FINDING HOPE: Investigating Idaho's prison opioid problem and solutions

Finding Hope: The prison addiction dilemma
Posted at 11:15 PM, May 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-22 14:18:43-04

Every 12 minutes in America someone dies of an opioid overdose, but for addicts just released from prison, the risk is 125 percent higher.

Our judicial system is set up to punish addicts with jail time, but the prison system says it's handcuffed by the laws.

"We've taken a medical disease and started trying to treat it with the criminal justice system.  That's the biggest thing we're doing wrong," says Monica Forbes, Administrator of the PEER Wellness center.

Forbes should know.  She spent five years behind bars after getting hooked thanks to a doctor's prescription for back problems.

"I was taking the maximum dose of hydrocodone you could use," she said.

She lost her job, her family and herself-respect. It's taken years to recover. Now 14 years clean,  she helps others deal with their addiction through the PEER Wellness Center.

"We can't have a cookie cutter approach," says Forbes.

What she means by that is every person and every addiction is different, but in almost all cases, experts say there can be a place for M.A.T., Medicine-Assisted Treatment. The gold standard uses one of three replacement drugs that remove the cravings in many addicts, but Idaho prisons don't use it.

Ashley Dowell, Idaho's Chief of Prisons, explains, "We've definitely been looking at it for several years now.  We love the idea. We'd love to see a diversion program where you can get substance abuse treatment and get some mat on the front end and divert people out of the prison system."

Instead, Idaho's prisons are jammed with drug users, and armed with only classes to teach them methods of controlling their urges.

Forbes says it doesn't take into account the many people who got addicted by no fault of their own.
"The jail treatment programs are meant to address criminal behavior, not substance abuse." she says, "So, there's a shame based component to them."

Dowell counters, "That wouldn't be any one's intention to make someone feel ashamed of their situation. A lot of folks made bad choices and we don't need to remind them of that."

Experts who help addicts recover say no matter the training, most addicts released from prison have no prospects to turn their life around, and a heightened urge to use even if they haven't touched opioids for years.

"Inmates that get out and come to us will talk about the cravings they've had for weeks." says Jason Austin, Executive Director of Raise the Bottom Addiction Treatment. Austin explains that a relapse is often fatal during probation because an inmate's drug tolerance is reduced over time.

"They shoot the same amount and the body reacts with an overdose." Austin says if Medicine-Assisted Treatment began in prison just before release, they could limit some of the urge to use again.

"Studies who it reduces crime and disease and there's increased productivity in our citizens." says Austin.

Also, the cost of incarceration in Idaho is about 60 dollars per day per inmate. The cost for methadone treatment according to Forbes is about 12 dollars a day.

"How much more argument do you need?" asks Austin. 

But, Forbes says changing funding protocols is hard when legislators think addiction is a choice.

"When that's our mindset as lawmakers and budget creators in our state that that was a choice?  That automatically goes to, 'why should I offer you help? You chose to get into this why should I pay to get you out?'  Without really looking at the bigger picture and realizing that substance abuse is costing taxpayer millions every year."