Medication-assisted treatment in corrections: A life-saving intervention


Opioid overdose deaths in the United States have more than tripled in recent years, from 6.1 deaths per 100,000 individuals in 1999 to 20.7 per 100,000 individuals in 2018.1 Although the availability of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has expanded over the past decade, this lifesaving treatment remains largely inaccessible to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities: opioid users facing reentry after incarceration.

Dr. Clayton Barnes

Dr. Clayton Barnes

Just as abstinence in the community brings a loss of tolerance to opioids, individuals who are incarcerated lose tolerance as well. Clinicians who treat patients with opioid use disorders (OUD) are accustomed to warning patients about the risk of returning to prior levels of use too quickly. Harm reduction strategies include using slowly, using with friends, and having naloxone on hand to prevent unintended overdose.

The risks of opioid use are magnified for those facing reentry; incarceration contributes to a loss of employment, social supports, and connection to care. Those changes can create an exceptionally stressful reentry period – one that places individuals at an acutely high risk of relapse and overdose. Within the first 2 years of release, an individual with a history of incarceration has a risk of death 3.5 times higher than that of someone in the general population. Within the first 2 weeks, those recently incarcerated are 129 times more likely to overdose on opioids and 12.7 times more likely to die than members of the general population.2

Treatment with MAT dramatically reduces deaths during this crucial period. In Rhode Island, for example, implementation of a corrections MAT program decreased all-cause death rates after release by an astonishing 60.5%.3 In England, large national studies have shown a similar 75% decrease in all-cause mortality within the first 4 weeks of release among individuals with OUD.4 In California, the counties with the highest overdose death rates are consistently those with fewer opioid treatment programs, which suggests that access to treatment is necessary to prolong the lives of those suffering from OUD.5 In-custody overdose deaths are quite rare, and access to MAT during incarceration has decreased in-custody deaths by 74%.6

Decreased opioid overdose deaths is not the only outcome of MAT. Pharmacotherapy for OUD also has been shown to increase treatment retention,7 reduce reincarceration,8 prevent communicable infections,9 and decrease use of other illicit substances.10 The provision of MAT also has been shown to be cost effective.11

Despite those benefits, as of 2017, only 30 out of 5,100 jails and prisons in the United States provided treatment with methadone or buprenorphine.12 When individuals on maintenance therapy are incarcerated, most correctional facilities force them to taper and discontinue those medications. This practice can cause distressing withdrawal symptoms and actively increase the risk of death for these individuals.

Dr. Zachary Lenane

Dr. Zachary Lenane

Concerns related to the provision of MAT, and specifically buprenorphine, in the correctional health setting often are related to diversion. Although safe administration of opioid full and partial agonists is a priority, recent literature has suggested that buprenorphine is not a medication frequently used for euphoric properties. In fact, the literature suggests that individuals using illicit buprenorphine primarily do so to treat withdrawal symptoms and that illicit use diminishes with access to formal treatment.13,14

Another concern is that pharmacotherapy for OUD should not be used without adjunctive psychotherapies and social supports. While dual pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy is ideal, the American Society for Addiction Medicine 2020 National Practice Guidelines for the treatment of OUD state: “a patient’s decision to decline psychosocial treatment or the absence of available psychosocial treatment should not preclude or delay pharmacotherapy, with appropriate medication management.”15 Just as some patients wish to engage in mutual help or psychotherapeutic modalities only, some patients wish to engage only in psychopharmacologic interventions. Declaring one modality of treatment better, or worse, or more worthwhile is not borne out by the literature and often places clinicians’ preferences over the preferences of patients.

Individuals who suffer from substance use disorders are at high risk of incarceration, relapse, and overdose death. These patients also suffer from stigmatization from peers and health care workers alike, making the process of engaging in care incredibly burdensome. Because of the disease of addiction, many of our patients cannot envision a healthy future: a future with the potential for intimate relationships, meaningful community engagement, and a rich inner life. The provision of MAT is lifesaving and improves the chances of a successful reentry – an intuitive first step in a long, but worthwhile, journey.


1. Hedegaard H et al; National Center for Health Statistics. Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2018. NCHS Data Brief, 2020 Jan, No. 356.

2. Binswanger IA et al. N Engl J Med. 2007;356:157-65.

3. Green TC et al. JAMA Psychiatry. 2018;75(4):405-7.

4. Marsden J et al. Addiction. 2017;112(8):1408-18.

5. Joshi V and Urada D. State Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis: California Strategic Plan. 2017 Aug 30.

6. Larney S et al. BMJ Open. 2014. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-004666.

7. Rich JD et al. Lancet. 2015;386(9991):350-9.

8. Deck D et al. J Addict Dis. 2009. 28(2):89-102.

9. MacArthur GJ et al. BMJ. 2012. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e5945.

10. Tsui J et al. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2019. 109:80-5.

11. Gisev N et al. Addiction. 2015 Dec;110(12):1975-84.

12. National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory. “Use of Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder in Criminal Justice Settings.” HHS Publication No. PEP19-MATUSECJS. Rockville, Md.: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2019.

13. Bazazi AR et al. J Addict Med. 2011;5(3):175-80.

14. Schuman-Olivier Z. et al. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2010 Jul;39(1):41-50.

15. Crotty K et al. J Addict Med. 2020;14(2)99-112.

Dr. Barnes is chief resident at San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services in California. He disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Dr. Lenane is resident* at San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. He disclosed no relevant financial relationships. The opinions shared in this article represent the viewpoints of the authors and are not necessarily representative of the viewpoints or policies of their academic program or employer.

*This article was updated 7/9/2020.

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