Treatment in prison systems might lead to drop in overdose deaths


Incarceration versus treatment takes center stage in a new analysis of U.S. data from researchers in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Lantie Elisabeth Jorandby

Dr. Lantie Elisabeth Jorandby

The researchers performed an observational study looking at rates of incarceration, income, and drug-related deaths from 1983 to 2014 in the United States. They found a strong association between incarceration rates and drug-related deaths. Also, a very strong association was found between lower household income and drug-related deaths. Strikingly, in the counties with the highest incarceration rates, there was a 50% higher rate of drug deaths, reported Elias Nosrati, PhD, and associates (Lancet Public Health. 2019 Jul 3;4:e326-33). It is clearer every day that our opioid epidemic was in part wrought by a zealous push to change protocols on treating chronic pain. The epidemic also appears tied to well-meaning but overprescribing doctors and allegedly unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies and distributors. What we are learning through this most recent study is that another factor tied to the opioid and overdose epidemic could be incarceration.

According to the study, an increase in crime rates combined with sentencing reforms led the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons to soar from less than 200,000 in 1970 to almost 1 million in 1995. Furthermore, Dr. Nosrati and associates wrote, “Incarceration is directly associated with stigma, discrimination, poor mental health, and chronic economic hardship, all of which are linked to drug use disorders.”

Treatment for drug addiction in prison systems is rare, as is adequate mental health treatment. However, treatment for this population would likely help reduce drug overdose deaths and improve the quality of life for people who are incarcerated and their families. In the Philadelphia prison system, for example, treatment for inmates is available for opioid addiction, both with methadone and now more recently with buprenorphine (Suboxone). The Philadelphia Department of Prisons also provides cognitive-behavioral therapy. In Florida, Chapter 397 of the Florida statutes – known as the Marchman Act – provides for the involuntary (and voluntary) treatment of individuals with substance abuse problems.

The court systems in South Florida have a robust drug-diversion program, aimed at directing people facing incarceration for drug offenses into treatment instead. North Carolina has studied this issue specifically and found through a model simulation that diverting 10% of drug-abusing offenders out of incarceration into treatment would save $4.8 billion in legal costs for North Carolina counties and state legal systems. Diverting 40% of individuals would close to triple that savings.

There are striking data from programs treating individuals who are leveraged into treatment in order to maintain professional licenses. These such individuals, many of whom are physicians, airline pilots, and nurses, have a rate of sobriety of 90% or greater after 5 years. This data show that leveraged treatment has teeth and that those success rates are close to double the rates found within the general population.

In addition to the potential reduction in morbidity and mortality as well as the financial savings, why is treatment important? Because of societal costs. When parents or family members are put in jail for a drug charge or other charge, they leave behind a community, family, and very often children who are affected economically, emotionally, and socially. Those children in particular have higher risks of depression and PTSD. Diverting an offender into treatment or treating an incarcerated person for drug and mental health problems can change the life of a child or family member, and ultimately can change society.

Dr. Jorandby is chief medical officer of Lakeview Health in Jacksonville, Fla. She trained in addiction psychiatry at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

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