Unique to Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Corrections is a drug addiction treatment program provided to individuals who are incarcerated and struggling with addiction. Launched less than two years ago, it screens incoming inmates for opioid addiction and provides those who need it with medication-assisted treatment to help them recover from addiction safely and with long-term goals for recovery in mind.
There have already been huge results. In a study entitled “Postincarceration Fatal Overdoses After Implementing Medications for Addiction Treatment in a Statewide Correctional System,” published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers compared two time periods: six months prior to when the program began and the same period of time a year later. There was a 61 percent drop in overdose deaths for inmates after release. This significant result likely contributed to the 12 percent decrease in all overdose deaths across the state during that same period.
Though this study was preliminary, given how young the program is, its incredible results suggest the need for mass implementation of the program in jails and prisons across the state and across the country. When coupled with treatment after release, it has the potential to be a truly effective support in helping those who are struggling most with addiction to get the help they need to heal.
Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich is a co-author of the study as well as professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University and director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at the Miriam Hospital in Providence. He says: “This program reaches an extremely vulnerable population at an extremely vulnerable time with the best treatment available for opioid use disorder. With this study, we wanted to see if that intervention could impact statewide overdose mortality, and the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’”
Rhode Island and Beyond
Rhode Island is often the home of groundbreaking studies, and this is no exception. Given the extreme nature of the results, the hope is that prison systems across the country will begin to employ what is ultimately a moneysaving as well as a lifesaving tool. Not only do individuals living with addiction benefit from the program, but so do their children who might be otherwise relegated to the foster care system, their communities who benefit from decreased crime and more tax income, and the prison systems and legal systems that will save money as their burden lessens.
Dr. Traci Green is the lead author of the study as well as an adjunct associate professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology at Brown and a senior researcher at Rhode Island Hospital. She said: “People have been searching for some way to stop overdose deaths. Here we have a program that’s shown to work, and it’s absolutely replicable in other places. Not only do we see that a statewide program treating people using medications for addiction treatment is possible and reduces deaths, but also this approach intervenes on the opioid epidemic at its most lethal and socially disrupting point – incarceration – to give hope and heal communities.”
The Many Facets of a Future Free from Addiction
Though there is no silver bullet to effectively wipe out addiction, engaging inmates who have struggled with addiction in treatment that will help them heal is an essential piece of the puzzle. Treatment for all populations facing a substance use disorder is key, and this study is another acknowledgement that treatment is our greatest resource in the fight against early death due to overdose and other consequences of addiction. There is no other tool for fighting addiction that is proven to have such a significant impact on rates of overdose death.
That is not to say that other interventions that have been employed are not helpful. For example, increased use of naloxone can help to save a life, but if it is not followed up with treatment, it is only a temporary measure and a matter of time before overdose occurs when no one is around to help.
If your loved one is struggling with addiction, is now the time for you to help them connect with treatment that can save their life?