Programs Aim to Bridge Addiction Treatment Gap After Jail

By Kelly Burch 05/01/19

Treatment programs both public and private are working to keep newly-released inmates on the right track.

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medication assisted treatment
Having access to addiction medicine is a game changer. Volodymyr Maksymchuk | Dreamstime.com

Programs are popping up around the country aiming to help people with substance use disorder stay sober after they are released from jail—a time that can be especially dangerous for those who have been in forced sobriety while behind bars but were not given the necessary treatment to stay sober on the outside.

“A lot of people come out of prison, and they don’t have anything, and it’s really hard to be successful,” Judge Linda Bell, who presides over an opioid court in Las Vegas, Nevada, told News3 Las Vegas.

The program that Bell oversees helps people released on parole stay sober by connecting them with medication-assisted treatment, housing, counseling and other supports.

“If it's still available, I’d like to stay an extra month and continue to stay in sober living,” parolee Clayton Dempster told Bell during a recent court hearing.

Bell does her best to help people like Dempster stay sober, but also imposes consequences if they’re not adhering to the terms of their release by staying in recovery.

“I have frequent status checks to make sure all of that is going well. If it’s not, I might impose community service or even a short jail sanction,” she said.

While programs like the one Bell runs, which is grant funded, are part of the criminal justice system, other programs outside the system are also trying to help newly-released inmates stay sober.

In Baltimore, a privately-funded van parked outside the city jail helps people connect with many of the same services provided in Bell’s courtroom, like medication-assisted treatment—bridging the gap that opens when people are released from jail but not put in touch with ongoing services.

“This program works,” Michael Rice, a client of the van, told Vox.  

Without a functioning government system to help people, especially in cities like Baltimore, private organizations and foundations are left providing lifesaving treatment to people at risk.

“There are plenty of high-threshold options, but not enough low-threshold options,” said Natanya Robinowitz, executive director of Charm City Care Connection, which provides treatment services in Baltimore. “If you had a functioning system, it would be very low-threshold.”

Because access to treatment can be prohibitively expensive, especially for people who don’t have insurance, jails have become the default detox and treatment facilities for people with substance use disorder.

Because of that, there has been more recent support for evidence-driven treatment options like medication-assisted treatment, but still only about 12 percent of jails provide it. Fewer still provide services after a client leaves. However, even in the law enforcement community people are beginning to realize that treatment provided in jails and after release can be lifesaving.

"We know if you are an opiate user you come in here, you detox, and you go out—it's a 40% chance of OD-ing," said Carlos Morales, the director of correctional health services for California's San Mateo County. "And we have the potential to do something about it.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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