OpEd: We Have an Obligation to Treat Substance Abuse in Jails and Prisons



The Hill: Mitchell S. Rosenthal - July 26, 2022


As the U.S. confronts an unprecedented surge in overdose deaths to a record 108,000 last year, a shadow epidemic receiving far less attention is causing a spike in fatalities in our nation’s prisons and jails. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the alcohol and drug overdose death rate in prisons increased fivefold from 2009 to 2019, outpacing the national drug overdose rate, which tripled in the same period.


Our criminal justice system is contributing to this steep rise in drug-related deaths as we continue the misguided policy of locking up individuals for drug offenses (currently estimated at one in every five of the country’s 2.3 million inmates. Equally troubling, an estimated 65 percent of the prison population has an active substance use disorder.


As a society, the strategies we successfully used to treat addiction — harm reduction measures to reverse overdoses and save lives, followed by treatment programs to change lives — should also be used to help the incarcerated with substance abuse disorder.


Yet, only around 12 percent of America’s prisons and jails currently offer medication-assisted treatment (MAT), one of the most effective methods to help those struggling with substance abuse. Instead of forcing inmates into harsh detox conditions, as many facilities do, MAT combines medications such as methadone and buprenorphine that ease cravings, along with behavioral therapies. And equally important, MAT must include peer-based counseling from former addicts that engages inmates both in the facility and post-incarceration.


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