‘I’m Not Gonna Walk by Someone Dying’

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Photo by Province of British Columbia via Flickr

A New York State pilot program to make naloxone kits available to inmates on their release from prison is a “promising” model for other states seeking to reduce opioid deaths among America’s most vulnerable population, says the Vera Institute of Justice.

In a six-month study of the program, which was launched in 2015, Vera researchers found widespread acceptance among returning inmates as well as correctional officials.

The so-called Overdose Education and Naloxone Distribution (OEND) program teaches soon-to-be-released individuals in state correctional facilities about the risk of opioid use—especially after periods of confinement—and it trains the individuals and their families about how to administer naloxone, now widely accepted as an antidote for opiate overdoses.

More than two-thirds of the inmates in two of the correctional institutions studied agreed to take the free naloxone kits after the training program, the study said.

Incarcerated individuals are considered the most vulnerable to opioid overdoses, particularly during the immediate period after their release. One Washington State study found that the relative risk of death from opioid overdose within the first two weeks after release was 120 times that of a comparative demographic group in the state population.

“Efforts to reduce the astonishing rise in opioid deaths in our country will fail to produce tangible results if they ignore the unique needs of formerly incarcerated people, who are at a higher risk of overdose and are already facing overwhelming barriers as they reenter their communities,” said Leah G. Pope, Director of Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program, in a press release accompanying the study.

Vera researchers said success of post-prison naloxone programs depended on several factors:

  1. Identifying a “champion’ institution in a state correctional system willing to start the program and follow through on it;
  2. Persuading correctional managers and staff to see the program as a critical element of prisoner re-entry counseling;
  3. Involving outside community groups, family members and the correctional supervision system.

The program now operates in all 54 New York State correctional facilities.

One state corrections officer called the program empowering for inmates.

“The value [of the program] is to put power back into someone who does not have power,” the officer said. “We are empowering people who otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to be empowered to do anything.”

In interviews with inmates participating in the program, researchers found their initial reluctance to take the kits, because they might be bit in a situation where they risked a violation of parole, was overcome by their interest in contributing to the public good.

“If you’re in a situation to save a life, to hell with it,” one inmate said. “Even if you will get in trouble, I’m not gonna walk by somebody dying and not do something if I can.”

Vera recommended that other states follow New York’s example.

“Given the heightened risk of overdose death upon release from incarceration, it is essential that jurisdictions make a broader commitment to ensuring that people who are incarcerated have naloxone on hand when they return to the community,” Vera said.

“The evidence is too extensive—and the consequences too great—to ignore the needs of incarcerated individuals during such a critical period of transition.

The complete study can be downloaded here.

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