Addiction & Overdose

A New Approach to Treating Substance Use in Correctional Facilities

April 10, 2024

On March 28, 2024, experts, practitioners, and decision-makers working to prevent opioid overdoses came together in Washington, D.C. to discuss a recently released federal rule that makes it easier for jails and prisons to provide methadone. 

The event, “Expanding Access to Methadone in Correctional Facilities,” was convened by the White House Office of National Drug Policy and Brendan Saloner, PhD, Bloomberg Professor of American Health. Saloner’s research focuses on promoting access to health care for underserved groups, particularly for people who use drugs, with his most recent research focusing on trends in buprenorphine use in U.S. jails and prisons. 

Dr. Rahul Gupta, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, provided a keynote address with the audience highlighting the urgent need for increased access to substance use treatment in carceral facilities. During his commentary, Gupta shared the story of a young incarcerated man named Freddie Flores whom he met while touring the Camden County Jail in New Jersey. Flores had been in and out of carceral facilities since he was 18 years old and suffered from an undiagnosed substance use disorder. Upon arrival in Camden County Jail, Flores was screened for, and diagnosed with, substance use disorder and began receiving treatment. Access to this type of healthcare ultimately saved Flores’ life. 

“That’s the magic of [work like this]; it is about turning what once looked like endings for people into new beginnings and new opportunities,” Gupta said. “This is what I hope to see in facilities across the country.” 

After analyzing the impact treatment could have on the lives of incarcerated people, Gupta estimates that if every jail across the country offered treatment for substance use disorders, 16,000 lives could be saved each year. 

The event concluded with a panel discussion moderated by Saloner and Senior Practice Associate Sara Whaley and featured: 

  • Yngvild Olsen, Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which issued the new federal rule
  • Matthew Strait, Deputy Assistant Administrator at the Office of Diversion Control Regulatory within the Drug Enforcement Administration 
  • Catherine Smith, Director of Addiction Medicine at the Washington State Department of Corrections
  • Ryan Thornell, Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry 

“Our goal is to continue the rapid expansion of substance use disorder treatment in the correctional field,” said Thornell. “But even more than that, I hope to push beyond the barriers and bring [the correctional field] into the future of medicine.”

A full recording is available here.

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