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What can CT do to curb opioid overdoses for former and current inmates?

Marcus Lewis began taking methadone before his last opioid-related sentence and was able to continue treatment while incarcerated.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Marcus Lewis began taking methadone before his last opioid-related sentence and was able to continue treatment while incarcerated.

Connecticut’s justice-impacted population is disproportionately affected by opioid addiction. Could money from opioid manufacturer settlements help?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Katy Golvala to discuss her article written with Jaden Edison, “Many struggle with addiction during, after incarceration. Will CT use opioid settlement funds to help?,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: You say formerly incarcerated Connecticut residents account for about half of the overdose deaths in the state. And now there's an opportunity to do something about that and reduce those numbers, thanks to the state's opioid settlement money. What's the holdup?

KG: That's right. Of people who are currently incarcerated in Connecticut, about three-quarters of them have a substance abuse disorder requiring some level of treatment. And as you mentioned, formerly incarcerated people account for half of the state’s overdose deaths every year. So this is a population disproportionately impacted by the opioid crisis. So the question right now is, how can we use solutions within the Department of Correction and outside of it to address the issue? And the $600 million currently coming to the state and towns from opioid settlement funding presents an interesting potential solution to the problem. To be honest, there isn't really a hold-up right now. I mean, the money is still in the very early stages of coming to the state and the towns. So you know, this is money we will receive over the next couple of decades.

WSHU: It's more that we still need to figure out how to spend the money and where to allocate it because localities have some of it. I know that I have been to some hearings and some public forums that Attorney General William Tong has held about how this money is going to be spent. And they're still trying to figure it out and trying to put things together. So we are in the formative stages, and there have been experts pushing for some of that money to be spent on formerly incarcerated addicts, right?

KG: Yeah, that's right. So a lot of smart people from Yale, including medical professionals and public health professionals, put together something called the Corps Report to recommend to the Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee, which is the body in the state that's going to allocate the funding to make recommendations on how that funding should be spent. And one of the recommendations was to use part of the funding to make sure that all three medications for opioid use disorder are available in Connecticut prisons.

Right now, the situation is this: there are three FDA-approved medications: buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone. So currently, 10 of the state's 13 prisons offer at least one of these medications, and six offer all three. And really, the gold standard would be for all 13 prisons to offer all three because if you're someone who's on buprenorphine, for example, for your substance use disorder, and you go to a facility that doesn't offer buprenorphine right now, you would be required to either stop your medication or switch to a different medication. Which if you've ever been on medication for anything, you know that that's a pretty difficult process. Now, the Department of Corrections said that they can move people around to a facility that might offer the medication they need. But right now, the system is really not set up to offer medication to everyone who might need it.

WSHU: So we have that problem within the prison system. What about after prison? What programs are available to people who are reentering society?

KG: Yeah, so it's worth noting that the report's recommendations focused on medication, though it did talk about housing and certain services during reentry. But when we spoke to people who are formerly and currently incarcerated and managing addiction, they said that without a focus on helping people reenter the community, any other solution is going to fail or not go far enough. So we talked to people about the need to get people set up with basic health care services and housing so that they can have some sense of stability.

My colleague Jaden, who worked on the story with me, spoke with a man, Marcus Lewis, who's been on methadone treatment for a few years. He's been out of prison for a year and still lives in a halfway house. He said that the environment at the halfway house isn't really conducive to staying sober and he wishes that he could just have an apartment or a bed in a sober house so that he could have his own space. And it would just help him sleep easier at night. So yeah, when we talked to people about the types of services that are needed, really the number one unanimous answer was housing, though, of course, there are others, you know, like mental health treatment, getting connected to mental health professionals, providers, also just getting connected to health care providers, and finding a way to build a community once they come back out of prison.

WSHU: You also found that basically, there needed to be more as far as planning for reentry and discharge planning for prisoners.

KG: Yeah, that's right. The Department of Corrections said that they have to focus a lot of their efforts on reentry planning for people who are in jails. So people who are still getting court dates who needed to move around facilities. So, there are a lot fewer resources for reentry planning for people who are coming out of long-term prison sentences. And, you know, everyone we spoke with who was formerly incarcerated said that to them, it seemed like the reentry services were very much lacking. They don't feel supported as they're reentering the community currently.

WSHU: Is there any optimism about opioid money making a difference?

KG: To be honest from the people we spoke to, not really. People think that this population has been historically overlooked, and that there's a very low likelihood that the money will actually go to improving their situation.

WSHU: There's a concerted effort to try and get more of this money to be spent on the formerly incarcerated population. Is there a likelihood that that's going to happen?

KG: In terms of the people we spoke to who have both been in the system and worked with people in the system, there is not much optimism that the money will ultimately be allocated in a way that would really make a difference.

Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.