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Mass Incarceration and Addiction

The issue of Mass Incarceration is linked to many other challenges and issues facing our society today. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of addiction. The rapid rise in mass incarceration over the past 40 years is often attributed to the “war on drugs” which arguably has only perpetuated the disease of addiction rather than cured it. Below are some of the arguments supporting this viewpoint and how Saint Augustine invites us to consider a more restorative approach to the disease of addiction.

Incarceration Doesn’t Heal Addiction 

Every 25 seconds someone in the U.S. is arrested for drug possession.[1]  65% of the U.S. prison population has a Substance Abuse Disorder.  Yet, only a small percentage of those who need treatment receive it while incarcerated.  15% of deaths of people released from prison are related to opioids.[2]  Further, the inhumane conditions of prisons and jails often leads to increased mental trauma perpetuating mental health disorders, including the disease of addiction. 

“Criminals deserve to be loved and pitied because they are human beings.  Judges and public official, like Bishops, are thus bound to criminals in a human fellowship”

Saint Augustine (Letter to Macedonius)

Mass Incarceration Impacts All of Us

The rate of U.S. incarceration has increased 500% since 1980. Half of Americans have had a loved one incarcerated.[3]. Two out of every three people released from prison end up committing another crime,[4] due in large part to lack of rehabilitation while incarcerated and barriers to successful re-entry when released. 

“Clearly, it is not by harshness or by severity, or by overbearing methods, that social evils are removed. It is by education rather than by formal commands, by persuasion rather than by threats. This is the way to deal with people in general. Severity, however, should be employed only against the sins of the few.”

Saint Augustine (Letter 22, 5).

Mass Incarceration Perpetuates Racism and Poverty 

1 in 3 black men will face incarceration in their lives compared to 1 in 17 white men.[5] 80% of the incarcerated earned less than $15K per year prior to arrest. 70% did not have a high school diploma.[6]. Children of the incarcerated are six times more likely to face incarceration, further perpetuating the cycle of crime and incarceration among those populations already imapcted.[7]

“God does not demand much of you. He asks back what he gave you, and from him you take what is enough for you. The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor. When you possess superfluities, you possess what belongs to others.”

Saint Augustine (Exposition on Psalm 147, 12)


[1] Human Rights Watch,

[2] National Institute on Drug Abuse,

[3] Cornell University,

[4] Bureau of Justice Statistics, and Prison Policy Initiative,

[5] The Sentencing Project,

[6] The Brookings Institute,

[7] National Institute of Justice,

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