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Courts and Crime

Maine Department Of Corrections Will Universally Expand Drug Treatment Program

Brian Bechard
Maine Public

Beginning next month, the Maine Department of Corrections will offer universal access to medicated assisted treatment for opioid use disorder in all five of its facilities. Currently, treatment is available only for those with two years or less remaining on their sentence. The expanded treatment comes as new data show that nearly half of the people who died of overdoses in 2020 were former clients of the Maine DOC.

Of the 504 individuals who died of overdoses in Maine last year, Deputy Corrections Commissioner Ryan Thornell says 237 of them, or 47%, were determined to have had some kind of corrections involvement.

"And that could date back many years. It could be recent. It could be probation involvement. It could be incarceration. It could be a combination of the two," Thornell says.

Thornell says the data illustrate just how great a need there is for medicated assisted treatment, considered the gold standard for opioid use disorder in combination with counseling.

Two years ago, in response to the state's opioid epidemic, the DOC launched a pilot program to offer medicated assisted treatment known as MAT, at a cost of about a million dollars a year. Speaking to the governor's opioid summit on Thursday, Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty said about 76% of the prison population has been identified as needing treatment for addiction. And the voluntary pilot program, he says, has been a way to help connect residents with resources before they're released.

"We've had more than 675 adult residents that have been participating in MAT services and successfully transition back into the community and that has gone well thus far," Liberty says.

Before leaving prison, residents are given smart phones to keep in touch with treatment providers. They're also provided with Narcan, an overdose reversing drug, and training on how to use it. Research shows that individuals leaving jail or prison are more than 12 times more likely to overdose than someone in the general population. Medication for addiction can help prevent relapse and death but it's not a guarantee. Thornell says six of the drug overdose deaths in 2020 were residents who had participated in the MAT program.

"We want to learn from those six. We look at continuity of care plans. Where were there breakdowns upon release? So we really do a deep dive to help us inform future services and planning," Thornell says. "You know, our goal is to have that number be zero or as close to zero as possible."

Rhode Island began offering MAT to residents of its prison system in 2016 and research from Brown University shows it has reduced overdose deaths of recently incarcerated people by about two-thirds.

So far, the Maine DOC has been able to determine that residents in its program are sticking with treatment for an average of five months after being released. When the program is expanded on August 1, about 600 residents of the prison system are expected to participate.