Inmate Drug Abuse Treatment Slows Prison’s Revolving Door

Psychological research shows that treating prisoners’ drug problems during incarceration and after release helps keep them off drugs, out of prison and employed.


What is the best way to keep inmates with drug problems from returning to prison after their release? While so-called "boot camps" were at one time popular, prison officials now know it is substance abuse treatment both in prison and after release that really works.  Research published in the 1990’s by psychologist Dr. Harry K. Wexler, a leader in prison reform, found that prison-based substance abuse is effective – if combined with aftercare – and leads to major reductions in recidivism. For example, his 1999 study involving 478 prisoners at a state prison near San Diego, California found that after three years, only 27 percent of the prisoners involved the prison's drug treatment program with aftercare returned to prison, compared to a recidivism rate of 75 percent for those not involved in the treatment program.

A study by research scientist Steven S. Martin involving inmates in the Delaware Correctional System also highlights the value of treating prisoners for substance abuse problems during and after incarceration. The Delaware program featured a continuum of care in which some inmates transitioned back into the community through a work-release program involving therapeutic communities (TC) - drug-free residential settings which feature continuous monitoring by counselors, group therapy and family sessions. Dr. Martin found that after one year, a significantly higher percentage of inmates who had participated in any aspect of the program were drug free and arrest free than those assigned to the usual work release program. And after three years, those who had continued with the TC aftercare had significantly less drug use and re-arrests than those who dropped out of the program.

Experimental psychologist D. Dwayne Simpson, Ph.D., of the Institute of Behavioral Research at Texas Christian University analyzed the results of research by Drs. Wexler, Martin and others for special issues of the Prison Journal in 1999 and found drastic effects of such treatment programs. In a combined sample of 1,461 inmates from California, Texas and Delaware, about a quarter of those who took part in intensive drug treatment programs and aftercare ended up back in prison compared with about three-quarters of those who received no treatment in prison or those that received treatment in prison but no treatment after being released.


A perception has endured over time that “nothing works” in prison rehabilitation. Yet, research by psychologists and others shows that treating prisoners’ substance abuse problems during and after incarceration can lead to major reductions in recidivism.

Practical Application

The therapeutic community model of prison substance abuse treatment and aftercare has been implemented in state and federal prisons across the country, significantly reducing recidivism rates.

In its 2002 Annual Report to Congress on substance abuse treatment programs in the nation's federal prisons, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that 50 of the Bureau's prisons have a residential drug abuse treatment program in which inmates are housed together in a separate unit of the prison reserved for drug abuse treatment, as they were in Wexler's California prison study. In fiscal year 2002, more than 16,000 inmates participated in the in-prison residential drug abuse treatment programs, and more than 13,000 participated in community transition drug abuse treatment. Rigorous analysis of these programs by the Bureau of Prisons and the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows these programs make a significant positive difference in the lives of inmates following their release from prison, as they are substantially less likely to use drugs or to be rearrested, compared to other inmates who did not participate in the treatment programs.

Cited Research

Federal Bureau of Prisons (2003). Substance Abuse Treatment Programs in the Federal Bureau of Prisons: Fiscal Year 2002 Report to Congress.

Martin, S. S., Butzin, C. A., Saum, C. A., & Inciardi, J. A. (1999). Three-year outcomes of therapeutic community treatment for drug-involved offenders in Delaware: From prison to work release to aftercare. The Prison Journal, Vol. 79, pp. 294-320.

Mullen, R., Rowland, J., Arbiter, N., Yablonsky, L., Fleishman, B. (2001). California's first prison therapeutic community: A 10-year review. Offender Substance Abuse Report, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 17-32.

Wexler, H. K., De Leon, G., Thomas, G., Kressel, D., & Peters, J. (1999). The amity prison tc evaluation reincarceration outcomes. Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 26, pp. 147-167.

Wexler, H. K., Falkin, G. P., & Lipton, D. S. (1990). Outcome evaluation of a prison therapeutic community for substance abuse treatment. Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 17, pp. 71-92.

Wexler, H. K., Melnick, G., Lowe, L., & Peters, J. (1999). 3-year reincarceration outcomes for amity in-prison therapeutic community and aftercare in California. The Prison Journal, Vol. 79, pp. 321-336.

American Psychological Association, March 23, 2004