At Valley State Prison in California’s Central Valley, inmates crowded around small windows in a prison yard to pick up their daily doses of buprenorphine, an opioid addiction medication. The daily ritual is part of a sprawling health experiment that aims to unwind the often lasting damage of opioid use before, during and after incarceration. The state’s efforts reflect the beginnings of a potential transformation in the nation’s approach to treating addiction in a part of society that is often neglected, reports the New York Times. “For the first time, there is a trend toward expanding access to treatment in jails and prisons,” said Dr. Justin Berk, an addiction medicine physician at Brown University and former medical director for Rhode Island’s Department of Corrections. “There’s this better understanding that if we’re going to treat the opioid overdose crisis, one of the high-target populations to treat is people in jails and prisons.”
The federal government estimates that a majority of inmates have substance use disorder, many of them with opioid addiction that can be complicated to manage in the age of potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Deaths in state prisons from drug or alcohol intoxication rose by more than 600 percent from 2001 to 2019, according to the Justice Department. Addiction treatment is available only sporadically in prisons and jails. As of 2021, only about 630 of the 5,000 correctional facilities in the U.S. provided medication for opioid use, says the Jail and Prison Opioid Project, a group led in part by Dr. Berk. The Biden administration is seeking to change that, aiming to increase the number of prisons and jails offering opioid addiction treatment and working to install treatment programs in all federal prisons by this summer.