A criminal justice reform group is accusing the state of Vermont of breaking its own law on medical treatment available to prisoners.
That claim follows a list of complaints advocates have heard from inmates with substance use disorder who say they are not getting the medical treatment they need behind bars.
"They are desperate for treatment, and yet they're getting denied it," said Tom Dalton, the executive director of the group Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, referring to inmates who want medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder.
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Under a state law that took effect July 1, medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, was expanded in Vermont prisons for inmates who are diagnosed with opioid use disorder and for whom a clinician calls MAT medically necessary.
However, Dalton estimated that roughly 500 inmates are struggling with addiction and withdrawal symptoms but are still not getting the medications they need quickly enough, or at all, in many cases.
"A lot of people are still being released back into the community untreated," Dalton told necn. "It makes Vermont communities safer when prisons treat addiction before they release people back into the community."
Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, and members of his administration toured Vermont's one prison for women, the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington.
There, corrections officials said 31 out of 152 women, or just over 20 percent of the facility's inmates, were getting MAT for opioid addiction as of that morning.
Steps are taken to avoid those meds becoming contraband, Chittenden Regional's assistant superintendent, Jen Sprafke, told Gov. Scott.
"They have to be in a smock and sit on their hands," Sprafke said of inmates during the tour, adding that the medications are administered in an area separate from inmates who are not receiving them. "Because it's a hot commodity."
Corrections commissioner Lisa 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 behind bars.
She acknowledged there are issues to iron out screening people who have been in custody longer, who want to start treatment.
"The science evolves, around what is medically necessary and when," Menard said. "I think over time, more and more and more people are going to be on it."
Menard said the long-term goal of MAT in correctional facilities is to reduce fatal and non-fatal overdoses upon release, reduce returns to incarceration, and reduce the number of crime victims in the community if people aren't committing new offenses to feed addictions after they serve their sentences.
Gov. Scott, whose tour was part of his administration's research into the future needs of prison facilities in Vermont, praised the men and women who work in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.
Scott said the staffers he met Wednesday clearly care about the work they do and about treating inmates with respect.
"It's much more complicated than [some are] being led to believe," Scott said of the concerns over the rollout of the MAT program. "I would say [corrections officials] are doing a great job. Now, can we do better? Absolutely. We're learning as we go. We're much further ahead than most other states — we're leading the nation in this regard."
The new law directs the Vermont Department of Corrections to report back to the Legislature by January, 2022 on the effectiveness of medication in prison, as the state continues its work trying to turn around the opioid addiction crisis.
Sprafke told Gov. Scott everyone leaving custody from the South Burlington facility is offered naloxone — a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose. The prison's assistant superintendent said most people do accept it.