On the east coast of the Unites States, entire states are being torn apart by the deaths of their loved ones, entire cities are facing bankruptcy just trying to make up for the emergency services that are reviving the overdosed citizens on the brink of death. But how has Rhode Island taking themselves out of the depressing statistics?
In 2016 at the peak of the opioid crisis, more than 64,000 people lost their lives due to opioid related deaths, including heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkiller deaths. That same year, the Rhode Island department of Corrections started screening every inmate for opioid use disorder and then began providing those who needed it with medications for addiction treatment, medications such as Methadone, Suboxone that limit cravings and Vivitrol that prevents users from getting high by blocking the receptors and creates a barrier that blocks opioid molecules from attaching to opioid receptors.
These medications have been proven to be the most effective way to treating opioid substance abuse disorder and keep them clean longer than other methods, or worse, cold turkey. In most cases, prisoners who arrive addicted are forced to quit cold turkey, and eventually their withdraws subside, but they are not recovered. Only clean due to lack of availability. Once released, their tolerance is low but the brain pathways that control the addictions is still there. And if they fall back into their old life, using again at the capacity that they used to consume could kill them, as their body won’t be able to handle it the way it used to.
A study that compared the six months before the program started against the same period a year later showed that overdose deaths of inmates that were recently released from Rhode Island prisons decreased 61%. This then show the program was a major reason why overdose deaths among the general public dropped 12% during a time where the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl was killing people in record numbers around the country.
The results proved just how large scale a problem substance use disorder is among the prisoner, and how incredibly vulnerable people are around the time of their release.
While the prisoners are in custody and receiving treatment, they are safe while behind bars. But what happens when released on their own? Rhode Island correction departments have also decided to have them continue in treatment on the outside world as well. It has proved felons are less likely to back slide and because they are being medicated they are less likely to overdose if they do.
The Rhode Island Model is a shinning example of what impact the prison system can have on the opioid epidemic. While opioids may have been the reason for many incarcerations, if they’re going to be sent there, they might as well have the option to kick their habits and retrain their bodies to become healthy and functioning members of society again while being a captive audience. But for some reason other states have been slow to offer a similar program or any access to drug treatments. Doctors and addiction specialists have been calling for more resources devoted to prisons for years, and greater access overall to combat something as deadly as this. If there’s ever been a proven method, Rhode Island seems to have perfected it.
The Rhode Island program, and mountains of other research before it, has proved that to be true. It is telling us how to slow the devastation of this terrible epidemic, and we should listen.
Also published on Medium.