An opioid addiction treatment program for Rhode Island prison inmates appears to have significantly reduced overdose deaths among those who are released, researchers say.
The program screens all inmates for opioid addiction and provides medications to treat the addiction. It was launched in 2016 and is the only program of its kind in the United States, according to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.
To see whether the program was working, researchers from Brown University compared overdose deaths among former inmates during the six months before the program started and the same period a year later.
The researchers found a 61 percent drop in overdose deaths among former inmates. There was also a 12 percent decrease in overdose deaths statewide.
The findings suggest that this type of program, combined with access to treatment after inmates are released, could help reduce the opioid epidemic across the United States, the study authors said.
“This program reaches an extremely vulnerable population at an extremely vulnerable time with the best treatment available for opioid use disorder,” study co-author Dr. Josiah Rich said in a university news release.
Rich is a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown and director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital in Providence.
Opioid addicts “may have stopped using while incarcerated, but nothing has been done to change the pathways in the brain responsible for addiction,” Rich said. “So when they get out, people are likely to relapse, and with their tolerance gone, they’re at high risk for overdose.”
Simple detox — going “cold turkey” — fails 90 percent of the time, Rich added. However, decades of research have shown that treatment with medication is the best path to recovery for people addicted to opioids.
According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Traci Green, “People have been searching for some way to stop overdose deaths. Here we have a program that’s shown to work, and it’s absolutely replicable in other places.”
Green is an adjunct associate professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology at Brown and a senior researcher at Rhode Island Hospital.
“Not only do we see that a statewide program treating people using medications for addiction treatment is possible and reduces deaths, but also this approach intervenes on the opioid epidemic at its most lethal and socially disrupting point — incarceration — to give hope and heal communities,” Green said.
The study findings were published online Feb. 14 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more on opioid addiction.