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Post Incarceration Syndrome: Can This Affect Drug Addiction?

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Drug use threatens to disrupt even the most stable of lives. It creates mental, physical, and emotional turmoil that can, even for a well-adjusted person, be exceedingly difficult to overcome. For those who are in or have spent a significant amount of time within prison, balance is elusive, and during their tenure of incarceration, they may in fact develop greater instability that can provoke a previous addiction or incite circumstances that cause an individual to start abusing substances for the first time.

What Is Post Incarceration Syndrome?

Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS) is a mental disorder that occurs in individuals either currently incarcerated or recently released; symptoms are found to be most severe for those who encountered extended periods of solitary confinement and institutional use. These symptoms stem from an individual encountering an environment of punishment that provided little opportunity for education, vocational training, or rehabilitation. There are several facets of this disorder as follows:

  • Institutionalized Personality Traits: This passivity is derived from an individual’s ongoing state of learned helplessness, as they encounter various deprivations within their incarceration. This suppression of their personal nature and individualized critical thinking rises as a defense against prison authorities and also towards their fellow inmates, who at times may challenge their safety.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This disorder is based on trauma originating both prior to and during their time in prison; individuals may suffer from cognitive impairment, feel “on edge,” develop periodic angry outbursts, they may mentally relive events, and have distorted or negative feelings about themselves or others.
  • Antisocial Personality Traits (ASPT): These passive-aggressive tendencies are a coping mechanism against the use derived within the prison system and also in response to their fellow inmates’ predatory and abusive behaviors; it can result in an individual becoming antagonistic towards both authority and their peers.
  • Social-Sensory Deprivation Syndrome: This is caused from prolonged periods of solitary confinement that deprive an individual of any social contact and inflicts a state of sensory deprivation upon them.
  • Substance Use Disorders: Inmates, both current and former, often turn to drugs to self-medicate as a way to temper and escape the symptoms and disorders caused by PICS.

The extent in which these symptoms manifest is based on several factors, including: the foundation of coping skills they had prior to being incarcerated, the length of their sentence, the frequency and intensity of the use they endured, the amount and length of time spent in solitary confinement, and the extent to which they were able to participate in institutional programs.

Becoming At-Risk For PICS While in Prison

It is becoming increasingly evident that many inmates haven’t been imparted with the social skills that are necessary for reintroduction into civilian life, whether it be from their own apathy or more commonly, the lack of accessibility within the system. The following areas, though crucial to their success and development, are commonly lacking.


Sadly, within the correctional education system that’s prevalent within the prison system today, there is a notable deficiency in the teaching of both vocational and rehabilitative skills that may transcend the bounds of prison life and be applicable in the outside world.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office of California cites that they “found low student enrollment levels compared to the number of inmates who could benefit from these programs, inadequate participation rates by inmates, a flawed funding allocation methodology, ineffective case management, and lack of regular program evaluation.” While these findings are specific to California, these are common issues within our nation’s correctional education system as a whole.

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This misappropriation creates a divide between what is needed for the individual to succeed and survive and what skills they actually possess to take care of themselves. Thus, many turn again (or for the first time) to the drug world, either within or after their incarceration.

The LAO also stated that “inmates are less likely to engage in disruptive and violent incidents when they are actively engaged in a program instead of being idle.” Thus, inmates have a reduced risk of developing PICS and a greater chance towards obtaining stability upon their release. A study authored by the Correctional Education Association for the Department of Education found that inmates who took part in classes, whether they be vocational or at high school or college level, had a reduced rate of recidivism within three years of being released.


There are a variety of programs within the system that allow for an individual to work during their sentence; however, these skills often do not easily transcend the bounds between prison and life afterward. Additionally, it can be difficult for individuals that were incarcerated to find work—inmates need to have greater access to learning marketable skills, and those that revolve around job-searching and the interview process. A RAND Cooperation report found that an inmates “were 28 percent more likely to be employed after release from prison than [those] who did not receive such training.”

As an individual struggles to find gainful employment, they may get disconcerted on two levels: first, financially, and second, as they struggle to find the confidence and fulfillment the responsibility of a job can impart. This struggle may unfortunately encourage some individuals to turn to the drug world as a means to achieve financial solubility or to ease their emotional duress. This puts them at greater risk for returning to prison and for also developing a substance use problem.


Inmates can be at a huge disadvantage when they return to society or their families; most inmates struggled prior to their incarceration and their time spent fulfilling their sentence may have served to further create a rift, leaving them inept at contending with real-world situations and stressors. Unfortunately, as they lack the necessary social skills and emotional rehabilitation to transition back to a civilian life, many inmates seek solace in drugs, choosing to self-medicate their feelings of loneliness, anger, depression, and anxiety.

In all likelihood, many individuals have never been granted proper rehabilitation or education to address the complexities of a substance use disorder, nor the appropriate measures and tools that are necessary to contend with the pursuit and upkeep of their recovery. Instead, they may still mentally and emotionally attribute drugs to other things, most notably camaraderie, structure, and a source of income. Rehabilitation treatment and programs can, as cited by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP):

  • Reduce relapse, criminality, recidivism, and inmate misconduct
  • Increase the level of the offender’s stake in societal norms, levels of education and employment upon return to the community
  • Improve health and mental health symptoms and conditions, as well as relationships

How Does PICS Create A Greater Health Risk For Substance Use?

In prison populations, inmates often enter the system with a reduced level of coping skills due to their way of life; some may already suffer PTSD, or have emotional or mental health issues. As the individual contends with the restrictive nature of their incarceration, violent episodes or use by their peers and even prison staff, their mental health falters leaving them at greater risk for substance use. The National Institute On Drug Use states that, “Among individuals with substance use disorders, 30 to 60 percent meet the criteria for comorbid PTSD.”

As those in the prison population seek to survive within a severe and punitive environment, they build off preexisting symptoms and develop both institutionalized and anti-social personality traits. In an environment where one must be passive in the face of authority and commonly aggressive to their fellow inmates, they suppress their critical and individual thinking, emotional responses, and personal expression.

Thus, when faced with the reality of a substance use disorder, they are severely limited in their ability to comprehend some of the crucial insights and practices that are needed for recovery, such as honesty, humility, self-awareness, and self-care. Without proper support, education, and the investment and care of a dedicated staff, it can become increasingly difficult to learn about these things and commit them to practice

How To Combat PICS And Find the Best Treatment Centers for You

Contending with PICS will in fact make your recovery more intense, however it is not unattainable. It is crucial that those who suffer from PICS, PTSD, and substance use problems seek the support from physicians and staff that are trained in these areas; these individuals can help you develop coping skills and methods to reduce your risk for substance use and recidivism. If you do find yourself struggling with substance use after your release, entering into a recovery facility can help acclimate you to the tools, education, and confidence you need to succeed in finding wellness.

Please Contact Us Today for Recovery After Prison

If you find that yourself or someone you know is struggling with symptoms of Post Incarceration Syndrome and substance use, or if you seek to become more informed about the options for recovery and rehabilitation programs, please contact us today at Vertava Health and speak with one of our trained and compassionate professionals.