Treating the Incurable…
Addiction can afflict anybody regardless of age, gender, education, profession or material status. Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, Edith Piaf, Mikhail Sholokhov, Lewis Carroll, John F. Kennedy… Nor does addiction spare leaders in science and art or global political authorities. Moreover, in the era of advanced technologies, addiction is increasingly taking new forms. Even though international classifications of illness do not yet recognise internet addiction as treatable, in the future the range of sufferers will continue to widen. Just like psychoactive substances, pathological surfing on the net, continuously being in a state of virtual communication, cyber sex, computer games and other excessive pursuits can create both psychiatric as well as physical problems, and even tear families apart.
There is a school of thought that addiction is an incurable illness.1 And yet it can be treated; by understanding its nature and the typical symptoms of its development, sufferers can spend the rest of their lives free from addiction.
Addiction to narcotic and psychotropic substances has particularly severe consequences. The toxic effect of these substances causes operating malfunctions in the user’s brain and damages various internal organs; personality deteriorates in terms of character and emotions, relationships with family and society disintegrate, and associations are formed with the criminal world.2 Therefore, according to the doctrine of “risk and need”, on which penal systems throughout the world are based, substance abuse is one of the seven main risk factors of criminal behaviour.3
In other words, a drug addict is not just a victim, but a potential criminal as well.
It is reasonable to assume that most people who end up in prison have previously used narcotics. In Latvia, imprisonment is almost like a side-effect of a drug-related illness that was not cured in time. However, isolation from society does not in itself cure this descent into illness. Those for whom prison is just a pit stop in the downward spiral of addiction continue to move back and forth between freedom and prison until their chronic health problems end their lives prematurely.
For many drug addicts, the use of intoxicating substances is related to family problems, difficulties in finding meaning in their lives, low self-confidence and a lack of love.4 However, these are areas which the penal system traditionally doesn’t deal with. Imprisonment further alienates a person from their family. In prison, a person’s opportunities to fulfil their goals, develop their talents and grow as a person are reduced to a minimum. Isolation and prison conditions undermine a person’s self-confidence. There is no compassion in prison.
Therefore, the prison system faces a difficult challenge - either master hitherto unfamiliar working methods or acknowledge its inability to work with a significant proportion of prisoners: addicts. Latvia's prison system has chosen the former course of action.
Challenge – the Human Being
The choice of the aforementioned course of action is possible thanks to a cooperation agreement between the European Union and Norway, aimed at achieving a stable and blossoming Europe. Latvia is one of 15 countries which has received co-financing from this Nordic country to invest in the eradication of social and economic inequality. Moreover, in pursuit of this objective, reform of the correction service and State Police short-term detention centres has been determined as one of five specific targets in Latvia.5
More attentive readers will perhaps object that prison reform in various guises has been taking place in Latvia for almost twenty years. However, this reform is special, because it is an ideological reform. Although the project devised for its introduction has a seemingly humble title, "Establishment of a New Section at Olaine Prison, including Construction and Personnel Training”, its purpose is profound. Among the “especially sensitive groups of prisoners in prison” mentioned in the special government decree, the Prisons Authority has chosen prisoners with psychoactive substance addictions as a target group.
Thanks to the project, Latvian society will obtain a system aimed at reducing addiction while in prison.
However, through this system, it will also obtain the nucleus of a penal system that is characteristic of Western nations, but foreign to the Post-Soviet space. Without an appreciation of every person as an asset, without an inviolable belief in every person’s potential and ability to change, it is not possible to support prisoners in their battle against addiction. The same can be said for the battle against criminal behaviour risk factors in general.
If I could give the project another name, they would call it “At the Crossroads”. This is because the project really is at the crossroads between the isolating policies of yesterday, aimed at punishing criminals, and the rehabilitating policies of tomorrow, nurturing a philosophy that sees the penal system geared toward human growth. Between addiction therapy based on medicines and a medicine-free approach. Between legislation that regulates a person’s life in prison and legislation that regulates the treatment of people suffering from addiction. Between employees who guard and watch and employees who help and support. And so on and so forth…
This publication is the first in a series of blogs about the Prisons Authority’s path within the project, “Establishment of a New Section at Olaine Prison, including Construction and Personnel Training”. A path embarked upon together with our experienced partners from Norway and Poland and aimed at prisoners in Latvia – prisoners suffering from addiction. More about the project’s goals and activities will follow in due course.
Māris Luste, Project Manager
4 See Reference 2.
5 According to the documents arising from the cooperation agreement – correction services are the Prisons Authority and State Probation Service.