With New Treatment Efforts, Vermont Targets Opiate-Addicted Inmates

Following a directive signed earlier this month by commissioner Andy Pallito of the Vermont Department of Corrections, a year-long initiative launched this week in two of the state's correctional facilities. Medical staffs at the correctional centers in St. Albans and South Burlington will provide medication-assisted treatment on-site to opiate addicts housed in the facilities.

Previously, heroin users or painkiller abusers who had been prescribed methadone or buprenorphine for their addictions before incarceration could continue treatment while in custody, according to the memo accompanying the directive. But those inmates were trucked to off-site clinics in shackles to receive care for their addictions, Pallito told New England Cable News Thursday. “It’s inhumane,” Pallito said of that transportation practice.

The new program is thought to be gentler, less disruptive, and more economical because it will save on transportation costs. An individual's treatment period at the two facilities participating in the pilot program will now run 90 days instead of the previous 30, the directive explains. "It's a complete culture shift in the department," Pallito said, noting that the move requires new security measures and monitoring of the medications to ensure proper dispensing.

Pallito said the goal is to give more of the 70 or 80 percent of Vermont offenders who are behind bars due to drug issues a straighter path to recovery upon release. That should reduce the likelihood the released offenders will commit other crimes to feed their habits, Pallito explained. "Ultimately it leads--it should lead--to a safer community," Pallito said.

Pallito said currently, about 40 or 41 percent of people released from Vermont prisons will re-offend and land back in a correctional center. Pallito said that number compares favorably to other states around the country, but he acknowledged there is room for improvement.

"It definitely will give them a better chance. Definitely," observed Leah Dugan of St. Albans, who told NECN she served around a year in prison in Vermont for several convictions including thefts and forging checks.

Dugan said crime was not in her nature but she stole to afford illicit painkillers, which she described as having an all-consuming effect on her.

Dugan, who said she is now on the drug Suboxone to help control her cravings for opiates, told NECN she witnessed women in prison experiencing severe symptoms from detoxing. Dugan said she believes the corrections department's one-year trial run will help addicts, adding that she hopes it goes smoothly so the approach is applied to the state's other correctional facilities. "And hopefully they'll come out clean," Dugan said of incarcerated addicts.

A separate pilot project taking shape at the pain management clinic at Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans is expected to work with former inmates, to give them a new drug to block the effects of opiates for 30 days. Dr. Bill Roberts is still planning the project, which would see him inject Vivitrol into patients' muscles. "What it really does is provide people insulation," Roberts explained. “Insulation against the substances that will harm them.”

Vivitrol is a form of the drug Naltrexone, Roberts said, which has long been used to treat alcoholism. Roberts believes the drug will provide protection against potentially deadly overdoses in the high-risk population of recently-released prisoners. That group is in particular danger from ODs, Roberts said, because their bodies are less inured to the effects of opiates after they have been away from regular drug abuse during their prison sentences.

"It doesn't remove the risk. It reduces it," Roberts said of the concept behind the Vivitrol study he's developing in concert with the Vermont Department of Health and the Vermont Department of Corrections. "These are risk-reduction treatment options."

Roberts said because Vermont taxpayers spend more than $1,000 a week on locking up each of the state's 2,000 or so offenders, finding new ways to steer them away from drug-fueled crimes makes sense for everyone. 

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