Rehabilitation Plus Rehab? Jails Treat Inmates with Opioid Addiction Medication

Governing

By Anna Gorman

At a time when the U.S. government is trying to deal with a nationwide opioid epidemic, many jails across the country are only now rolling out medicines to help inmates overcome addiction. And most of those jails dispense only one of the drugs currently available.

Nearly 1 in 5 jail and prison inmates regularly used heroin or opioids before being incarcerated, making jails a logical entry point for intervention, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Medication, when paired with counseling and social support, is considered the standard treatment for opioid addiction. Three medications treat addiction to opioids. Methadone and buprenorphine diminish opioid withdrawal symptoms and can reduce cravings. Naltrexone blocks the effect of opioids and also treats alcoholism.

About 220 of more than 3,000 jails nationwide offer naltrexone for inmates — mostly to those about to be released, said Andrew Klein, project director of a Department of Justice grant program that supports agencies providing drug treatment for inmates. Only about 20 jails offer methadone or buprenorphine, he said. The numbers don’t include facilities that offer methadone for pregnant inmates.

But cost and a long-standing belief that the best way to overcome addiction is abstinence are barriers to using any type of medication to help treat opioid addiction, experts said. In addition, methadone and buprenorphine require a special license to distribute and, to be an effective long-term solution, should be continued after many inmate patients are released.

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