Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Remarks of Commissioner Brian Fischer
First Annual Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers of New York State Inc. Criminal Justice Summit
Marriott New York, Brooklyn
June 22, 2009

What is, or should be, the role of a prison system in the area of substance abuse treatment?

Criminal behavior, like all behavior, is complex and involves many aspects of one’s life.

Given that position, the role of Corrections is to assist the offender in dealing with as many issues as possible that impact on his or her life:

As a result, substance abuse treatment should be provided by incorporating it in as many program elements as possible.

The reality, however, is that prison life does not lend itself easily to treatment programs.

That is why the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) is working with the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) to review and improve our delivery system to offenders with substance abuse issues.

Just like with life in the community, an offender has to deal with many problems adjusting and managing living in prison; substance use is just one issue that he or she must confront.

Add to the mix the problem of drugs entering the prisons and the impact it has on everyone, and everything.

I say all this to indicate that substance abuse treatment, while absolutely necessary inside prisons, is not something that can be considered in isolation from everything else that is going on in prison.

I must also argue that far too often drugs and alcohol enter the system from family and friends who, willingly or not, act as enablers – they assist in an offender’s use of illegal substances.

I cannot understand why family members or friends would not only jeopardize their own safety by trying to smuggle drugs into a prison but also help the offender continue to use drugs while in prison.

I believe that if we’re going to be successful in dealing with the issue of substance abuse, both in prison and in the community, we need to look at two approaches.

The first is to offer assistance to individuals to stop abusing drugs and help them remain drug free. This means supporting community-based, supportive drug treatment programs. I’m in full support of the Governor’s diversion approach. Helping individuals before they’re sent to prison is not only logical, but it’s the right thing to do.

The second is to give the substance abuser the tools that will allow him or her not only to stay clean, but to move on with their lives in a positive manner. Often that means an education, a job skill, a new job, a proper place to live, help with family, medical and mental health issues, and whatever else the individual may need to redirect his or her life.

Drug treatment needs to be part of the offender’s prison experience – but not the only treatment provided.

Based on experience, those who come out of prison having taken advantage of a wide range of services, including drug treatment, are far more likely to succeed once home – not by merely staying drug-free, but by moving on with their lives.

Those who come out with an education, a new job skill, stronger family ties, and a realistic, attainable re-entry program are far more likely to succeed than those who return no different, no better educated, and no more realistic than when they entered the system.

If we could create the perfect system, it would involve community providers inside the prison system. This is the emphasis we’re putting forth through our re-entry programs. The connection between providers and offenders coming home is critical.

Because substance abusers often relapse, DOCS, OASAS, and the Division of Parole have jointly developed a special, community-based substance abuse treatment facility in New York City (the Edgecombe Residential Treatment Facility) to assist male Parolees who are in jeopardy of being sent back to prison upstate. Those Parolees who have relapsed can be placed instead in a 30-day evaluation and treatment program. This approach keeps the Parolee in his own community and assists him with family, drug, employment and other issues. The goal is to return the Parolee back to his home clean, working on his substance abuse issues and ready to try again to stay clean and sober.

Programs like this, and our enhanced re-entry efforts, not only lead to successful transitions, but to better public safety.