Is Rehabilitation a Form of Punishment?

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No, rehabilitation is the most lenient sentencing that helps to shape the future behaviours of criminals, or prevent future offending.

The idea behind the punishment and the requirements to follow the rules, is to only apply the treatment and train the offenders so that they are made capable of returning to society law-abiding members of the community.  

For addicts with no frame of reference, it’s not a staggering thing when they question, “Is rehab like jail?”

Is rehabilitation similar to a prison system? 

No, rehabilitation is not like a prison system. The basic idea behind imprisonment in rehabilitation is that the person who has been incarcerated must never go back to prison after treatment. 

Firstly, most alcoholics who join rehab do so voluntarily, so from the very start, their treatment experience is going to be different than incarceration. 

Now the question here is, how did the individuals get therapy who were entered into it as a part of their sentencing? 

It’s imperative to remember that they also have a choice, even then. They can go to treatment, or they can spend their time behind bars, but even if they join a rehab centre, they are not going to be kept behind bars. 

Conventional addiction recovery is projected as a program for those who need it.

Granted, there are victims who enter rehab to get out of the harmful consequences, to pull down their jail time, to keep their jobs, and to save their relationships.

But even then, they still have to make a choice. Nobody (although, most people anyway_ select the option to going to jail because the decisions are under the influence of alcohol or any other drug, it’s usually a destination. 

Still, the education system demonstrates that even prisoners with an alcohol use disorder who are arrested and sentenced can benefit from rehabilitation.  

According to a report by the National Institute university on Drug Abuse, years of science depict that providing all-inclusive substance use intervention to criminals while incarcerated works, reducing both crime and drug use after a captive re-joins the outside world.  

While in prison or jail, the rehabilitation model is critical to cut down drug-related social burdens and overall crime – such as family disintegration, lost job productivity, and a repeated return to prison or jail called recidivism.  

While those who are given a choice to enter rehab as a way of reducing their incarceration may often do so, they can still leverage from the intervention they get.

And what they often find, upon joining the therapy in that in general, rehab facilities are obviously not like a jail.  

Understand what an alcohol rehab programme looks like, in Abbeycare's guide.

Addiction is fatal 

Addiction is a severe and fatal brain disease. Constant drug use can cause drastic changes in the structure and functioning of the brain, ending in compulsive drug abuse.  

It also causes a loss of control over your behaviour that describes addiction.  

One of the responsibilities of an individual with alcoholism is to seek intervention. As addiction is a cumulative disease, if left untreated, it can get worse. 


When people are arrested for their drug-related crimes, they are sentenced to criminal penalties like incarceration. 

But is punishment for addicts is really effective? After spending time in prisons, people suffering from alcoholism will usually continue to use substances, which often result in more drug-related crimes that cause them again sentencing to jail.  

Some expert’s psychologists explain this phenomenon as a behaviour that is punished that can reappear when the results are withdrawn.

Moreover, forcing abstinence through imprisonment is not a therapy and it cannot cure addiction.  

Addicts must be taught relapse prevention techniques, including those who may only have been abstainers because of incarceration.  

Once people are released from prison, they get back to the same criminal behaviour or worse – stresses and pressures in life. Peer pressure and family dysfunction still exist.  

Daily life stress such as lack of permanent housing, finding a job, and compliance with probation or parole develops anxious situations that can cause substance abuse relapse and difficulty in an offender's progress.  

Court-ordered treatment 

For addicts with alcohol use disorder, court-ordered addiction intervention as punishment is an effective mix of treatment and consequences for correctional purposes.  

The only incarceration cannot work as a long-term solution, as the research says.

A recent study about crime prevention stated that offenders who were in rehab for addiction but not imprisoned faced lesser social issues and were more encouraged to change their habits. [1]  

This seems to show that people’s responses are better to rehabilitative approaches as compared to the punitive ones. 

At times, legal pressure is also enforced onto the criminal justice system to motivate individuals for general deterrence to: 

  • Enter rehabilitation facility 
  • Be consistent 
  • Attend regular intervention sessions and therapies 
  • Attend rehab programs for lengthy periods 
  • Achieve sobriety with positive outcomes 

People with alcoholism benefit more from rehabilitation than punishment and it is good for society as well.  

People in recovery live more rewarding and productive lives. Society benefits from a reduced prison population and less crime rates and a healthier population.  

Why positive reinforcement is better than punishment for a drug offender? 

Positive reinforcement means contingency management which can be a good technique for general deterrence.

It is used to educate criminals and drug offenders but if they have committed something that can be life-threatening and below social standards then they might face the death penalty. 

Generally, along with different theories we have two broad methods to treat alcohol use disorder and specific deterrence: positive reinforcement and punishment.  

In punishment, the person receives negative consequences for not following the rules and in positive reinforcement, a person is rewarded for something good.

An effective form of positive reinforcement is called contingency management which is used in rehabs. It usually delivers better results.  

People with alcoholism are familiar with society trying to encourage them to abstain from drinking using punishment.  

Probation, jail, being kicked out of home, fines, and being fired from the job are just a few examples of the punishments people experience as a consequence of their addiction. 

 The challenge with punishment is that usually people who are alcoholics are not thinking of the strong consequences of their actions or think that using a substance is better than the rewards/ consequences they will experience after punishment.   

The flip side of contingency management 

Despite the emerging evidence that addiction is a curable disease of the brain, most people don’t get the right therapy.

Involvement in the criminal justice system usually happens because of illegal drug-seeking behaviour and participating in illicit activities that represent disrupted behaviours ensuring from brain changes triggers by continuous drug use. 

Treatment for drug-involved offenders provides a chance to reduce substance abuse and decrease criminal behaviour associated with it.  

Increasing neuroscience has the potential to change orthodox sanction-oriented public safety approaches by offering new therapeutic strategies against alcoholism that could be used under the criminal justice system. 

The last 2 decades have witnessed a prominent increase in the number of individuals sentenced or under other forms of criminal justice supervision in the US.  

These numbers are floundering – almost 7.1 million adults in the US are under some form of criminal justice supervision.

The massive increase in the criminal justice population shows in part strict laws and penalties for drug offenses.  

One-half of all prisoners meet the criteria for treatment of drug dependence or abuse. 

Drugs of abuse including cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin are illegal. Others including alcohol, prescribed drugs, and cannabis could be considered unlawful depending on the residence of the user and whether the user has been sanctioned or not.  

People selling illegal drugs always experience some form of legal action, but holding, buying, or using these drugs can also trigger unlawful activities.  

That means victims of alcohol use disorder can and often do get arrested because of their addiction.  They may face an arrest in front of their kids, in public or there may be a traffic stop leading to a summons or a ticker to court.  

That court date could close with a sentence. 

To put a stop to this cycle of use and arrest, a drug offender need intervention.

With proper treatment by professionals, the addicts can abate. People after getting arrested usually experience two different treatment venues.  

They can get the assistance they want in the community via a treatment programme, or they can head to jail or prison, where treatment should be given. There are pros and cons of each treatment programme.  


What is the connection between addiction and incarceration? 

Addiction is directly connected to incarceration. Any person who is a drug abuser is incarcerated for his offensive behaviour or as a punishment for the crime committed.  

Drug addiction and substance abuse go hand in hand. It was reported by the Prison policy initiative in 2017 that 1 out 5 incarcerated persons experienced a drug charge.

Around 456,000 people were kept for a nonviolent drug offense even for detention.   

While some charges come with very lengthy prison sentencing like longer than one year.

These 2 stats recommend that people go to prison and hails quite often because of their addiction and once they are prisoned, they stay there for a long period of time.  

Theoretically, this should be the best space in which the addiction can be treated, but the fact is a little more perplexed. 

Prison-based drug treatment programmes 

When criminals get into the prison system, they are tested by a medical officer. This test helps the team understand the health conditions for which the prisoner needs treatment.  

The examination also provides a layer of protection for prison staffers. A prisoner who has a condition like an intake cannot say that the condition started in the incarceration.  

An intake examination helps to notice an active addiction. After all, addicts usually experience quite prominent withdrawal symptoms.  

Like people with longstanding alcohol use disorder may suffer from hallucinations upon withdrawal, seeing things that are not there, and talking to people that are not visible to others.  

If left untreated, this type of withdrawal can cause seizures. With the help of medications, these seizures can be managed, but the medications must be given for a long period sometimes.  

When the medications are stopped, the seizures may return. This usually means people in medical detox from alcohol need 24x7 care and monitoring. 

Even though these withdrawal signs may be evident, and they should highlight a need for detox with back-to-back rehab counselling, people who have been incarcerated don’t always get the treatment they need.  

Research stated by the American Public health recommends that only 11% of people who have been incarcerated get treated for their addiction.  

The rest of them live with the hope that their addiction will fade away with time. They get no treatment at all, either during recovery or withdrawal, or they may be given such a tiny amount of care that it feels like no care at all. 

It’s hard to exaggerate how threatening this can be. People who are ill because of withdrawal can die as their body and brain cells adjust to the lack of the substance they were addicted to.  

Once after the completion of withdrawal, these people may struggle with triggers and cravings for drugs that are extremely difficult to manage without medical help.  

They may not have the managing skills to assist them to cope with the cravings as they have had no form of therapy. Drugs are available in prisoners and prisoners can keep using them without therapy.  

When prison addiction programs by the government are designed and executed well, they can bring about incredible benefits. 

 Therapies help them to change the way they think and react, and that can also have a massive impact on reducing relapse.  

The effectiveness of drug abuse treatment in the criminal justice system 

Research over the last 20 years has consistently described the beneficial effects of rehab therapy for the alcohol abuser in the criminal justice system.  

The list of interventions comprises of therapeutic substitutes to incarceration, prison and jail-based programs and strategies blended with judicial supervision in drug courts and re-entry programs designed to help drug abusers transition from incarceration back into the normal life.  

Through supervision, monitoring and threat of legal punishment, the justice system can give leverage to motivate drug abusers to join and stay in the rehabilitation.  

Behavioural treatments are the most common interventions to address alcohol use disorder.  

Evidence-based behavioural interventions involve contingent management therapies that reward behavioural changes associated with ethical issues, crime, maintaining human dignity, supporting human rights. 

And abstinence, cognitive therapies that teach decision-making skills and coping mechanisms, and motivational therapies that inspire people to participate in non-drug-related activities. 

Like working on aggression, learning about human rights and a person’s own right and become law-abiding members of the society.  

Several residential rehab programs depend on the creation of a “therapeutic community” establishes on a social learning model.

Medications like buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone are good to treat alcoholism and heroin addiction.  

The perks of medications to treat alcoholism were shown in the latest randomized trial in which methadone medication was prescribed for heroin-dependent inmates in prison prior to release and they continued the therapy post release. 

Those who took medications with counselling were less engaged in crimes or heroin use than those who only received counselling. Economic analysis foregrounds the cost-effectiveness to treat drug-involved offenders.  

The cost of mixing self-help and volunteer-led organizations such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous into criminal justice setting is tiny and could offer support to the recovery efforts of the addicts.   

What is the best way to treat drug-offenders in jail? 

The best way to treat drug offenders is to educate them about the results of using drugs or committing a crime like the death penalty etc.  

Drug rehabilitation is the most common service given to criminals with addiction problems or drug abuse.

Over 1 quarter of state inmates and 1 in 5 federal inmates meeting dependence/abuse criteria takes part in self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous while in prison.  

In a recent survey of correctional organizations and programs across the U.S., many correctional agencies stated providing some type of help, still, the median percentage of offenders who took advantage of those services was very low.  

Principles for general deterrence of substance abuse for offenders 

The national institute published the principles for general deterrence of drug abuse for offenders in the criminal justice system.  

These principles are intended as a resource for the intervention community and criminal justice professionals working with criminals to reduce crimes. 

 For example, principle one says, criminal justice supervision should integrate planning to treat drug-abuse offenders and health professionals should know the correctional supervision requirements.  

Principle 2 says, a balance of sanctions and rewards motivates intervention participation and prosocial behaviour. Principle 2 states, treatment should focus on factors linked with crime and ethical issues throughout the whole course.  

The drug-abuse offenders don’t have to pay for the medications, therapies, and counselling sessions, what else one could get leverage from when in jail and given a chance from the government to get healthy?  

What could be a better idea than this?  

However, prison system principles are different in each country about retribution.  

For example, in Norway, the inmates are given access to facilities they would not have been able to have access to the outside world.   

Every rehabilitation model should emphasize the drug-abuse victim to commit to abstaining from crime, drug abuse, and relapse.  

What is the difference between rehabilitation and punishment? 

We belong to a world where criminals and criminal cases are increasing with every passing day.  

It’s not tough to guess that this number will keep increasing as there’s no specific ideology defined by the global organizations or the government as to how to stop such cases from happening.  

Punishment in prison includes senseless beating and electric shocks to the prisoners. Punishment is more like torture to force a prisoner to be a law-abiding member of society.  

Various methods are used to punish the inmates for crimes committed by them. While in rehabilitation a person is detoxed and helped for a positive comeback towards life.  

Rehabilitation and punishment both have their own roles in the field of treating prisoners. Rehabilitation helps prisoners become better people through psychological help and retribution. 

We must understand that it’s crucial to decide which aspect is suitable for the prisoner. A prisoner who has committed crimes of lesser intensity can get the opportunity of rehabilitation.  

But a prisoner who has committed a crime that is life-threatening, and society won’t accept them for the harm they caused. In such cases, laws like the death penalty come into play without any justification.  

Similarly, the cost of the process also matters. Although many of us don’t know that the cost to keep a prisoner in the prison is more than a person living a normal life.  

Thus, rehabilitation is always preferred. But rehabilitation involves some monetary values as well.  

What are rehabilitation programmes? 

Criminal rehabilitation is a part of prison programmes. The idea being that not everybody just born bad, but rather they are environmentally conditioned to make wrong choices which can be resolved.  

To assist people to address their aggression and offending, drug abuse victims are assessed and are provided programmes according to health risk, need, and their skill to be responsive to the rehabilitation programme.  

Rehabilitation includes focused motivational therapies, cognitive-behavioural interventions, and general ability to help a prisoner revert to the community – for example practical life skills and parenting.  

Some of their examples are: 

  • In-prison rehabilitation program designed to reduce recidivism 
  • Key principles for rehabilitation to reduce recidivism 
  • CDCR in-prison rehabilitation programs have several defects 
  • Programs by inmates or outside organizations  

Wrapping it up 

Rehabilitation provides an opportunity to a victim of drug abuse to learn about their debilitating problems and provides a means to learn how to change their habits and routine. 

Punishment puts the prisoner inside the confines of a cell to think about the crime committed. 

Rehabilitation involves different forms of alcohol addiction rehab, drug addiction rehab, gambling addiction rehab, violent behaviour rehab, and others.  

Punishment doesn’t offer one rehabilitation via programs. It solely depends on the individual attempts of the adult offender. 

Once executed, these rehabilitation programmes will leverage not only the prisoners, but all parties linked to it: various correction agencies, victims, and local communities to reduce crime rates and criminal behaviour. 

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