Prisons fight opioids with $1,000 injection: Does it work?

This file photo taken at Family Guidance Center, an addiction treatment center in Joliet, Ill., shows the packaging of Vivitrol, a high-priced monthly injection used to prevent relapse in opioid abusers.

One year after the Vivitrol Plus program began at the Washington County jail, 54 people have participated and not one of them has died from an overdose, according to Erich Curnow, director of clinical and case management services with the county’s Drug and Alcohol Commission.

Curnow said the first full year of the program, which combines an “opioid antagonist” shot and outpatient treatment, ended in June. It was funded through a $148,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, and when it began, the commission set up four main benchmarks for the first year, three of which have been met.

“First and most important was having a zero percent mortality rate for all program participants within a 12-month release,” he said. “Nobody has died who has participated in the program that we’re aware of.”

The Vivitrol shot is given to inmates who have struggled with opioid addiction. The first shot is received before they are released, then they return for additional monthly shots, which counter the high one would typically experience from opioids and curb the cravings for it.

Another benchmark for the program’s first year was to have less than 20 percent recidivism for three years following release from jail. Curnow said that goal was met in that just 6 percent of the 54 participants committed new crimes. He said that while probation violations aren’t considered recidivism, if a participant is found to be using heroin again or using other illegal substances, “there would be therapeutic intervention that would help them get that additional substance use under control.”

The third benchmark, which the program didn’t quite meet, was to reach 80 percent engagement in treatment for three months following release from the jail. Curnow said that at the end of the first year, 69 percent of those who started the program continued treatment for at least three months after their release from jail.

“We have some work to do there, but we’re not too far off,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting we had that many people continue on in treatment after leaving the jail.”

Lastly, the commission sought to have a 50 percent abstinence rate one year after release, meaning that a participant stays clean throughout their first year out of jail. Curnow said the program hit 100 percent of that benchmark, but since it is still new, just two people have completed a full year.

“These numbers will continue to change month to month,” he said. “This is just a snapshot at the end of the first year, but I think the numbers are encouraging.”

One of the two women to complete a full year of sobriety through the Vivitrol program is Joanna Temple of Washington, who the Observer-Reporter interviewed in May. She struggled with heroin addiction for five years and had tried multiple treatment options before trying Vivitrol.

“I’ll be graduating from the program on Friday,” Temple said Wednesday.

She said she’s excited to reach this point and will continue to share her story with others.

Carlie Dudich of Monongahela is another participant in the program, though she’s not completed a full year yet. She said she became addicted to drugs at 13 and has tried other forms of treatment, like suboxone, but they didn’t work.

“Ultimately what it came down to is jail changed my perspective on a lot of things – my mindset changed,” she said.

Dudich started the Vivitrol program in March, after spending eight months in jail.

“Vivitrol has been good,” she said. “It was like a crutch for me. I don’t think about using.”

Curnow said that though the program is off to a “fairly slow start,” it’s helped to “mitigate” the number of people dying from overdoses upon leaving the jail.

“There’s room for improvement of course, and we’re already working on those issues,” he said.

The Drug and Alcohol Commission has distributed the Vivitrol shot through a provider, Allied Addiction Recovery, but wants to add another provider, Wesley Family Services. Curnow said the second provider will specialize in treating people who have been diagnosed with both a substance abuse disorder and a mental health disorder, because “some of the folks who didn’t stay in treatment for our goal of 90 days had to go elsewhere to get mental health treatment.”

Curnow said the commission also purchased a curriculum that will address therapeutic intervention to curb criminal behavior.

“Once you become so far enslaved by drug use, you’re pretty much willing to do whatever’s necessary to continue to use,” Curnow said.

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