Methadone Maintenance is Finding Success Behind Bars

Experts are seeing great results with inmates in methadone programs.

According to data from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, approximately 2.3 million Americans are currently in prison or jail, and 65 percent of this population meets the medical criteria for addiction.

In many cases, this high rate of addiction correlates directly with high rates of recidivism, or repeat incarceration. In other words, issues with drugs often lead to continued criminal activity. And with the current opiate epidemic in full-swing, more and more inmates are entering the system addicted.

The Breakdown

Currently, only 11 percent of inmates receive any type of addiction treatment, which includes methadone maintenance for opiate addiction.

As a general practice, inmates are systematically cut-off from their methadone program or cut-off cold turkey. However, according to a recent study, this methadone policy may lessen the likelihood an inmate will seek treatment upon his or her release.

“What we are doing with methadone in our correctional system is we are systematically taking people off it,” said study lead author Dr. Josiah Rich, professor of medicine at Brown University.

“It’s the only medication that is summarily stopped upon incarceration. This study questioned that policy to find out what happens.”

Setting Inmates Up for Success

Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the study was conducted by researchers from Brown University. Researchers focused on 223 inmates who were incarcerated for six months or less at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, all of whom were working a methadone maintenance program upon entering the facility.

The 223 inmates were divided into two groups: 114 inmates received ongoing methadone treatment until their release dates, while 109 inmates underwent the tapering-off protocol that many prisons currently follow.

Upon release, the members of both groups were offered support. That support came in the form of financial assistance, professional care referrals and/or logistic help meant to ensure access to methadone maintenance treatment facilities.

Following Up Post-Incarceration

A follow-up survey showed that every inmate who received methadone throughout incarceration ultimately sought treatment within their community upon release, compared to 48 percent of the inmates who tapered off.

One month later, 18 percent of the tapered group self-reported they had returned to opiate use, compared to just 8 percent of the inmates who continued methadone maintenance.

“For most of these people, the very reason they are caught up in the criminal justice system is related to their addiction to begin with,” said Rich.

Although this study was relatively small, its findings are potentially huge. In fact, this may be the first real step toward addressing the relationship between opiate addiction, criminality and the combined effect both can have on an already overpopulated prison system.

While some may claim treatment measures such as continued methadone maintenance are costly, there’s no denying that repeat incarceration carries an incomparably higher price tag.


Additional Reading: Drug Addiction is Killing a Huge Number of Inmates