Substance Abuse & America’s Prison Population 1998 | CASAColumbia

Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population

Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population

Published: January 1998

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This report provides a comprehensive analysis of the impact of drug and alcohol use on the nation’s prison and jail population. It also includes analyses of:

  • Inmate characteristics
  • The impact of substance use on female inmates
  • HIV/AIDS among inmates
  • The economic and social costs of inmate substance involvement
  • The availability and effectiveness of treatment and other rehabilitative services
  • New innovations to reduce the impact of substance use
  • Key recommendations for improving the criminal justice system’s response to alcohol- and other-drug-related crime and substance-involved inmates  


This 3-year study involved:

  • An analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 1991 prison inmate survey and the 1989 jail inmate survey
  • Interviews with state and federal corrections officials, prosecutors and law enforcement officers
  • An analysis of programs for substance-abusing offenders
  • A review of relevant publications


Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction were implicated in the crimes and incarceration of 80%, or 1.4 million, of the 1.7 million men and women behind bars. 1 of every 144 American adults was behind bars for a crime in which drugs or alcohol were involved. CASAColumbia’s research shows that the increase in America’s prison population is due overwhelmingly to criminal activity linked to drug and alcohol abuse. As the number of inmates in need of treatment rose, the number who received treatment declined. In 1996, there were 840,000 state and federal inmates in need of treatment and about 150,000 inmates who actually received it. State officials estimated that 70% to 85% of inmates needed some level of addiction treatment, but in 1996, only 13% of state inmates received any treatment.


The report sets out a plan of action to cut taxpayer costs and reduce recidivism, including:

  • Investing in research to improve the cost-effectiveness of treatment
  • Assessing the substance-abuse involvement of potential inmates at the time of arrest
  • Providing police, prosecutors and judges with flexibility so that non-violent offenders who are addicted to alcohol and drugs can be diverted from prison into treatment, drug courts, coerced abstinence or other programs
  • Eliminating mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders with no chance of parole
  • Training corrections officers to better prevent the use of alcohol and drugs in prison and assist inmates with recovery
  • Expanding random drug testing of prisoners to keep jails and prisons alcohol- and drug-free, and employing sanctions against inmates caught abusing these substances
  • Providing treatment in prison to all who need it and giving incentives (reduced prison time) to inmates who successfully complete treatment
  • Increasing the availability of religious and spiritual activity and counseling and providing an environment that encourages such activity
  • Providing prerelease planning for treatment and aftercare services for parolees who need them
  • Providing job placement services for inmates upon release
  • Training parole and probation officers to deal with alcohol and drug abuse and assist parolees with finding services they need to remain clean once they leave prison, such as drug-free housing, literacy training and social services

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