Program Trains The Formerly Incarcerated To Fight Opioid Crisis With Narcan

By Paul Gaita 04/12/18

Since the program's initial test run in 2015, more than 6,000 former inmates have been given naloxone kits.

person holding naloxone applicator
Photo via YouTube

With opioid-related overdose deaths skyrocketing annually in the state of New York, a new, groundbreaking program aims to help residents fight back by providing education and medication to a vulnerable demographic—individuals recently released from prison.

State correctional and public health officials are offering training to the formerly incarcerated, and equipping them with the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) upon release.

As The Nation noted, with many of these individuals living in close proximity to opioid use and dependency, the program's developers view their efforts as an opportunity to establish a new frontline in the trench warfare of the opioid crisis.

The initiative began as a pilot program in 2015 under the direction of the New York State Department of Health, New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the Harm Reduction Coalition, and targeted three key groups within the correctional institution demographic: incarcerated individuals who are soon to be released; corrections staff and parole officers; and family members of inmates.

Training consisted of overdose education, assembly and use of an intranasal naloxone applicator, and an overview of legal issues regarding naloxone use and New York state's 911 Good Samaritan Law, which allows individuals to call 911 in the case of an overdose without fear of arrest. 

Upon completion of the program and release from prison, formerly incarcerated individuals were given naloxone kits, as were family members.

Since the program's initial test run at the Queensboro Correctional Facility in 2015, more than 6,000 former inmates have been given the kits, and 2018 data from the DOCCS showed that naloxone was used by members of this group in their communities on 14 separate occasions.

Training is now available at all 54 prisons in New York state, which remains the only state correctional system in the country to employ such a program in all of its facilities.

Research by the Vera Institute of Justice found that most participants approved of the program; as one individual noted, "I would feel less than a man knowing that I had an opportunity to be able to do something constructive and not take the chance." Others reported a sense of empowerment from the training, and felt closer to their families and communities.

Study co-author Leah Pope wrote that some participants felt "not only a sense of pride in helping others, but [also] a sense of being back in control of their lives."

Not every program participant opted to take the naloxone kits for fear of reprisal from law enforcement, even with the Good Samaritan law in place. As one individual stated, "If it's being used the same way courts use regular criminal activity, then I don't trust it. If you're the felon, you don't ever get the benefit of the doubt."

The study authors also noted a number of ways in which the program could be improved, including greater participation by correctional staff and partnership with community-based organizations, as well as reinforcing training methods with newly released individuals and increasing the number of naloxone kits in communities. 

But as The Nation reports, the sense of empowerment provided by the program to its target groups could have long-term benefits in the fight against the opioid epidemic and reducing the prison population.

The Nation article's author, Michelle Chen, writes, "Staying out of jail is even more vital when someone else's life depends upon whether you can be at their side when they need you."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.