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Overdose Deaths In State Prisons Have Jumped Dramatically Since 2001

From NPR, by Beth Schwartzapfel and Jimmy Jenkins, July 15, 2021

Prisons and jails in the United States have been increasingly deadly places in recent years, according to new federal data. But one cause of death has climbed most dramatically: overdoses.

From 2001 to 2018, the number of people who have died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons rose more than 600%, according to an analysis of newly-released data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In county jails, overdose deaths increased by more than 200%.

Most of these increases have come in recent years: 2018 brought the highest number of prison deaths on record since the federal government began collecting this data 20 years ago. And that was before the pandemic. (The new federal data does not include 2019 or 2020.)

Even outside of prisons and jails, drug overdose deaths are at historic levels, according to federal data released on Wednesday. Last year, the nationwide death toll increased by nearly 30% from 2019. The devastating trend was driven by opioids, primarily illegal fentanyl.

Behind bars, overdose deaths may have risen so sharply because drug use is not only widespread there, but also uniquely dangerous, said Harold Pollack, a University of Chicago professor who studies drug use in prison.

“Substances that come into the jail or prison don’t exactly go through the FDA lab to know what’s in there,” he said.

Adding to the risk, people in prison often use drugs when they’re alone and may be reluctant to call for help if there’s a problem. Even if they do seek help, medical care is often scarce and subpar. And access to drugs is erratic, which leads to rapid changes in tolerance, putting users at higher risk for an overdose.

These numbers highlight persistent issues with the way the U.S. handles drug use: incarcerating people with addiction problems and then not providing them adequate treatment, said Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, which recently published two analyses of the new federal data. “Drug addiction is a serious illness.”

The new data does not include information about what drugs people are using behind bars. But interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated people in five states and the federal system, plus news reports and death data from the Texas, California and Arizona corrections departments, suggest that opioids (especially fentanyl), methamphetamine, and the synthetic marijuana drug K2 are largely to blame.

In prison, “people are bored and miserable and isolated, often self-medicating for mental and physical health needs that usually go unmet,” says Leo Beletsky, a law professor at Northeastern University who studies the intersection of public health and law enforcement. “Is it surprising that there’s such a demand for drugs in detention settings? Absolutely not.”

One incarcerated man named John told The Marshall Project that the federal prison where he is held is “flooded with drugs.” John, who spoke on a contraband cell phone, asked to be referred to by his first name to avoid retribution from prison officials.

When John went to prison roughly a decade ago, he said, he had never done hard drugs. Now he gets high every day and has tried everything from meth to heroin. Men fall unconscious with some regularity, he said, usually from smoking paper soaked in liquid K2, though they’re not really sure if there’s fentanyl or PCP on it, too.

Drugs get into prisons and jails in a variety of ways, according to current and former prisoners and staff, including through visitors and packages and letters to incarcerated people. Friends and family can tuck strips of paper soaked with drugs into mail or books, and if they get past the mail room, people in prison can eat them, or roll them up and smoke them. Incoming prisoners can swallow drugs or hide them in body cavities.

Prison staff are often responsible as well: During the pandemic, even though visitation from family and friends was suspended, attorney visits were restricted, and teachers, tutors, and volunteers stayed home, drugs got into many prisons anyway. As The Marshall Project reported, the number of incarcerated people disciplined or charged for drugs actually increased during the pandemic in Texas prisons.

State prisons are grappling with how to deal with an increase in overdoses due to alcohol and drug abuse. David Madison/Getty Images

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