The Full Story
Approximately 65% of the 2.2 million Americans in prison at the end of 2016 met the criteria for substance use disorder (drug-induced impairment or addiction). In 2009, the World Health Organization recommended that prisons offer inmates the same medical treatments that are available to the general public, including treatments for drug use disorders. However, only 11% of inmates in need of addiction treatment receive it.
During the first 2 weeks after release, former inmates are at greater risk of death from homicide, suicide, lapse in treatment for chronic medical conditions, and drug overdose, with drug overdose being the leading cause of death in this population. The risk of death from drug overdose is 129 times higher in the 2 weeks after release compared to the general public. Former inmates who received treatment for their substance use disorders while they were in prison are more likely to stay in treatment programs longer or complete treatment for addiction after their release and are less likely to relapse. Opioid-dependent patients who are allowed to continue opioid addiction treatment with medications like methadone while they are in prison are less likely to be rearrested than those who are simply detoxified in jail.
The use of medication-assisted treatments (MATs) is an effective method for treating opioid abuse. Medications used to treat opioid abuse include buprenorphine, methadone, and extended-release naltrexone. These medications block euphoria in order to reduce opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms so the brain recovers from the addiction.
In spite of ample evidence of the benefits of medication-assisted opioid withdrawal treatments, these tools are greatly underused. Only 28 state prison systems (56%) in the US offer methadone treatment, and half of those limit treatment to pregnant women or inmates with chronic pain. Only 7 state prison systems (14%) have programs using buprenorphine treatment. Nearly 75% of prisoners with opioid use disorder relapse back into drug use within 3 months of their release.
Barriers to opioid use disorder treatment for current and former inmates and the general public are similar. These include poor social support systems, inadequate resources, stigmatization, marginalization, and restrictive drug and healthcare policies. The more we stigmatize and marginalize patients suffering from opioid use disorder, the more we impede progress. For example, communities have opposed the opening of MAT centers in their neighborhoods. Officials have proposed zoning changes that would make the opening of MATs illegal in some areas, health insurers have proposed treatment time limits on opioid use disorder medications, and there is still a widespread belief that the drugs used for treatment are just as bad and just as abused as opioids.
As a society, we must take collective ownership of the opioid epidemic and understand how each of us can make a difference by being aware of critical points of intervention. This requires recognizing our biases and fears and making the conscious decision to make a change in how we choose to move forward. Where in the cycle of addiction, prison, release, relapse into addiction, criminal activity, and return to prison can we intervene? Have a conversation about opioid use and misuse with your family and friends, identify risk factors in your home and community, be engaged in your patient/healthcare provider relationship, and support the people and programs around you that are in need of help. Continue learning about the opioid epidemic by listening to our podcast, Poison!.
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