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Is Telehealth the Secret Ingredient to Preventing Recidivism?

— July 7, 2023

Ongoing substance abuse recovery is an essential part of returning to society for most ex-convicts.

There is an unfortunate connection between substance abuse and incarceration. Approximately 85% of the prison population has an active substance abuse disorder or was incarcerated due to drug-related crimes, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Addiction can be a significant roadblock for those attempting to reintegrate into normal society. Many former inmates re-offend or fail their probationary period due to substance abuse and drug culture.

Substance abuse recovery professionals and agencies are developing and perfecting new and exciting solutions for the problem of addiction counseling, particularly with the prison population. How can telehealth support those returning to society after their release from prison? 

The Challenges Facing Ex-Convicts When Integrating into Society

Integrating back into the civilian population after a period in prison is often a challenging, and emotional experience. Re-learning the rules of society, getting a job (while having a criminal record), and rebuilding relationships with loved ones is frequently overwhelming. Many former prisoners will start out in halfway houses, and even more are on probation upon release. 

Probation generally entails a lengthy list of requirements, such as mandatory urinalysis tests, meetings, job searching, and substance abuse treatment or 12-step meetings (often both). Picking up the pieces of life is hard under even the most ideal conditions, and most ex-inmates will tell you that their circumstances are often far less than ideal when they’re newly out of the prison system.

Getting to all of these meetings while job searching and generally trying to get back on their feet often causes the returning citizens to feel overwhelmed. These feelings can be exacerbated when missed appointments can carry severe consequences, like failing to meet probation requirements or even re-incarceration. Recidivism is a huge problem, with sometimes half or more prisoners returning to prison just a few years after their release.

The cause for recidivism will vary from person to person, but substance abuse often plays a role. The lure of drugs and alcohol, the return to unhealthy relationships and communities, the intense pressure of probation requirements, and feelings of overwhelm are often cited by prisoners as causes for their recidivism. A lack of rehabilitation and life skills around managing substance abuse triggers, impulsivity, and emotional regulation are also contributing factors, which is why post-prison treatment is an important (and overlooked) part of returning to society. 

What is Telehealth? 

Telehealth is a powerful new therapeutic intervention. Essentially, telehealth is a way for medical professionals to meet with their patients over video or audio call for therapy sessions, consultations, or even examinations. Instead of requiring patients to travel to and from the office, appointments can now be held remotely. This is huge, particularly for therapy and counseling sessions, which meet weekly or several times a week.

Gone are the days when health professionals had to be in the same room as their patients. Now a doctor can consult with a patient who is next door or a thousand miles away. Previously underserved populations, like those in rural towns, are now able to consult with medical staff more quickly and easily than ever. Telehealth has been around for a while, but the use cases of telemedicine and telecare exploded during the pandemic lockdowns and likely aren’t going anywhere soon. 

Why Telehealth is a Game Changer for Preventing Recidivism

Telehealth is a complete boon for the substance abuse and recovery community. Former inmates can now connect with their counselors or therapists without requiring a lengthy or difficult commute. They can more easily fit individual or even group counseling sessions into their schedule, which prevents program attrition. 

Telehealth technology resolves many of the difficulties that people encounter when attempting a treatment and recovery program. When individuals are given more flexibility and freedom with how they schedule and receive treatment, they’re far more likely to engage. Intensive treatment programs can sometimes require several weekly treatment meetings, and some or all of the scheduling and transportation pressure is alleviated by telehealth appointments and scheduling. 

Is Telehealth as Effective as In-Person Treatment?

Eliminating Telehealth Could Negatively Impact Veterans, Minorities
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

There are still a lot of unknowns about telehealth as it is still such a new and evolving approach to substance abuse and mental health treatment. Still, studies are showing positive results when it comes to the efficacy of telehealth in therapeutic settings.

Essentially, many therapeutic professionals are of the opinion that the issue of in-person treatment versus telehealth treatment comes down to harm reduction and meeting people where they’re at. Harm reduction entails taking more moderate steps towards wellness instead of the ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to recovery that may not be realistic or feasible for all people. In-person treatment may work better for some patients when working through their addiction issues and triggers, however, telehealth treatment is better than no treatment. 

Not to mention that things like employment, 12-step groups, education, and time with family are also crucial to a holistic recovery program, but many of these things are often sidelined so the person can attend treatment groups and therapy sessions. Creative solutions to resolving complicated scheduling and transportation needs will often mean a more successful treatment encounter for those in recovery. This also frees up time for the individual to focus more time and resources on their other life domains.


Ongoing substance abuse recovery is an essential part of returning to society for most ex-convicts. Finding new and useful ways to support them in their recovery is the goal of addiction professionals, and telehealth is just one of the emerging creative ways of problem-solving the recidivism problem. Hopefully, the flexibility and ease of attending groups and individual sessions remotely will support former inmates as they work to rebuild their lives in society. 

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