Treatment in The Federal Prison System

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The federal prison system of the United States has made repeated efforts to treat drug-abusing prisoners. The issue was first raised in 1928 by the chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. He reported that the three then-existing federal penitentiariesAtlanta, Leavenworth, and McNeil Islandheld 7,598 prisoners, 1,559 of whom were "drug addicts." To deal with these prisoners he called for a "broad and constructive program in combatting the drug evil," and he recommended the establishment of special federal "narcotics farms" for the "individualized treatment" of drug-abusing prisoners. He hoped that there would become institutions that "will reduce and also prevent crime and greatly alleviate the suffering of those who have become addicted."

In 1930, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was established to handle the burgeoning population of federal prisoners, caused mainly by the enforcement of Prohibition. The BOP's first directorate was eager to launch special programs for drug-abusing prisoners, but many in Congress and elsewhere believed that prisons should have little or no direct role in treating drug-abusing offenders. A compromise was struck. The U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) was authorized to establish and administer two hospitals that would offer state-of-the-art drug-abuse treatment, and the BOP was permitted to freely assign addict prisoners to the facilities. The first USPHS Hospital opened in 1935 at Lexington, Kentucky; the second was opened in 1938 at Fort Worth, Texas.


In the 1960s, a broad consensus emerged that prisons should do whatever possible to rehabilitate drug-abusing inmates. In 1966, Congress passed the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act (NARA), which, among other initiatives, ordered in-prison and aftercare treatment for narcotic addicts who had been convicted of violating federal laws. Between 1968 and 1970, the BOP established NARA-mandated drug-treatment units within five of its prisons. In the 1970s, the BOP assumed direct control over both USPHS hospitals and began to develop an extensive network of programs for the treatment of drug-abusing prisoners throughout the system. In 1979, the BOP required the development of NARA-standard drug-treatment programs in all its prisons, publishing it Drug Abuse Incare Manual. In 1985, the BOP established a task force to evaluate the state of drug-abuse treatment programs within federal prisons. The review found that administrative problems had hampered the BOP's drug-treatment efforts. In response, in 1986, the position of chemical-abuse coordinator was established within each prison, and in 1988, the position of national drug-abuse coordinator was created to oversee drug-abuse treatment efforts throughout the federal prison system.

At the end of 1990, the BOP held some 59,000 prisoners. About 54 percent of federal prisoners were serving sentences for drug-related crimes. At the time of their admission, 47 percent of federal prisoners were classified as having moderate to serious drug-abuse problems. Under the BOP's classification scheme, a moderate problem designation indicates that the inmate's use of drugs or alcohol had negatively affected at least one "major life area"school, health, family, financial, or legal statusin the two-year period prior to arrest.

In 1991, the BOP's drug-education program was required for all inmates with any history of drug abuse or drug-related crime. By the end of 1992, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 federal inmates completed drug-education programs. Counseling servicesAlcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), group therapy, stress management, prerelease planningwere available on an ongoing basis at most federal prisons, and the BOP planned to make them available to inmate volunteers at all institutions at any time during their incarceration.

Transitional drug-abuse treatment services were being developed throughout the BOP. The administration of these services were divided into two six-month components, each of which included individual and family counseling, assistance in identifying and obtaining employment, and random urine testing. The first component was provided in the BOP's community corrections centers; the second component was provided as post-release after-care, in conjunction with the Probation Division of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

To assess the effectiveness of its current multidimensional drug-abuse treatment efforts, the BOP has begun a major evaluation of these programs that will analyze data on both in-prison adjustment and postrelease behavior for up to five years after release.

(See also: Coerced Treatment for Substance Offenders ; Prisons and Jails, Drug Treatment in )


Di Iulio, J. J., Jr. (1992). Barbed-wire bueaucracy: Leadership, administration, and culture in the FederalBureau of Prisons. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keve, P. W. (1990). Prisons and the American conscience: A history of U.S. federal corrections. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Pris-ons. (1991). State of the bureau 1990: Effectively managing crowded institutions. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Pris-ons, Office of Research and Development. (1990). Proposal for the evaluation of the Federal Bureau of Prisons drug abuse treatment programs. Washington, DC: Author.

Wallace, S., et al. (1991). Drug treatment. Federal Prisons Journal, 2 (3), 32-40.

John J. DiIulio, Jr.

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Treatment in The Federal Prison System

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Treatment in The Federal Prison System