Behind Bars | Behind the Times

When I think of the prison system in America, I think of my high school self. I was grounded so many times that I believe the only thing it taught me was to act out smarter. Luckily, I developed a frontal cortex and realized I shouldn’t be doing the things I was doing, but point is: punishment doesn’t work.

Like being grounded, does time in prison really prevent people from doing what they did to get in there? Let’s look at the numbers.

According to the National Institute of Justice, 68% of prisoners released in 2005 were re-incarcerated within three years. There’s even a term for it: recidivism. This means that going to jail once means, odds are, you’ll go again. If the point of jail is to end the behavior, then doesn’t this number defeat the purpose of going to jail in the first place?

Our penal system doesn’t take into account the bigger picture. More than a matter of right or wrong, we need to examine the circumstances which puts people in jail in the first place. If the situation is the same going in as getting out, not much can change. Consider factors like substance addiction.

Imagine a patient prescribed opioids for pain after an accident. Opioids are highly addictive, and this patient craves more after her prescription is finished. With Florida’s new E-Forsce system, doctor shopping for more pills falls through. She resorts to friends of friends, and eventually winds up not with Vicodin but full blown heroin—and a nasty addiction. She gets caught and goes to jail. Will being behind bars extinguish her addiction? Without proper attention, her post-incarceration chances of relapsing are between 40 and 60%–the greatest risk being within the first three months of her release.

More than 65% of United States prisoners meet criteria for a substance use disorder, yet less than 20% of these people receive treatment of any kind while in prison.

When rehabilitation programs are properly implemented, rates of recidivism have been shown to drop, but less than one-fifth of the prisoners who need these programs receive them–due to overcrowding, lack of resources and poor consensus on methodology.

Our current regimen is inadequate, calling for a re-examination of our approach to substance abuse rehabilitation in prison.

Now consider the fact that in 2015, American taxpayers contributed $51 billion per year towards prison upkeep. Funds are preferentially given to prison maintenance over prevention because, like anything else, that is where money can be made. If our theoretical heroin addict has around a 50% chance of relapsing, has this small fortune accomplished anything? Excuse the conspiracy theorist in me, but could it be possible that our government is suppressing actions which would help these prisoners stay out of jail, all so it can get more money?

Here’s my thought: why not start treating addiction as a health issue, rather than a crime?

What if we took those 65% of addicted prisoners out of jail and put them in intensive rehabilitation programs? What if we devoted just half of the $51 billion per year to actually fixing the problem, rather than investing over and over in what is clearly a sunk cost?

Believe it or not, Mexico is one of the world leaders in prison reform, and experts at MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) are attributing it to their incorporation of a naturally occurring indole alkaloid called ibogaine into their rehabilitation programs. Although ibogaine is a Schedule I drug in the United States and most of the European Union, countries like Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Brazil have legitimized its use by medical professionals specifically for the purpose of drug rehabilitation. Multiple studies have been conducted worldwide (notably few in the United States) showing that ibogaine may reduce withdrawal symptoms, diminish drug seeking behavior, prolong drug-free intervals following release from prison, and improve post-incarceration employment rates.

Ibogaine plant

My first thought was that ibogaine must be giving some kind of opioid-like high. Au contraire. Although its pharmacokinetics continue to be unraveled, it’s been found that ibogaine does not act on opioid receptors at all. It is an antagonist at the NMDA receptor—a mechanism similar to that of Alzheimers drugs and ketamine.

More clinical trials on humans under controlled environments are needed before anything can be claimed as “fact,” but the initial results are promising. And if it looks and smells like it could be a cure to the prison paradox, shouldn’t we at least be looking into it? Or should we kick back our heels and throw $51 billion each year at a system we know is broken because “drugs are bad”?

The war on drugs is ending thanks to research and awareness. Maybe it’s time we look to the earth to figure out just what kinds of tools were put here for us. I’m no expert, but I have a feeling we may have been given just what we need.

To learn more about ibogaine and its medical uses, visit: https://maps.org/research/ibogaine-therapy

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