Advocates Rally for Prison Drug Treatment

Advocates Rally for Prison Drug Treatment

The coalition supporting public health solutions to the epidemic of drug overdose deaths is backing a bill in Albany requiring prisons and jails to offer medically assisted treatment to inmates with a substance use disorder. Recently released prisoners frequently die from overdose deaths, in good measure because while their cravings are high, their tolerance for the drugs has fallen.

The use of methadone, Naltrexone, and Buprenorphine, sanctioned by the federal Food and Drug Adminstration and recommended by experts, minimize the constant craving for opioids. This desperate need escalates when a user is forced to go cold turkey. These medications work on the brain’s receptor to calm a person with substance use disorder. The legislation offers patients in prison the same treatment options as those looking to recover on the outside.

Rhode Island, as part of Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan to reduce overdose deaths by one-third in three years, produced stunning results after introducing medically assisted treatment (MAT) in its jails and prisons. According to research published in the April 2018 issue of JAMA Psychiatry, the number of fatalities among those recently incarcerated dropped 60.5 percent. In 2016, before the start of the program, 26 individuals died from ODs within 12 months of their release, but by 2017, after MAT’s introduction, a similar group of ex-cons experienced nine deaths.

VOCAL-NY, the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. and COMPA, the Coalition of Medication Assisted Treatment Providers and Advocates of New York State, have gotten behind Assembly bill A0833A and its Senate companion that would require state prisons and local jails to offer MAT. Upper West Side Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal is the lead sponsor of the bill, which is also sponsored by David Weprin of Queens, chair of the Corrections Committee, and Chelsea’s Richard Gottfried, the Health Committee chair.

Rosenthal, who chairs the Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, told advocates and former inmates that prisoners with diabetes get medication and individuals with “substance abuse disorder should get medication.” A February 27 news conference in the State Capitol drew dozens carrying signs proclaiming “Forced Withdrawal is Torture.”

Craig Apple, the Albany County sheriff, recently introduced MAT at his jail, and he urged other sheriffs to adopt the program but expressed dismay that Governor Andrew Cuomo allocated only $3.75 million in his fiscal year 2020 budget for the program. Rikers Island has for decades provided this service to its inmates from the five boroughs. The governor’s allocation for the state’s remaining 57 counties amounts to just $65,879 per county, with no money going to state prisons.

Apple discussed his change of heart from a belief in “tough love” to battle contraband in his jails to his understanding of MAT’s health and well-being benefits. After getting inmates established on medication, however, he is often compelled to taper them off for transfers to state prisons.

Bronx State Senator Jamaal Bailey, chair of the Codes Committee and sponsor of the Senate companion bill, insisted, “Every person should be treated in a humane manner, whether they are incarcerated or not.”