Is It Morally Permissible to Imprison Drug Users?

The use of Illicit Drugs and their correlation with prison has been apparent since the 20th Century. In this paper I will discuss the ineffectiveness of imprisonment as a way to combat drug use and addiction, it’s exploitative properties, and why these inefficiencies and exploitative properties lead to questions raised about the system’s moral permissibility and its right to imprison drug users.

This paper can be interpreted in many ways. From Kant to Marx we can all agree that our ideal society would eliminate unfair practices. Thus the issue of exploitation comes to the table. This paper will use the definition of exploitation by Kant which is encompassing the idea of unfair practices. I believe that Kant and his rhetoric will aid in the defense of the prisoners in this argument as he states these unfair practices use people as a means, not a means to an end. This is an accurate depiction of our current system as the prisons use the prisoners as a source of free labor with no benefit bestowed upon the prisoner.

The issue of illicit drug use has been taken up by two groups of people. Those against the use of illicit drugs, and those for legalization. While both groups acknowledge drug abuse as a real thing, the responses on how to deal with it vary extremely. On the side against the legalization of drugs, the typical response to drug use when encountered by law enforcement is the enactment of some sort of punitive action, anywhere from a ticket to prison time. This is the standard practice in our country in dealing with drugs, whether the user is an addict or a recreational user. Those for legalization are against the use of prisons for this purpose, and instead advocate for rehabilitation programs to be funded, and for anti overdose medications, such as narcan, to be supplied for the general population.

Addiction does not even end in prison. The drug trade in prison is massive according to the research report, “Persistence of drug use during imprisonment: relationship of drug type, recency of use and severity of dependence to use of heroin, cocaine and amphetamine in prison” authored by John Strang, Michael Gossop, Joan Heuston, John Green, Christopher Whiteley & Anthony Maden. The authors illustrate the aim of their research, which is investigating amphetamine uses in prison and the factors that increase the persistence of use in said institutions. According to the study, more than half of US inmates met Diagnostic and Statistical Manual version IV (DSM-IV) criteria that states these inmates have an addiction to drugs like cocaine and similar drugs of the same potency. While most countries try to counter infections spread by the injection of these drugs through needle exchange programs, the US sees the use of these substances as a disciplinary issue and not a health issue. A health issue that leads to the spread of HIV, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C (Strang, Gossop, Heuston, Green, Whiteley, Maden, p 1126).

Illegal drug use also has created imprisonment not just in the literal sense, but in the figurative sense as the whole world becomes your prison. In Russia we can see this being a very real phenomenon as drug users must bribe police to stay free and turn the other cheek to users. However it is not a “pay once and you’re done” deal, it is everytime they see you, you have to pay. In their study, “Policing Drug Users in Russia: Risk, Fear, and Structural Violence”, ANYA SARANG, TIM RHODES, NICOLAS SHEON AND KIMBERLY PAGE cover the corruption of law enforcement and drug use in Russian society. An example of this is the fear cited in the study. Several Russian cities began running programs providing free needles to addicts, however many still use dirty needles for fear of being arrested.

“Fear. Fear. This is the very main reason. And not only fear of being caught, but fear that you will be caught, and you won’t be able to get a fix. So on top of being pressured and robbed [by police], there’s the risk you’ll also end up being sick. And that’s why you’ll use whatever syringe is available right then and there. (Female, 22, Moscow)”.

This excerpt from the research gives a snapshot as to how the fear of police, not only imprisoning, but robbing users prompts them not to get clean needles as arrest will lead to illness through absence of the substance, and or taking of the money they have, leaving them again with no way to get more of the substance they now require to stay functioning. (Sarang, Rhodes, Sheon, Page, p. 817–818).

Similar situations occur in the US as well. The LA times published an article on October 25, 2016 with the title “Two corrupt cops joined forces with drug dealers. Now, dozens of criminal cases could be in jeopardy” written by Richard Winton. The article states that several officers were involved in the scandal in which thousands of dollars, weapons and drugs were exchanged between the group of corrupt officers and the dealers. Any cases involving the two men will now have to be reexamined as they were narcotics detectives and most likely contaminated the evidence and made biased judgements when encountering evidence and other drug dealers. This now means the criminals convicted of drug charges, and the criminals shielded by the corrupt officers, will now have to face trial, or in the case of those convicted, retrial, as a means to correct multiple obstructions of justice (Winton).

The issues of illicit drugs has been a problem in our society, and with the drug war being declared in 1971, life for users, the justice system, and nonusers have become chaotic. Now with imprisonment of users has become a hot topic as the users typically do not cause anyone but themselves harm. Also seeing that addiction is never halted, especially in the US through imprisonment, is this current system, after examining its exploitative and ineffective properties, morally permissible?

I believe that the imprisonment of these users of illicit drugs is not morally permissible due to these two major deficiencies. At a base level examined from a bird’s eye view on a national and international level, the justice system, as proven by the Russian and American Justice systems in the studies by Sarang, Rhodes, Sheon, and Page on their research, “Policing Drug Users in Russia: Risk, Fear, and Structural Violence”, and the LA Times Article, “Two corrupt cops joined forces with drug dealers. Now, dozens of criminal cases could be in jeopardy”, written by Richard Winton, shows the Justice system is used to not administer justice, but is used by the state and its enforcers to make money indefinitely off of those that are addicted to drugs. A further example of this can be seen in how the United States’ Prison system uses its prison population as slave labor to produce products for corporations or to be used as disaster response to deal with natural disasters or to be used on public works projects, all justified through the thirteenth amendment. Later in this paper we will delve into how exploitative actions due to systemic inefficiencies are allowed to persist.

Once drug users are imprisoned they fall victim to the private prison. Private prisons are built solely for profit, and justify their forced labor programs as being necessary for the rehabilitation of inmates. However, these programs have proven to be nothing more than a neoliberal trap that provides a legal excuse to use free labor to make sneakers and other commodities. These institutions do not seek to better the inmate. Rather they use them to work the modern plantations of society. The growth of private prisons has been seen since the early 1970’s and 1980’s. With the passage of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, private prisons were legally allowed to open their doors. The problem with Private Prisons is that the ownership of said Private Prison is legally allowed to have less regulations than a Federal or State Prison, legally allowing for maximum corporate profit at the expense of the unpaid prisoner. (Aman Jr., Greenhouse, p.377).

Prison Privatisation has seen increased demand during the late twentieth century as a means to combat the overcrowding of Prisons. However, the Private Prisons increased the Prison population. According to Alfred C Aman Jr. & Carol J. Greenhouse in their paper “PRISON PRIVATIZATION AND INMATE LABOR IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY: REFRAMING THE DEBATE OVER PRIVATE PRISONS”,

“Rather, it was due to specific policy shifts that expanded criminalization, particularly of drug offenses, and approaches to punishment embodied by so-called three-strikes laws. The legislative sources are the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 (which created the U.S. Sentencing Commission, whose guidelines went into effect on November 1, 1987) and the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1984 and 1987.™ These Acts resulted in new convictions, longer sentences and reduced availability of parole — filling prisons well beyond their designed capacity.™ The spike in federal incarceration in the decade between the late 1980s and the late 1990s is generally ascribed to the increase in convictions of non-violent drug offenders under the 1984 and 1988 legislation cited above. By the end of 1997, sixty-eight percent of all minimum-security federal prisoners were non-violent drug offenders” (Alfred C Am an, Jr. & Carol J. Greenhouse, p. 377) .

This excerpt, as well as the excerpts show previously in this paper, show that drug users are being used to fuel private companies. These non violent prisoners are being used to fuel corporate ambitions. The government and these private companies are benefiting off of the backs of these prisoners not only in the ability to have access to free labor, but to now have justification for building more prisons due to purposeful overcrowding. This will allow private prisons to make more money and at the expense of the prisoners. These practices, while some say are rehabilitative, are mostly exploitative and continue to foster negative behavior and do not attempt to solve the problem. The exploitation found from the initial creation of the private prisons can be found in the next paragraph(s) as examples of systematic racism and the presentation of the failing internal structure and operational functions of the prisons.

Examples of this can be seen in the paper, “Who is in private prisons? Demographic profiles of prisoners and workers in American private prisons.”, written by Brett C. Burkhardt. Burkhardt claims that, first, there is a growing body of evidence that private prisons fare poorly on a variety of performance measures, including access to health care and work assignments. Second, critics have long suspected that private prison firms skim the best inmates with lowest needs in an attempt to minimize costs. Third, private prisons are typically non-unionized workplaces that provide lower levels of compensation to employees. Thus, overexposure to private prisons as a prisoner or as a worker may have negative consequences for the people they detain and employ. Workers and Prisoners in the Private prisons are not allowed to unionize and are paid very little. This can lead to destructive behavior on both sides such as a possible increase in extrajudicial violence at the hands of the prison guards, and increased likelihood of revolt at the hands of the prisoners. It is here where we can see the inefficiency and exploitation mentioned earlier come full circle. Because of poor treatment of CO’s and the even poorer treatment of prisoners, i.e. the inability to unionize on both sides, we can see that productivity and complacency will decline. These negative consequences will also come into play when we examine who are put into the private prisons as workers and prisoners. (Burkhardt, p. 24–26).

In order to determine who gets put into private prisons, and why they are put there, we must examine three key factors. First we shall look at the jurisdiction of the Private Prisons. (Burkhardt, p. 25 ) “A given private prison may contract with multiple jurisdictions to hold prisoners. As such, they are likely to hold inmates for different levels of government (local, state, federal) and from different parts of the country. In extreme cases, speculative (or “spec”) prisons may be built in the hopes of eventually receiving inmates from some-any-jurisdiction (Taylor-Grover, 2012). Additionally, private prisons contract with the federal government to hold non-US citizens for immigration-related purposes (discussed further below). As a result, we should expect that the industry will hold proportionately more federal inmates and out-of-state inmates than do state prisons” (Burkhardt, p. 25 ). Burkhardt’s paper shows how the jurisdiction the private prisons holds is on a national basis. They even take in illegal immigrants to be used for labor. Also from the same paper, it can be shown that these men and women that are being held captive are being used for work. (Burkhardt, p. 25 ). For example, private prison contracts in Arizona mandated that high-risk inmates or those with high medical needs were not to be sent to private prisons (Burkhardt, p. 25 ). Also, in Minnesota, a private prison “did not accept any offenders over the age of 60 […] or any prisoners with serious medical conditions or mental health disorders”(Burkhardt, p. 25 ). We can also see that these institutions hold a disproportionate amount of minorities, blacks and hispanics. As evidenced by the claim, discussed above, that minorities are typically arrested for drug use and had a high recetivation rate. When we look at the study “Who is in private prisons? Demographic profiles of prisoners and workers in American private prisons” we can see that the average private prison sentence is 11 months. This is important because minorities that are drug users are likely to return to prison multiple times due to the fact black and hispanic communities are disproportionately poor and in poorer neighborhoods drugs become readily available. With these three things in mind; high recitivation, high minority prison population, and non violent drug offenders being the main prison population, we can clearly see that the private prisons can now have a continual source of free labor that will last longer than the typical 11 month sentence. Here again we can also see examples of exploitation. The prisoners are being used as a continual source of cheap labor. This is exploitative for two reasons; the prisoner was arrested for doing no harm to anyone but himself, and the prisoner is being cheated of valuable time that can be used for rehabilitation and educational services to benefit the mind and soul. While this practice is highly exploitative, it is also ineffective as their has been no proof of improved mental health of prisoners, nor has there been any proof to an increase in productivity due to the private prison system.

In order to truly examine the exploitative and ineffective properties of the Industrial Prison complex, we must look at the employees of Private and Public Prisons. Private prisons pay their CO’s marginally less than Pubic Prison CO’s. While the positions in both Private and Public Institutions are extremely low, Private Prisons are paying their employees far less than their public counterparts(Burkhardt, p. 26). A typical Private Prison pays its employees $9 an hour for a total of $19,000 a year, whereas in Public Prisons we can see a $34,000 a year income for CO’s. Also, Private Prison CO’s are given more prisoners to watch over than their public counterparts. This has led to unsafe living and working conditions in Private Institutions (Burkhardt, p. 26).

These inefficiencies such as no qualitative evidence for increased productive output, no improvement of mental or physical health of inmates, poor payment of staff, and no unionization rights for inmate or staff labor show that the Industrial Prison complex cannot produce the results it claims to provide of improving mental and physical health of inmates, which is critical to the system’s legitimacy if it is going to continue importing non violent drug offenders into its walls. Which leads me to the exploitative properties of the institution. This Industrial Prison system is exploitative because it does not provide resources to combat addiction and does not give inmates healthy outlets for the emotional reasons that trigger the use of drugs. While some may say that the forced labor aspect will give prisoners some form of an outlet to express themselves, that is not the case. If it was true that forced labor would be beneficial and prevent drug use, then we would not see such a high recidivism rate due to the same use of drugs. Because of these terrible practices in the name of fighting drug abuse, I consider the Industrial Prison system to be exploitative. Because the Industrial Prison system is inefficient and exploitative, it is inherently morally impermissible.

The permissibility of the current system morally impermissible due to its inherent ineffectiveness and exploitation. While the majority of this paper has been focused on the inefficiencies and exploitative properties of the system, we now have the base line to tackle the question of whether the system is morally permissible. After looking at the evidence presented we must reflect on the evidence and how all of the evidence has shown that the system cannot provide for its employees, or its inmates, nor can it even prove that it is efficient in achieving the basic function of a prison, which is to prevent the continuation of harmful acts after release.

While I do believe that prisons are not effective in correcting harmful actions, we must acknowledge the other side of the argument that prisons are effective in correcting harmful actions. Some people believe Prisons are effective because of the educational and vocational training that is offered in some prisons, which does give inmates new outlets and possibly new job opportunities when they return from prison. However this hasn’t been proven considering the high rate of recidivism that has been found frequently in the research used for the construction of this paper. While pro-prison advocates say prisoners and society get something out of the justice system, Kant would say otherwise.

Using Kant’s language to examine the prison system we can see that prisons are unfair and are ineffective as they use prisoners as a means, and they deviate from their mission statement which is dedicated to reducing the prison population and combating crime and addiction. This examination leads to my conclusion of the current Justice system.

After reviewing the facts of the justice system of not only the United States, but that of Russia, I think it is quite clear that it is unjust to imprison the users of illicit substances. It is not morally just because the justice system has proven to cause more harm in the fact that prisoners are subjected to slave-like conditions and their addictions are used to fuel the profits of a corporate or state entity. These people that are in need of help physically and financially are not given the proper care to deal with their problems. Rehabilitation programs are not provided in a way that will constructively help users, instead the corporations and the capitalist state will say that work is their rehabilitation. We are not on the moral high ground by continuing to exploit those that are helpless at the hands of poverty and addiction for our own profit, and seeing how these practices violates not just a person’s individual life, but the lives of the collective, this practice is not moral and does not benefit society as so many people are affected by the institutions practices. Whole communities are damaged due to this system that uses poverty and addiction as a means to benefit the few who own the prisons. It is morally impermissible to imprison users of illicit substances.


Sarang, Anya, et al. “Policing Drug Users in Russia: Risk, Fear, and Structural Violence.” Substance Use & Misuse, vol. 45, no. 6, 2010, pp. 813–864., doi:10.3109/10826081003590938.

Strang, John, et al. “Persistence of drug use during imprisonment: relationship of drug type, recency of use and severity of dependence to use of heroin, cocaine and amphetamine in prison.” Addiction, vol. 101, no. 8, 2006, pp. 1125–1132., doi:10.1111/j.1360–0443.2006.01475.x.

Aman, Alfred, and Carol Greenhouse. “Prison Privatization and Inmate Labor in the Global Economy: Reframing the Debate Over Private Prisons.” By Alfred Aman, Carol Greenhouse :: SSRN, 22 May 2015,

Burkhardt, Brett C. “Who is in private prisons? Demographic profiles of prisoners and workers in American private prisons.” International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, vol. 51, 2017, pp. 24–33., doi:10.1016/j.ijlcj.2017.04.004.

I critique society from a Marxist Viewpoint