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My Son’s in Jail, And I Think It Saved His Life

No one wants to see their Loved One incarcerated. Surprisingly enough, however, it’s not always the worst of outcomes. Eliza’s son has struggled with substance use for years, and recently experienced a dangerous overdose. Dominique Simon-Levine helps her assess this moment of incarceration—which could bring hazards or opportunities—and shares experiences from her own family and the Allies in Recovery community.

My son is currently sitting in a jail. He has been using cocaine and alcohol for years. I’ve been listening to the podcast and completing the modules and still, at this moment, I feel completely broken and powerless. I am trying to let natural consequences occur and am not going to court or bailing him out. Honestly, him going to jail seems at this point to be a life-saving moment. He’s just overdosed and had to be Narcanned three weeks ago. I’ve been ignoring his calls, for my sake and his. Is this the right thing? How do I handle this?


View Of Bird And Silhouette Fence Against Sky During Sunset – GettyImages – Ihar Paulau ©


Your son is in jail. He overdosed three weeks ago. The charge is likely something related to his addiction. Many, many people in jail—over half in the case of the jail I worked in—were arrested directly or indirectly because of their addiction.

Deep breath. You are right to question the next steps. Jail can be a break in the action for a Loved One, a moment to stop using and think about their life. We aren’t so naive as to think that there aren’t drugs in jail, but it’s never to the degree that they are available in the streets. In jail, you have to be connected to tap into the illegal supply. That takes a little time.

Jails shouldn’t be where our Loved Ones end up. But when they are…

We’ve written about having a Loved One in jail before (you may also find this blog post, or perhaps this one helpful). The first thing we always stress is that jails are not the appropriate place for our Loved Ones who act out in response to their addiction. Ultimately, treatment for the disease in which they are suffering would be the ideal environment.

It would be smarter to treat the source of the illegal activity—that is, to treat addiction itself. Some jails, like the one I worked in, now offer medications like Suboxone and Methadone. In these cases, you’re seen by a medical doctor who can prescribe psychopharmaceutical drugs such as antidepressants. There are even programs in some jails that address addiction through case management services, supporting released persons with their transition back into the community.

Note: While your son is awaiting trial and not yet a sentenced inmate, the programming available to him may be limited.

His options may depend on the kind of jail he’s in

What kind of jail is your son in? Is he relatively safe in that jail? Families have to investigate and try to answer such questions for themselves. Like you, I had a family member in jail: a notorious one deep in a southern state. My family member is Latino and was without resources. His immediate family chose to move fast to get him released. They chose to bail him out and paid for an attorney—both of which could be seen as rewards to the person responsible for behaviors that led to incarceration in the first place. However, given the dangers at stake, the family chose to help secure his release. I encouraged my family to have next steps in place for when he was released, to see their aid as the bribe that it was, and to pair release with immediate admission into substance use treatment. This is not ideal as bribes play a strategic role.

Is your son safer in jail than on the street? He recently overdosed, which puts him at the highest risk of overdosing again. From your brief description, I would agree with you that your son’s arrest may actually have been a “life-saving moment”. Were he to be released today, would he go directly into some planned course of treatment tailored to his needs? One that includes safe housing, either in your home, if possible, or through admission to a residential/recovery house?

As I said, deep breath.

A cautionary tale

We recently worked with a family whose 42-year-old daughter was arrested for grand theft. We had actively been working with her mother to open doors and provide the daughter an array of resources and options to come off the streets and get treatment. We worked on this for months; she was very resistant. When she finally got arrested, everyone involved (the estranged husband, the boyfriend, the mother, the father) was able to take a collective breath and calm down a bit.

I certainly did. It gave us time to plan. I looked into the jail and received good feedback about its internal programming and medical care. The jail put her on Methadone and an antidepressant. She wrote letters to her mother, describing the books she was reading and her plans for the future. Mom felt like her daughter had returned to her in a way.

The daughter, however, went to work on her mother, begging to be bailed out. She bullied, cried, and threatened. She described horrible conditions, like being shackled all day while waiting for a court appearance, and the dangers of being harmed by fellow inmates making her mother feel increasing guilt and shame for not providing immediate bail.

Mom engaged an attorney who agreed to help get her daughter remanded to treatment. Keep in mind that this goes against what attorneys are generally meant to do. Ethically, attorneys are in the service of their client. With that, the attorney’s responsibility is to the client, thus, to get the client released, and the charges dropped. Treatment is not a necessary part of the equation. Please note that a good public defender will do the same thing by aiming for treatment.

There were many options while the daughter was still being held. We asked the attorney to look into whether she could be diverted to drug court. Drug Courts restrict eligibility, as in this example from Washington state, and she was not eligible. When Drug Court was not an option, the attorney asked the court to remand her to treatment, meaning that upon release she would be placed on probation and begin treatment for substance use and mental health. Ideally, probation would provide a critical level of oversight should she leave treatment and return to use. In this case, the criminal justice system was being used as leverage; the daughter would quickly be returned to jail if she violated the terms of her probation.

So, in this case, mom did not pay bail. She wasn’t prepared to be left holding the bag (over $100,000) should the daughter run back to the street, fail to show up for court appearances, or otherwise violate the terms of her release and probation.

We looked into treatment programs and made contact with them. The daughter wanted a particular program, one that she had heard about in jail. Mom gave the daughter the name of the intake coordinator and the number to call to complete a brief intake assessment for admission to the program. All she needed to do was pick up her phone and make the call.

She didn’t. The day after her release, she was granted three days worth of take-home methadone from the community methadone program (it was, believe it or not, a three-day weekend. Sigh). The jail had not helped set up the call, nor did they provide transport to the door of the treatment center: both critical, and both missed opportunities.

Today, the daughter is back on the streets. She is making insufficient moves to get into treatment, though she has been in touch with the treatment program. Double sigh. But there are two important aspects to this situation I’d like to emphasize: 1) Mom’s not on the hook for the bond money, and 2) the daughter is violating the terms of her probation.

She can be picked up and put back in jail or choose to walk into the treatment center, whose doors are open. The choice is hers. The family isn’t the one pushing for treatment. The criminal justice system is leveraging the daughter, but the responsibility is on her to choose to do the next right thing.

I hope that by illustrating this case, I’ve provided you with some ideas for managing your son’s incarceration. There are steps families can take when criminal justice steps in with a Loved One. It’s a rocky road, no doubt, but one must try. We would like to hear from others who have experience with criminal justice.

You are partnering with your son

As for communicating with your son: absolutely do! What I’ve described above is our best strategy for the role you can play. The message in your communications with him should be centered on love and support, as it would be for any Loved One who is far away and in crisis. You are there. He is not alone. He is loved. You don’t want to cut him off, and he doesn’t want to be cut off. Stay with him as best you can. One quick example: can you afford to put some money in his account at the jail so he can make calls and buy a few basic necessities to make his stay a bit more comfortable?

I’d suggest you add one more message to your communications: You have been through worse. You are capable of managing the situation you’re in. You can do this. You’re strong enough. It’s your choice.

And beyond what I’ve outlined above, let it alone. Find other things to talk about. Landing in jail is his experience. Being in jail can open one’s eyes.

I am so sorry that your son is in trouble, both with his SUD and now with the law. I hope this post helps you to identify where to draw the lines. Finding the right boundaries is what you can do both for him and for yourself.

We have other family members going through this exact situation. For anyone reading this: please comment below and share your learning experiences with this mom. And don’t forget our evening support groups. They’re a wonderful, positive resource, where you’ll come into contact with so many people who can relate to what you’re dealing with. In this challenging time, you’re going to need all the support you can get. We are here for you.


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In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)