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Experimenting with treatment in prison

July 1, 2006
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Illinois looks to treat meth users' unique needs while they're incarcerated

The idea of creating prison units dedicated to treating inmates addicted to methamphetamine is receiving increased attention as use of the dangerous drug spreads across the nation.

Illinois is believed to be one of the first states to experiment with the concept.1 In his 2006 state of the state address, Gov. Rod Blagojevich called for Illinois to develop a model treatment program that starts in the prison setting and allows offenders to reenter their communities only under a highly supervised and supported reentry program. The legislature approved $7 million for the model program in May. State officials also have approved the opening of two, 200-bed prison units for meth treatment over the next year.

About 800 offenders in Illinois have been incarcerated for meth-related crimes, a number that has been rising steadily in the past several years according to corrections officials. The Chicago Tribune reported that meth-related incarcerations in Illinois rose from 6 in 1996 to 541 in 2005.1

The Illinois Department of Corrections will be contracting for treatment services for the prisoners occupying the new meth prison units. The first unit (scheduled to open this year) will be at the Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center in East St. Louis. The facility opened in 1995 as the state's first facility devoted entirely to adult men with drug- or alcohol-related offenses. The second unit is scheduled to open in 2007 at the Sheridan Correctional Center, a drug treatment prison in Sheridan. The Sheridan facility will be expanded to accommodate 1,300 inmates, which would make it the largest inmate drug-treatment facility in the nation, according to the governor's office.1

People addicted to meth are prone to commit a variety of crimes, ranging from shoplifting to armed robbery, notes Greg Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs' Association. In the past, says Sullivan, Illinois wasn't aggressive enough in preventing and policing meth addiction. While problems with meth initially appeared to be concentrated in central and southern Illinois, they're now on the rise in the Chicago area, especially among the gay community, Sullivan adds.

Mike Bach, associate director of the Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois, agrees with Sullivan. “There are significant problems with methamphetamine across Illinois,” he says, “but Chicago traditionally has seen fewer cases.” Perhaps that phenomenon is the result of inner-city gangs controlling drug trafficking, which usually involves cocaine more than meth, he conjectures.

“We weren't as strict as the surrounding states,” Sullivan explains. “We were the hole in the doughnut. Now that hole has been filled,” with Illinois' newfound focus on meth addiction.

Sullivan believes people addicted to meth need to spend time incarcerated to beat the problem. The state-run units will be particularly helpful because county jails are not equipped to house the high number of offenders addicted to meth, he explains.

Wherever and whenever meth addiction occurs, Bach adds, it strains counties' budgets, affecting both corrections and behavioral healthcare funding. Prisoners addicted to meth run up enormous costs, Bach says, for several reasons, including the need for increased security. “These addicts can be very physical and violent,” he explains, and also have many healthcare needs. For example, people addicted to meth are particularly prone to developing dental problems, he notes, a problem sometimes called “meth mouth.”

Treating meth users often differs from dealing with people with other drug problems, Bach says, which is one of the reasons behind the dedicated meth prison units. In addition to their associated health problems and longer treatment periods, meth users need so many services that behavioral health providers, courts, and law enforcement officials can easily be overwhelmed.

Yet the jury is still out on whether meth prisons will work in Illinois. Several other states are beginning to experiment with the meth prison concept, including Indiana and Montana.1 Expect more jurisdictions and behavioral health providers to take a closer look at this option, experts say, if results show that the effort reduces recidivism among meth users.

Michael Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer.


  1. Parsons C. Prisons to treat meth addicts. Chicago Tribune. January 16, 2006: Metro3.


The Dangers of Meth

Probably 85% of meth users are in the same boat as other addicts, with recovery rates comparable with alcohol and other drugs, says Randall Webber, director of training for Chestnut Health Systems, a not-for-profit behavioral health organization in Illinois. In some ways, meth is similar to cocaine in its effects, he notes. For example, meth can produce paranoid psychosis, which can result in dangerous situations, Webber explains. “You have to be really careful if the person is in the midst of psychosis. It's like trying to talk a shark out of attacking you. The brain is not responsive to logic,” he says.

Psychosis can last for hours or even days, Webber reports. “A small number of people might have an underlying psychosis and might not emerge from it,” he adds. Research on teenagers in Thailand indicates that young people, whose brains are not fully developed, may be at greater risk for not coming out of psychosis, Webber notes.

Another effect of meth, he explains, is “anhedonia,” a condition in which there is an inability to experience any pleasure. “Meth addicts can go for months in a gray world where there is nothing to bring them pleasure. But they have the memory of an ecstatic high, which they are able to get in minutes with meth,” explains Webber.