A new study links a dramatic decline in drug overdose deaths with Rhode Island’s prison treatment program for opioid addiction.
The study by researchers from Brown University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that fatal overdoses among former inmates dropped more than 60 percent after the Rhode Island Department of Corrections began offering medications such as methadone and buprenorphine, known by its brand name Suboxone, to treat opioid addiction.
The study was published Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.
Historically, people addicted to opioids in Rhode Island who were prescribed methadone or Suboxone were generally weaned off the medication once they entered the state Adult Correctional Institutions.
Roughly one in five people who die of overdoses in Rhode Island were previously incarcerated, said Traci C. Green, an epidemiologist at The Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown and the study’s lead author. People addicted to opioids are at greatest risk of an overdose when they leave prison, when their tolerance for opioids is lowered after a period of abstinence, said Green, who is also a research scientist at Rhode Island Hospital.
In 2016, Governor Raimondo included $2 million in the state budget to expand a pilot program launched by Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich, an epidemiologist at The Miriam Hospital, to make medication-assisted treatment available to all inmates at the ACI with a history of opioid addiction.
The state also contracted with C.O.D.A.C., the state’s largest medication-assistance treatment provider, to screen inmates for opioid addiction and provide medication and counseling during and after their incarceration.
Rich, the study’s co-author and director of The Miriam Hospital’s Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, said the program required a lot of coordination both in and outside of the prison.
“So for this to work we not only needed to start the medications,’’ Rich said, “we need to have them walk out the door with medical insurance, make it to a program, continue to take the medicines -- and by and large that has happened. So this is very exciting news.”
The study compared overdose deaths during the first half of 2017 with the same period in 2016.
The study found that during the first half of 2017, there were nine people who had served time at the ACI who died of overdoses, compared with 26 people during the first half of 2016 – a decrease of about 61 percent.
The overall number of overdose deaths during the same two periods fell 12 percent, the study said.
The study's authors said they hope their study will support expanding prison treatment programs throughout the country.