By Mark Powell
Helping Former Prisoners Succeed on the Outside
“Corrections should correct.”
This is the motto that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) lives by. With this and the research showing alarming rates of fatal overdoses after people are released from incarceration, the PA DOC decided to pilot a Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) program for people dealing with both addiction and incarceration. It’s designed to better equip an inmate’s recovery as they prepare to return to the general population.
“We believe in the capacity to change, but also understand how difficult overcoming addiction can be. Programs like this give people and those who are in their life a true opportunity for a new start,” says John Wetzel, Secretary of PA DOC.
Starting in 2014, DOC piloted the use of Vivitrol at its all-female prison. Vivitrol is one of three medications approved to treat opioid use disorder.
After a review by Penn State researchers, the program was expanded the following year to four other facilities. Other expansions followed in 2016. By April 2018, Vivitrol was offered in all 25 state correctional facilities. And while Vivitrol works when used as prescribed, there was a problem.
“Many people were leaving incarceration and returning to the community with just one injection,” MAT program coordinator Steven Seitchik says. “They weren’t following up with additional injections. Mostly because of the side effects.” Follow-up injections aren’t mandated and can be stopped if the recipient chooses. But that was the problem. Participants quit taking the medicine too soon.
Consider Stephanie’s story. She was a cheerleader who was offered pain medication from her doctor following an injury. That led to heroin addiction. Stephanie was on Vivitrol for a full year but stopped taking it too soon. She relapsed and was soon arrested. Then Stephanie entered the MAT program where she found success by returning to Vivitrol and sticking with it. She’s now back on the right path and even helps recruit others for the program. “People appreciate hearing it from an individual who has been on it and knows its side effects,” Seitchik says. “Vivitrol was an important aspect of Maria’s recovery. Her story reaches people. It’s amazing. And it’s the best recruiting tool we could have wished for.”
The MAT program is now looking into expanding to include using Sublocade, the first FDA-approved once monthly extended release buprenorphine injection.
Seitchik notes for people affected by addiction, it never completely goes away. “Addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease. Post-release relapse rates are high and too often, fatal. From a scientific standpoint, medication-assisted treatment is the gold standard for treating opioid use disorder. We offer data-driven programming. We want programming to be based on science. I don’t follow the anecdotal stories, I follow the science.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Medication Assisted Treatment Program was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.