, even if substance use was involved in their incarceration.

For those imprisoned, or with a loved in jail, that are interested in substance use treatment, the first step is the most difficult because it means having to reach out on their own.

Seeking Out Resources:

Man researching informational books on substance use and recovery on the library computer

People imprisoned are pretty limited in the activities they have available to them. However, one that is almost always available is reading.

Most prisons have libraries, where inmates can explore new worlds, broaden their minds, and educate themselves from behind prison walls.

Again, this takes personal motivation and action. A prisoner must seek out self-help or informational books on substance use and recovery. These books, while not as ideal as treatment, can still be helpful in providing information on the biology and psychology of addiction and tips for maintaining sobriety.

AA/NA Meetings

While Alcoholics Anonymous & Narcotics Anonymous programs aren’t available at all prisons, it is worth looking into them and see if they are available. Alcoholics & Narcotics Anonymous help people stay sober as well as provide emotional support for recovering addicts in and outside of prison.

These support groups are based on the mission of individuals staying sober themselves and helping others to stay sober [2].

AA/NA groups may not exist at certain prisons because there has been “no demand.” Prisoners instead of staff must lead these groups. Therefore, if an AA/NA support group is to be created, it has to be done by a prisoner willing to commit themselves to their sobriety as well as others’ sobriety.

Recovery from addiction isn’t easy, no matter where you are. However, freedom from drug and alcohol abuse is possible even if you are in jail.

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: Margot Rittenhouse is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


[1] Center on Addiction (2010). Behind bars II, substance abuse and America’s prison system. Center on Addiction. Retrieved on 26 May 2018 from

[2] Ferranti, S. (2012). AA meetings in prison. The Fix. Retrieved on 26 May 2018 from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on June 19, 2018
Reviewed on June 19, 2018 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

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