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With an additional $8 million for the next two years, officials from the Department of Correction are now charting a course to expand their medication-assisted opioid addiction treatment program in the hopes of saving lives.

More than 50% of residents who died of opioid overdoses in 2016 had spent time behind bars, according to Karen Martucci, spokeswoman for the DOC.

“This is a population that makes sense to service,” Martucci said.

The DOC already runs a medication-assisted treatment program on a limited basis at six facilities, four of which house inmates who are incarcerated temporarily until they are released on bond or their cases are adjudicated.

With input from Marc Pelka, the Under Secretary of Criminal Justice for the state Office of Policy and Management, Gov. Ned Lamont proposed spending $2 million in 2020 and $6 million in 2021 to expand the MAT program to allow more inmates to participate.

“Governor Lamont understands full well that dealing with the opioid epidemic is our collective responsibility, and allocated this funding for treatment of those under the care and custody of the Department of Correction,” Commissioner Rollin Cook said. “Many people struggling with addiction find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system. Corrections can play a critical role in providing a safe environment with treatment and programming opportunities.”

At the same time, members of the Judiciary Committee proposed legislation, HB 7395, that would have required the DOC to expand the program to 100% of inmates within four years.

The bill died before it came up for a vote in either house.

But it was lauded as a way to save lives by dozens of doctors, health care providers, and officials from Rhode Island and the Albany New York Sheriff’s Office who spoke in favor of the bill during an April public hearing.

Rhode Island officials said their MAT program resulted in a 60% reduction in post-incarceration overdose deaths. Sheriff Craig Apple Sr. from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office said his department is experiencing a cut in recidivism because of the program.

“I had a habit for 17 years and was never given any support for my drug habit, just prison time,” said Michael Askew, a supporter of the bill who is now the Director of Recovery Advocacy for the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery.

Although the proposed legislation ultimately went nowhere as it did in the previous legislative session, the budget that was approved by the legislature included the $8 million expansion of the current MAT program that started in 2017.

The additional money was part of a $35 million increase for the DOT in the biennial budget to address collective bargaining agreements and inmate health care.

Lamont recommended spending $8 million more on the DOC in 2020, bringing the agency’s budget up to $616 million, and another $27 million increase in fiscal year 2021.

The way the MAT program works, a select number of inmates who have Opioid Use Disorder who are in short term Correctional Centers in Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, and at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Uncasville, receive Methadone, a drug that eases opioid withdrawal symptoms but doesn’t induce a “high.” They also get counseling. Inmates at Osborn Correctional Institution and York Correctional Institution, which are longer-term facilities, are also participating. The reason inmates at the shorter-term facilities are the primary focus is because they will be back on the streets quicker, DOC officials said.

“We look at people who are there for the short term based on their bond and charges,” Martucci said.

By allowing them to take Methadone and to receive counseling, they have a better chance of moving forward with their lives after release, said DOC Counseling Supervisor Charlatta Jones.

“Upon their release into the community, they are still connected to the outside provider,” Jones said. “It lowers their recidivism.”

Methadone and treatment was provided to all total of 694 inmates in 2018, DOC officials said. The number does not represent individual inmates and may include those who participated, were released and then came back into the system, officials said. The bulk of inmates who participated in the MAT program were incarcerated at York CI and the New Haven Correctional Center. The DOC has custody of around 13,000 inmates on any given day.

“The number of people who are on Methadone is staggering,” Martucci said. “But they are going to work, going to school and taking care of their families. They are living quality lives.”

Now that the funding to expand the program has come through, DOC officials will look at how to include more inmates, Martucci said. “We might be expanding the existing program or expanding to those facilities who haven’t had it. We are going to look at everything. We already know that our population has a high number that is dependent on drugs, the need is definitely there.”

It’s unclear how quickly the DOC will be able to get the program off the ground given staffing shortages among the medical staff.

The CT Mirror reported Tuesday that documents provided to lawmakers in March showed the Correction Department had 309 nurses on staff to serve 13,320 inmates — a ratio of one nurse for every 43 inmates. Medical providers, including doctors and physician assistants, are in even shorter supply — one for every 579 inmates.

The staffing shortages come at a time when the Correction Department decided to take over management of the inmate medical system. Previously it contracted with the University of Connecticut Health Center to provide the services.