It is only a matter of time until a person struggling with active addiction will be faced with three options: jail, death, or recovery. For many addicts, the very real prospect of being behind bars, buried, or needing to get clean is blurred by the desire to get their fix. This apathy is commonplace, and a physiological product of drug addiction. Substance abuse leads to less sensitivity to rewards (like happiness), and more sensitivity to the memories and expectations of drug use.

Basically, the more an addict uses a substance, the less likely they are to find positive experiences outside of drugs. This is maximized by the rose-tinted glasses addicts put on when thinking about their past drug use. It makes it a compulsive action, which is the foundation of addiction.

The nature of drug addiction is a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. 80% of incarcerated individuals are addicted to substances. While jail or prison time will sometimes give an addict motivation to change, it is not particularly likely for the outcome to be positive. Addiction recovery takes more than just abstaining from the substance. It’s a lifelong effort that requires new thinking patterns, coping mechanisms, and emotional regulation. This is where jails and prisons fail. Addicts need specialized care from professionals. Yet, incarcerated individuals with addiction are often placed in facilities that do not adequately fund addiction programs, if at all.

Even if these programs do exist, they are typically one-size-fits-all approaches. Every addict and their addiction is different. While many addicts struggle in similar ways, their paths to recovery will differ. Thus, these programs are kind of like putting on a Bandaid when you actually need stitches. The former is cheaper and easier, but the injury will never heal correctly. The war on drugs is like a Bandaid with stitches Photoshopped on it. It’s trying to pose as a proper solution, but underneath the illusion, the wound persists. This is why 80% of people in jail or prison are addicts. This is why the facilities are overpopulated and understaffed. This is why former inmates are 129 times more likely to overdose and die their first two weeks back in general population.

In Richmond, Virginia, the police department is taking initiative to stop making these same mistakes. They are cognizant that substance abusers view anyone in a cop uniform as an enemy. To combat this, Courtney Nunnally is acting as a liaison for the police. Nunnally is a recovering heroin addict with six years of sobriety under her belt. Instead of being in the back of a police car to head to jail, she is now in the seat to help other addicts.

Seeing someone in plain clothes, like Nunnally, is less intimidating than talking to a uniformed police officer. It also resonates with addicts when she can recount details from her own struggle. One man they spoke to outside of Taqueria Panchito on Midlothian Turnpike confessed that he felt like he was a lost cause, especially because he had already been to treatment three times. Nunnally quickly countered with the fact she had been through treatment at least eight times. Seeing someone that not only knows your struggle, but has come out on the other side, is comforting and motivating.

Picture courtesy of Shelby Lum – Richmond Times-Dispatch

Nunnally initially started as a court liaison for a program called Recovery Unplugged. However, she wanted to do more to help the community, especially those that remind her of her past self. That’s when she started the nonprofit, Addiction Uncuffed. With that, her journey of riding around with police, and giving information about recovery options to those they meet on the streets began.

20,000,000 Americans struggle with addiction, and only 2% sought specialized treatment in 2011. It is initiatives such as these that can allow for more addicts to choose life (recovery) over death and prison. These programs give addicts the hope and support they actually need, instead of a Bandaid and a criminal record – or worse, a death certificate. With continued efforts similar in nature, we can help combat the harm that has been done by the criminalization of addiction.

Jail, Death, or Recovery: You Decide
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