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Drug Rehab in Prison? You Must Be Joking

A former whistleblower and prison inmate shares inside knowledge of why jail doesn't work for addicts.

Editor’s note: This is the eleventh in a collaborative series with the R Street Institute exploring conservative approaches to criminal justice reform.

I’d always believed that prisons in the United States had programs whereby people who had drug and alcohol problems could get clean while they were incarcerated. The thought behind this was that it was better to get a prisoner clean, keep him clean through his sentence, teach him how to stay clean, and then send him home where he could become a productive member of society and not be caught up in a never-ending cycle of crime and incarceration.

I was completely wrong. No such program exists, at least not on a national level.

I saw this firsthand and I saw it every day. Beginning in 2013, I spent 23 months in the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania, after I blew the whistle on the CIA’s torture program. At least 50 percent of the prisoners there were in on drug charges, and many of them were also addicts or alcoholics. There were simply no resources for them. None. If they came in addicted, well, they just had to suffer.

One of my cellmates was a young man from Pittsburgh named Randy. He came from a hardworking family. His mother was a teacher and his father worked at a local grocery store. Randy’s brother had finished high school and also had gone to work for the grocery store. Randy was different though. He was unusually bright, but he just loved heroin.

Randy was sent to Loretto near the end of my sentence. He was sentenced to four months for a probation violation. His urine had tested positive for heroin. He was cheerful and outgoing when he arrived, although he was clearly in physical distress. I asked him if he was alright. He responded that he was expecting to have a tough week. He had last done heroin that morning, just to get him through his first day back in prison, but he was already starting to withdraw, and, he said, it wasn’t going to be pretty. This was Randy’s second stint in federal prison. He’d already done two years for selling a small amount of heroin in a federal park.

Having had that federal experience, Randy knew not to go to the medical unit once he began to detox. This was counterintuitive to me. But he explained that he had tested positive at the U.S. Marshal’s office. Testing positive inside the prison, even though he had taken the heroin while still on the outside, would be a different thing altogether. It would land him in solitary confinement, where he would likely spend his entire sentence. He said that he would stay as far away from the medical unit as he could.

As much as I hated the prison experience, and I hated it more than anything else in life, I did feel a certain camaraderie with my cellmates. We worked to keep each other out of solitary and to make sure that daily life in our cell went smoothly. Randy was going to need some help.

He began to shake uncontrollably that very night. Then came the cramps, body aches, fever, and vomiting. Randy said that withdrawal was like the worst case of the flu you’ve ever had. He would moan all night, clearly in agony. But prisons are loud, even at night, and the guards didn’t pay any attention to him. It took Randy about five days to get through it.

I thought it likely that he would then transition into a diversion program, something like RDAP, what the Bureau of Prisons calls the “Residential Drug Abuse Program.” That only happened a few months before the end of his sentence. But Randy said it didn’t matter because RDAP was a joke anyway.

RDAP could be incredible. It is a voluntary 500-hour program that, if successfully completed, can reduce a prisoner’s sentence of 36 months or longer by as much as 12 months. Because so many prisoners want a sentence reduction, the residential programs at designated RDAP prisons fill up almost instantly. Consequently, a sort of RDAP-lite is offered at other prisons, even when that prison is not specifically designated as an RDAP facility.

So what is an RDAP-lite program like? It really comes down to 12 one-hour sessions where prisoners sit in a classroom and watch videos of the A&E Network show “Intervention.” Seriously. That’s it. Those prisoners won’t get 12 months off, but they might get six months. The problem is that they learn literally nothing in the class. They go home at the ends of their sentences and go right back on drugs. It’s inevitable.

That’s what ended up happening to Randy. He went home after doing his four months and almost immediately started doing heroin again. Of course, he tested positive at his first meeting with his probation officer, he went before the same judge, and he was sentenced to another year in prison. He told a mutual friend that he couldn’t help it. “I just love heroin” is what he said.

The solution here is pretty obvious. If the Justice Department and its Bureau of Prisons were serious about lowering crime and reducing recidivism, they would spend money on treatment, addiction counseling, and job training. But they don’t. In the good old days, if they can be called that, you could learn a trade in prison—plumbing, electrical work, or engine repair. That ended in the 1980s. Now, when a prisoner finishes his sentence, he just goes back to the old neighborhood and slips into his old life again. That’s usually a life of crime and drugs.

A real RDAP program, not the insult of being told to sit quietly and watch television, would be money well spent. Not everybody is like Randy. Not everybody loves heroin. Some prisoners really do want to clean up. They really do want to go straight. They just need some help doing it. A little money would go a long way toward doing that, while reducing crime at the same time.

There is only one way to go about getting this done. First, we have to push our elected officials. We have to demand that Congress enact prison reform measures that include an appropriation for RDAP. Second, we have to require that the attorney general take his responsibilities in this area seriously. It’s up to him to set the policy. We should demand that at confirmation hearings. Otherwise nothing will ever change. Crime will rise, overdoses will rise, and more and more Americans will continue to become addicted to drugs and alcohol and to fund their addictions through crime.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA analyst and case officer and senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is currently an activist for the whistleblower community, a radio host, and the author of the recent book The Convenient Terrorist: Two Whistleblowers’ Stories of Torture, Terror, Secret Wars and CIA Lies with Joseph Hickman.