HARTFORD, CT — A bill that would give opioid-addicted inmates access to medication-assisted treatment and counseling received widespread support from medical and law enforcement officials Wednesday.
Experts told the Judiciary Committee Wednesday during a public hearing that more than half of the people in Connecticut who die of drug overdoses have spent time in a correctional facility. That same data shows that formerly incarcerated people are about 10 times more likely to overdose immediately after release, officials claim.
Most prisoners are taken off treatment when they go into jail or prison. Connecticut has had a small program that treats a small number of prisoners but has not expanded the program since its inception in 2013.
“There are three reasons to support this bill,” Sam Marullo, a Yale Law School student and former policy director for the governor in Rhode Island, told the committee. Rhode Island has similar legislation in place.
“First, it would save lives,” Marullo said, telling the committee that officials in Rhode Island have estimated it could save 50 to 100 lives in Connecticut.
“Second, there is no need for you to find new money,” Marullo said, pointing out that Gov. Ned Lamont has funded the program in his budget.
Lastly, Marullo said, there is a “litigation risk” if Connecticut doesn’t move forward. Successful lawsuits seeking treatment for prisoners have been filed in Maine and more recently Massachusetts because such programs weren’t in place in prison.
Back in Connecticut, proposed legislation that would have added $2.7 million in the first year and more than $6 million in the second year never came up for a vote during last year’s session.
Currently, only two states in the country, Rhode Island and Vermont, have medication-assisted treatment programs in all their correctional facilities. Besides Connecticut, there are legislative efforts ongoing in Massachusetts and New York, among others, this year.
In written testimony, Rhode Island Correction Department Director Patricia Coyne-Fague strongly urged Connecticut to follow their lead.
“The MAT program has been very successful thus far in Rhode Island,” Coyne-Fague said. “The numbers are impressive: a 60 percent reduction in post-incarceration overdose deaths, leading to a 12-percent reduction in total opioid overdose deaths over the first six months of 2017.”
Rhode Island began the MAT program with a $2 million budget in 2016.
“Studies have shown that individuals on treatment are up to 20 percent less likely to reoffend,” Coyne-Fague said. “In Rhode Island — as in Connecticut — there is pressure on the state budget and spending on corrections. By far the best way to reduce spending is to improve inmate rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.”
Another law enforcement official who submitted testimony in support of the legislation was Craig Apple, sheriff of Albany County, New York, which recently started a MAT program.
Apple conceded that he was at first skeptical about the program but has become a believer, s o much so that he has added additional drugs for treatment that he initially opposed.
“We see people with Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) in and out of our facility, mainly as a result of gaps in treatment both within the criminal justice system and in the community,” Apple said. “As a result, I became open to learning about how the addition of buprenorphine and methadone to our continuum of MAT services could help reduce overdose deaths, improve engagement and retention in treatment and reduce recidivism even further.”
Apple added: “I can tell you that my staff and medical team are highly encouraged by how the program is operating and have already seen significant signs of effectiveness. I expect that over time we will demonstrate reductions in overdoses and recidivism, improvement in treatment and other psychosocial outcomes, and significant return on financial investments.”
To those who don’t think the cost is worth it, New London Mayor Michael Passero said this, in written testimony: “Some of us have seen firsthand the benefits of getting people onto treatment when they are in state custody and then continuing that treatment upon release.”
The untreated cost of opioid use disorder is “$125,000 per year, per individual in medical services, crime, and lost productivity,” Passero added.