Alternatives to Prison as a Solution to Mass Incarceration: An Interview with Michael Skolnik | Center on Addiction

Alternatives to Prison as a Solution to Mass Incarceration: An Interview with Michael Skolnik

Alternatives to Prison as a Solution to Mass Incarceration: An Interview with Michael Skolnik


We had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Skolnik, an entrepreneur, civil rights activist, storyteller and motivational speaker, to discuss his advocacy efforts regarding alternatives to incarceration for people with addiction. In the past, Michael spent much of his career creating films in prisons, with a focus on juveniles in detention centers across the country. He became interested in addiction after seeing it in his family members. He says, “When you see it in your family first-hand, and it’s not from a movie or TV show, you see how powerful the disease can be and how beautiful people who are addicted are.” 

In your opinion, what are some of the challenges that exist when it comes to widespread implementation of alternatives to incarceration and how can those challenges be overcome?

The greatest challenge is the “old school mentality,” which is to believe that people who use drugs are criminals and the solution to drug use is incarceration. There is no research or data to prove that’s an effective solution. The idea of incarceration is to teach someone a lesson so that you don’t do it again. That was the original idea. Now they’ve built an industry out of incarceration and little if any attention is paid to whether people recover from addiction, or get an education and learn job skills.

I’m hoping that this generation understands this problem better, has deeper compassion, is more creative with solutions, and is not simply following the blueprint of the past 40 years.

You had the unique opportunity to visit hundreds of prisons across the country. With respect to treatment services for those experiencing addiction, what were some of the most compelling observations that you made while visiting these prisons?

What I’ve noticed is that addiction, medical and educational services have been severely cut, which is an additional form of deprivation or punishment beyond imprisonment. There is one nurse for every 5,000 prisoners. The lack of these services contributes to the cyclical nature of recidivism, which creates profits for the prison business. So, in addition to being prisoners, these people become customers for the criminal justice system. It is a system that is economically and morally out of hand. 

People with drug addiction should not go to prison. They should receive appropriate treatment and alternatives to incarceration. We need to invest in those things.

In 2013, you helped draft a letter to President Obama regarding drug policy reform.  Can you tell me what policies are most needed and why?

We asked the President to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and to implement alternatives to incarceration such as drug courts. I think that in this country the War on Drugs is and was an utter failure because it became a war on black and brown people. It started here in New York State in 1973 with the Rockefeller Drug Laws. This then became the blueprint for 40 other states passing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Life sentences for drug offenses are a national disgrace. It is the prosecutor’s weapon that has been used to destroy communities. I believe that the discretion should be in the judge’s hands entirely.

Drug courts are also important. People arrested for drug offenses should be sent to a drug court and diverted to a treatment program, rather than a criminal court.

What accomplishments pertaining to ending mass incarceration are you most proud of?

I am very proud to have been a part of the work to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. To see people come home and be reunited with their families has been tremendously rewarding. They never deserved to be in prison for that amount of time in the first place. 

I’m also proud of an artist coalition we put together for Proposition 47, which I co-developed with my friends Michael de la Rocha and dream hampton. The coalition included support from hundreds of artists, including Jay-Z and Brad Pitt, who aided in increasing awareness about the importance of reforming California’s shattered criminal justice system. Proposition 47 is an initiative that re-classified six felonies into misdemeanors, while strengthening public safety, limiting the amount of spending on prisons, and investing funds towards K-12 schools, services for victims and mental health treatment services. We won the proposition with 73 percent of the public vote. It was very fulfilling to see people who had a felony record for minor offenses when they were 19-years-old get jobs and have it wiped from their record.

What can people do to help improve the way people with addiction are treated in the justice system?

We have to shift our mentality and do work within our own communities. We all know somebody who has an addiction problem, whether it is alcohol or drugs. We need to have honest conversations with our friends who don’t understand that addiction is one of the most serious and deadly health issues and tell them about our personal stories. Tell them about an uncle who died because his body deteriorated from years of drug addiction or about a brother who died of a heroin overdose. It is painful to talk about, but it’s important. I am encouraged that families and people in recovery are starting to do this. It helps with the fight against stigma and discrimination.

Our generation is more compassionate and more generous, and that spirit has to be shared amongst each other. When we see someone who is in pain and numbs that pain with a drug, how compassionate are we going to be?


  Nkem Osian, MPH

  Nkem is a Research Associate at Center on Addiction


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