Should We Offer Suboxone in Jails and Prisons?

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Of the hundreds of thousands of people entering our country’s jails and prisons each year, an estimated 15 percent are addicted to opiates, according to a 2009 study. Yet, a majority of these facilities don’t provide a single medication or a moment of treatment for the painful detox process.

The lack of care leaves incarcerated individuals with two options: they can either suffer through the agonizing withdrawal symptoms or buy drugs on the inside.

Nowhere to Turn

This moral crossroads happened to many people I knew behind bars. I frequently saw women enter the system suffering from withdrawal symptoms, while some used whatever drugs they could find to relieve their pain and discomfort.

The prison facility we were in did nothing to address their addictions, nor did it offer anything in the form of treatment. Most times, once these women were released, they’d pick up right where they left off with pills or heroin – proving forced abstinence to be an ineffective measure of treatment.

Experts say it’s time to address addiction more comprehensively and expand access to counseling and medications for prisoners. After all, addiction isn’t a one-size-fits-all disease, and different forms of treatment work for different individuals.

One form of treatment proposed is access to buprenorphine (Suboxone), a medication widely used to wean people off opioids by relieving the withdrawal symptoms. It is similar to methadone, yet is harder to abuse and generally less addictive. Advocates believe it would allow prisoners a better chance of avoiding relapse when they’re released and help them stick to a treatment plan. Plus, it would cut down on the amount of Suboxone being smuggled into prisons and jails.

Buprenorphine is currently the most common contraband drug found in prison and jail facilities, since its thin film is easy to conceal on paper or under a stamp.

There’s Another Way

Despite the benefits to a prisoner’s short and long-term future, officials are still dragging their feet on making buprenorphine available in correctional systems, citing funding and logistics concerns. For instance, methadone costs 40 cents a dose, while Suboxone costs $3 for the same amount. Yet, the cost shouldn’t matter as much as the value the drug would have on each person.

Advocates state that those who continue drug treatment in jail are more likely to return to treatment once released, which could ultimately cut addiction rates, reduce crime and limit the spread of infectious diseases. What do you think? Is it worth a try?

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