Researchers suggest improvements for substance abuse program in Massachusetts prisons

Researchers say a Massachusetts program that provides opioid addiction treatment drugs to county jails needs some changes.

The researchers, from Tufts University School of Medicine, UMass Chan-Baystate School of Medicine and UMass Amherst, found that there are gaps in care as people transition from incarceration to the community.

A cluster of Massachusetts prisons is one of a handful of correctional facilities across the country where a person in custody could get medication for an opioid use disorder. The program, which started in 2019, offers three drugs in some prisons: buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone. This also includes coordinating with treatment programs to continue medication after a person is released.

The study found that people sometimes have difficulty accessing care quickly after release and that steps could be taken to improve access and reduce the risk of overdose.

Researchers interviewed 36 workers from 18 treatment programs who work with patients referred from prisons. They made recommendations in three main areas for improvement: providing “relay doses” so someone has the drug immediately after release, ensuring communication with community treatment providers, and providing cell phone access for people incarcerated.

“The fact that these drugs are available in Massachusetts prisons is phenomenal,” said Tom Stopka, associate professor at Tufts Medical School, epidemiologist and first author of the study. “But if people don’t continue treatment after release, they are at extremely high risk of overdose.”

The research is part of a five-year project known as the Massachusetts Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN), which is examining the program and testing how to implement it in all prisons in Massachusetts, and eventually in prisons in ‘State.

“This program has the potential to significantly reduce opioid overdose deaths in one of the highest-risk populations in the state,” Stopka said. State data shows that someone released from incarceration is 120 times more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a member of the general population.

“I hope that all the other prisons in Massachusetts will soon adopt this program and that other states will look at the programs that have been implemented here, look at the research we have done, see how effective the programs have been and the great impact they can have on public health,” Stopka said.

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