‘Medical Providers Are Supposed to Be Here to Help People': Vt. Man Criticizes Department of Corrections' Approach to Treatment

A newly-released prisoner is speaking out about his frustrations accessing opioid addiction therapy behind bars, as advocates continue calling for the Vermont Department of Corrections to ease access to medication-assisted treatment.

"I've been an addict for 25 years," Wayne Morrill sighed as he left the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Tuesday morning.

While Morrill may be a free man, he said he worries he's still confined by a disease that could kill him.

At the tail end of his 30-month sentence for burglaries, which he says were to feed his addiction, Morrill told necn he had hoped to receive medication-assisted treatment behind bars for opioid use disorder.

Morrill said he thought MAT would help him avoid street drugs when he was released, but said he was denied the medication.

"I should've been on it two months ago," Morrill lamented.

As necn reported last week, advocates have been critical of the Vermont DOC in regards to the implementation of a new state law pertaining to medication-assisted treatment behind bars.

Earlier this year, Vermont's governor authorized a law expanding therapy in state prisons for inmates whom clinicians screen and determine have a medical need for that MAT.

The group Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform claims approximately 500 people in custody are pleading for help, but are not getting it — saying they are either too slow to be diagnosed, or are being told they don't fit care providers' definition of medical necessity, even though they consider themselves at high risk.

"There's no point in putting a law in place if you're not going to follow it," Morrill said in an interview with necn Tuesday, shortly after his release from prison. "Medical providers are supposed to be here to help people."

Contraband opioids, meanwhile, remain a scourge for corrections officers.

"I used while I was here," Morrill admitted, in response to necn's question about how concerned he is about a possible relapse.

Last week, Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, and Lisa Menard, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections, said DOC is working really hard and really thoughtfully to expand access, noting the new law expanding MAT in prisons is just three months old.

"I would say that they're doing a great job," Scott said Sept. 26 of state employees from the Vermont Department of Corrections in implementing the new approach to MAT. "Now, can we do better? Absolutely. That's what we're learning as we go. But we're much further ahead than most other states — we're leading the nation in this regard."

Last week, Menard insisted the new law is going well when it comes to people who are already on the therapy prior to their sentence continuing the MAT once they are incarcerated.

As necn reported, the commissioner acknowledged there are issues to iron out screening people who have been in custody longer, who want to start treatment.

"We'll continue to work to get as many people as we can on it," Menard said last week. "Over time, more and more and more people are going to be on it. We're hoping to see a reduction in overdoses — fatal and otherwise. We're hoping to see a reduction in returns to incarceration; we're hoping to see a reduction in victims of crime because people aren't committing crime to feed their addiction."

Menard said inmates are being initiated on treatment every day, and pointed to the women's prison in South Burlington as an example of what she considered strong numbers. Last Wednesday, just over 20 percent of inmates at the women's facility were receiving MAT, Menard said.

As for Morrill, he said he lined up a spot in a sober house and will be looking for help from a clinic to start the treatment he didn't get in prison, aiming to loosen addiction's grip.

When asked about his aim not to return to prison, Morrill responded, "That's my goal."

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