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Outcry Over Jail's Plan to Cut Methadone Program

The New Mexico facility says the treatment is too expensive, but inmates and advocates call it a lifesaver.

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Many inmates fear they will relapse if
the methadone program is cut. Photo via

By McCarton Ackerman

01/07/13

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An Albuquerque jail is attempting to get rid of its methadone program for addicted inmates, prompting concern among recovery advocates and the inmates who believe they will relapse without it, reports The New York Times. The Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), New Mexico's largest jail, has been administering methadone for the last six years to the roughly 100 inmates enrolled at a methadone clinic prior to their arrests; methadone is also given to pregnant inmates with opiate addictions. The jail’s warden, Ramon Rustin, now says the program is too expensive to maintain; it currently costs Bernadillo County $10,000 a month and relies on $200,000 annually in state financing. Rustin also claims there's little evidence of a drop in recidivism—one of the program’s main selling points. “My concern is that the courts and other authorities think that jail has become a treatment program, that it has become the community provider,” he says. “But jail is not the answer. Methadone programs belong in the community, not here.” Recovery advocates believe the high cost of methadone treatment is still much cheaper than the costs of incarcerating drug addicts. “Addiction needs to be treated like any other health issue,” says Maggie Hart Stebbins, a county commissioner who backs the program. “If we can treat addiction at the jail to the point where they stay clean and don’t reoffend, that saves us the cost of reincarcerating that person.” Due to a lack of hard data about the correlation between methadone treatment and successful recovery, the Bernalillo County Commission has ordered Rustin to extend the program for another two months until its results can be studied further.

The MDC is one of just a handful of prisons in the country to offer methadone treatment, although previous studies have revealed similar programs to be a success in helping inmates stay clean. A 2009 study in The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that male inmates in Baltimore who were treated with methadone were more likely to be free of opioids and cocaine, as well as to continue their treatment in the community, compared to those who only received counseling. Inmates currently being treated with methadone at MDC believe that the program is saving their life. “It’s the only thing that allows me to live a normal life,” says Betty Jo Lopez, 59. “These nurses that give it to me, they’re like my guardian angels.”

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