War on Opioids: Medication assisted treatment for inmates

War on Opioids: Medication assisted treatment for inmates.

Series Producer: Caitlin Grimaldi

Photojournalist and Editor: Scott Santos(WJAR)

NBC 10 News is taking an exclusive and rare look behind bars at a program that’s getting national attention.

Health Check’s Barbara Morse Silva talked to four men who are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. All of them are set to be released within the next few months.

"I grew up in group homes here in Rhode Island and I started dabbling in drugs early in life," said one of the inmates.

"I'm 23 years old. I started dabbling with substances at about 17 years old,” said another inmate. "I ended up doing a robbery, which led me here.”

"I detoxed in a cell for 25 to 30 days,” added the 23-year-old. "It was a tough time in my life."

That was before medication assisted treatment -- or MAT -- for opioid use disorder was introduced at the ACI in 2016.

"Every patient who comes through here is screened and those who have this disease are offered this most effective treatment,” said Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich, who is the director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at the Miriam Hospital.

Rich is also part of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Overdose Prevention Task Force, which helped convince lawmakers to fund the program to the tune of $2 million a year.

"It saves lives. the bottom line is it saves lives," said Trish Coyne-Fague, who is the acting director at the ACI.

But it’s not without controversy.

"In the beginning, the staff -- some of the staff, myself included -- had to be educated about why that's a good idea," said Fague.

After all, it's trading one opioid -- let's say heroin -- for another: methadone or suboxone.

"The reason they work is they block you from getting high and they keep you out of withdrawal and those are the two main things that cause people to continue to use," said Rich.

Inmates also participate in weekly group sessions.

"Once they're here and we start them on MAT, it's about a year, possibly a little longer than a year," said Fague.

Three months before discharge, they start therapy again.

"Within the first year, we saw a 60 percent drop in overdose deaths in people coming out,” said Rich, adding that “the people with opiate addiction who are in the most advanced stages of the disease are the ones who end up here."

One inmate in group session led by Lauranne Howard, a substance abuse coordinator at the ACI, and Leslie Barber, of Codac. said being on methadone every day gives him structure. Others shared similar sentiments.

"You take a pill for depression, you take a pill to help you with your recovery and addiction,” said another inmate. "This is a big plus for the community because having stability in here carries out there once we get released."

The men said they just want a fighting chance.

"I don't want to be released and have nothing and then go and overdose because I have a hiccup.”

They have dreams.

"Just get back to work, stay clean, be in my son's life. Just do the right thing for once."

And they want understanding.

"I kind of hope that I could find some support in the community when I get out."

To help strengthen the current program and close any gaps in service once they're released, a $1.5 million grant has recently been awarded to Brown University to support CODAC and the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

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