People in Prison Are Not Getting The Drug Treatment They Need

By Britni de la Cretaz 12/14/17

In the US, there is currently no medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program in any of the facilities overseen by the Bureau of Prisons.

detailed illustration of a male inmate behind prison bars

The majority of people incarcerated in the United States have been convicted of drug-related offenses, ranging from possession or distribution of drugs to ancillary crimes like theft, larceny, or breaking and entering.

It would make sense, then, that the prison system would seek to provide effective addiction treatment for people behind bars. Such treatment would hopefully cut down on recidivism, as well as help rehabilitate offenders. However, a new report found major gaps in treatment access for incarcerated folks.

A new report, titled "Opioids: Treating an Illness, Ending a War," was released by The Sentencing Project this week. It recommends closing this treatment gap, and increasing access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for people in prison—a treatment that has been proven to work.

According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2007 and 2009, 58% of people in state prisons and 63% of people serving jail sentences reported having a substance use disorder in the year prior to their incarceration. That rate is 10 times the rate in the general population.

And yet, only a quarter of people reported receiving any kind of addiction treatment while behind bars and less than one-fifth received professional services related to addiction.

“Treatment for substance use disorders is most effective when implemented in patients’ communities, but if incarceration occurs it is critical to ensure access to professional drug treatment,” Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project and co-author of the report, said in a press release. “Any policy that limits health insurance coverage for the general public or fails to invest in effective drug treatment for incarcerated people ignores the evidence supporting this life-saving intervention.”

In the U.S., there is currently no medication-assisted treatment program in any of the facilities overseen by the Bureau of Prisons. The help that many prisoners receive is self-help or 12-step programming.

“I don’t think that there’s any areas where the data is shaky. It clearly shows better outcomes with medication-assisted therapy than without it,” Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), told STAT News earlier this year. “For one, it decreases risk of relapse—significantly. Second, MAT has also been shown to be effective in preventing infectious diseases like HIV. Third, medication-assisted therapy has been shown to be effective in preventing overdoses.”

In fact, MAT has been shown to be the most effective treatment for opioid use disorder, and has shown to be more effective than behavioral interventions or medication by itself. However, this treatment is often not available for people who need it—in prison or outside of it—due to a lack of funding for programming and the stigma associated with the treatment that is sometimes seen as replacing one drug with another.

“A public health centered approach to ending the current opioid crisis will net greater results than reviving the punitive policies of the War on Drugs,” the report concludes. “Decades of growth in incarceration for drug offenses has had little impact on either supply or demand for drugs.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.