New Film Provides Solutions to Opioid Withdrawal Deaths in U.S. Jails and Prisons

Opioid use disorder is extremely common among people in U.S. prisons and jails, and many are dying due to withdrawal complications and lack of adequate treatment. In response,  AHP just released the film Diverting Defendants to Treatment: Model Pretrial Programming for Withdrawal Management and Opioid Medication-Assisted Treatment, which focuses on the intersection of the rampant opioid epidemic and criminal justice, and shows the life-saving benefits of medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

The 30-minute film premiered at the June 2019 National Sheriffs’ Association training and is available for viewing at Film production was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) for State Prisoners program.

The film addresses the fact that jails have become the de facto detox centers for the United States. In 2016, 2.5 million people went through detox while incarcerated, compared to just a quarter million who detoxed in community detoxification centers or hospitals. In addition, since 2011, jails and prisons and their medical providers have paid out more than $70 million wrongful death lawsuit settlements for prisoners who died while withdrawing from opioids, alcohol, and benzodiazepines. More than 51 additional suits are pending.

There is a better way to help inmates to detox that saves lives and allows those in short-term incarceration to move forward with their lives after re-entry.  “It’s a moral imperative that we do something to stop this horrible tragedy from continuing to occur,” stated the Honorable James Lamothe, drug court justice in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Two exemplary jail programs are profiled in the film—one in Essex County, Massachusetts, and one in Louisville, Kentucky. These jails have built safe, medically competent detoxification into the challenging context of short-term jail sentences for people awaiting trial. These programs also provide intensive introduction to treatment and initiation of MAT, which has been shown to improve chances for long-term recovery after release. More than 10 million defendants are held in jails pretrial for short periods of time each year, and only a fraction of those remain jailed as the result of a sentence after trial. Yet, many held during this pretrial period die due to opioid withdrawal.
Andrew Klein, Ph.D., AHP RSAT project director and senior scientist for criminal justice notes: “It is our hope that other jails learn from this video so they can offer similar programs for the more than 10 million persons who pass through this nation’s jails every year while awaiting trial. If we fail to address opioid addiction in our jails, where individuals are at least momentarily in our custody, we will continue to compromise our efforts to respond to this epidemic.”

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