Though the smallest state in the nation, Rhode Island has one of the largest heroin problems of any other state. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Rhode Island saw 277 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017. That amounts to a rate of 26.9 deaths per 100,000 individuals, which is much higher than the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 persons. Though the situation is certainly alarming, the problem is not nearly as bad as it once was. In fact, between 2012 and 2017, heroin and prescription-involved overdose deaths declined by more than half, from 569 to 214. Some may attribute this to the prison system’s involvement.
A report by National Public Radio discusses how state prisons use medication-assisted treatment for inmates that live with opioid use disorder. According to the report, Rhode Island is currently the only state to screen every individual who enters the correctional system for opioid addiction and to offer, along with group therapy sessions, FDA-approved drugs such as buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone.
Though medication-assisted treatment is the most effective treatment for heroin and opioid addiction, the majority of the nation’s prisons only use it for small subsects of inmates, such as pregnant women. The director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Providence’s Miriam Hospital, Dr. Josiah Rich, makes a valid point: It is absurd that there exists this whole population of people who end up in prison because of their addiction, yet the state fails to provide them with the most effective treatment for the disease.
Moreover, once these inmates’ sentences end, they are likely to relapse, as they get released into stressful situations full of triggers. However, because of their time in prison, they are no longer be able to tolerate high doses of heroin without overdosing and possibly dying.
These factors all lead the Rhode Island Department of Corrections to implement medication-assisted drug treatment. Prisons do not just offer the treatment to new inmates, but to those leaving the system as well. Between eight to 12 weeks before a release, the state will offer those with histories of heroin or opioid addiction one of the three FDA-approved drugs. The goal is to ease inmates’ transition back into society and hopefully deter them from going back to their old lifestyles.
CODAC, the organization that runs the prison drug addiction treatment program, also runs a program outside of prison. Inmates who enter the program while incarcerated continue with the program post-release. Before rejoining society, individuals can schedule therapy sessions and doctor’s appointments in advance.
Naturally, taxpayers question the effectiveness of the program. Findings from the same period in two consecutive years show that overdose deaths among inmates declined sharply after the program’s implementation, from 26 to nine deaths.