Substance Abuse Treatment in New York Prisons

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Effective, prison-based substance abuse treatment programs reduce the likelihood of relapse and recidivism for participants. The benefits of successful treatment go beyond the recovery of individual participants— enhancing the quality of life within a prison and improving public health and safety outside its walls.

What Treatment Services Are Available Inside Prison?

The majority of DOCCS substance abuse treatment programs offer a “one size fits all”  treatment approach.

The Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment Program (ASAT), a six-month residential therapeutic community program, is the most widely utilized DOCCS program.

Who is Receiving Treatment?

DOCCS reports that 83% of people incarcerated in New York State prisons are in need of substance abuse treatment.

Treatment programs in the State prisons include approximately 10,000 treatment slots, enrolling about 34,000 inmates annually.

DOCCS is the single largest provider of substance abuse treatment in the State.

What is the Cost?

The cost of keeping an person in a New York State prison for one year is about $55,000.

The cost of most outpatient drug treatment runs between $2,700 and $4,500 per person per year.

The cost of residential drug treatment is $17,000 to $21,000 per person per year—still less than half the cost of incarceration.

What Are the Correctional Association’s Findings?

Screening and Assessment:

DOCCS does not clearly define the exact criteria for which people will receive treatment and its screening instruments are set at the lowest end of the scale measuring the need for treatment. As a result, DOCCS recommends treatment for people with even the most minimal history of substance abuse.

Factors such as how recently an individual used an illegal substance, frequency of use, or consequences of use, are not taken into account in determining the need for treatment.

DOCCS does not conduct a follow-up comprehensive assessment for people flagged in the initial screening.

Treatment Matching:

Not all incarcerated people with a history of substance use require a long-term residential program.

Many could benefit from a variety of less intensive treatment programs, while some may require more intensive programs with significantly smaller group sizes.

Numerous studies have shown that matching treatment to an individual’s needs is the most effective way to reduce the possibility of relapse. Such an approach provides substantial cost savings as well.

Coercive Nature of Treatment Services:

Though treatment services are technically voluntary, inmates who refuse treatment face the possibility of being denied parole and losing “good time.”

Delayed Treatment:

Incarcerated people are generally not eligible to enroll in a substance abuse treatment program until they are close to their release date.

Incarcerated people facing lengthy prison terms may not receive any treatment for many years, regardless of demonstrated need, leading to increased drug use in prison.

Monitoring and Oversight:

There is limited clinical supervision for treatment staff.

There is minimal review of the quality and content of treatment records—a necessity in ensuring that treatment participants receive quality care.


Treatment staff had varying degrees of experience, training, skills, and commitment.

Some treatment staff were enthusiastic and engaged with program participants, others were indifferent and treated participants in a disrespectful or even threatening manner.

A majority of survey respondents felt it was not true or only somewhat true that staff supported them and their recovery from drug abuse.

Many of the programs had substantial vacancies in critical staff positions, some for more than two years.

Discipline vs. Treatment: 

Incarcerated people found possessing or using illicit substances are routinely sent to the Special Housing Unit (SHU)—a disciplinary segregation area where they are typically kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for three months or more while receiving no drug treatment services.

DOCCS mandates that people with a SHU sentence of 30 days or more be removed from a treatment program. DOCCS does not prioritize returning these people to treatment once their SHU sentence is over.

Aftercare and Reentry:

Discharge planning was minimal with little coordination between in-prison treatment programs and community-based treatment providers.

Participants reported receiving little to no assistance from in-prison treatment staff regarding their aftercare plans.

Research and experience have shown that people who receive drug treatment in prison followed by aftercare services are dramatically less likely to relapse or recidivate.

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