Overdoses plummet under successful drug treatment program
A new treatment program has dramatically curbed drug deaths and hospitalizations in California prisons, The Associated Press reports.
Drug overdose deaths dropped 58% and hospitalizations decreased 48% since the program began in 2020, the prison administration reports.
The Integrated Substance Use Disorder Treatment program involves medications that reduce cravings and euphoria and relieve withdrawal symptoms.
Steadily rising overdoses in California prisons prompted the state to adopt the controversial approach of using drugs to combat drug use. At the urging of lawmakers and treatment providers, prison officials first experimented with anti-craving drugs in 2016 with a pilot program of 60 prisoners.
In 2020, after their initial, tentative success, prison officials began expanding the program, using buprenorphine, naltrexone and methadone to wean addicts off dangerous opioids such as heroin and fentanyl. The program also incorporates a Cognitive Behavior Therapy treatment model with mental health professionals to facilitate long-term recovery.
Program participants take the anti-craving drugs either by injection or as a dissolvable strip placed under the tongue, and are required to submit to routine drug testing to assure compliance, the April 26 story stated. Clark Kelso, the court-appointed receiver who oversees medical care in California prisons, said the program’s results were “a step in the right direction.”
In 2019, drug overdoses ranked third in prisoners’ causes of death, with a record-high of 51 deaths per 100,000 inmates. By 2020, that ranking fell to eighth, with 21 deaths — the lowest number in nine years. This positive trend has continued, even post-COVID as prisons begin to restore visitation and prisoner programming, while other states’ prison systems saw no significant changes in overdose rates during or following the pandemic.
An estimated 65% of California prisoners suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to budget $126.6 million for substance abuse treatment in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, and $162.5 million yearly thereafter.
California treats over 22,600 incarcerated addicts, more than any other state in the nation, AP reported.
In addition, officials are working to expand treatment options for prisoners serving shorter sentences, and to increase transitional resources and continuity of care upon parole, thereby increasing public safety during reentry.
Officials expect to eventually treat about a quarter of the state’s prison population, 25,000 annually, having a positive impact on prisoner health, while reducing drug trafficking and violence in prison. There remains a backlog of tens of thousands of prisoners waiting to be screened for the program, although as treatment opportunities have grown over the last two years, the program’s waitlist has shrunk.
Don Specter, the Prison Law Office’s executive director, said the program’s achievements speak for themselves.
“I’m not surprised at the results, because it’s been proven to be effective therapy that saves lives and reduces crime,” Specter said.