MAT in Jails. Response to Reader Questions

My last post about MAT in jails generated a lot of excellent responses–so many, in fact, that I realized that my discussion of MAT in jails was incomplete. I would like to enlarge the discussion about the proper role of MAT in jails by responding to these comments. Before I do, I want to make sure that we are all looking at the issue from the same perspective. Please consider how MAT should be used in three different jails.

What’s the role of MAT in a small jail?

Jail 1 is a 1000+ bed jail in a large city. Medical staff (mainly nurses) are on-site 24/7 and the practitioner(s) work at the jail full time. There are one or more Opioid Treatment Programs (OTP) in the community.

Jail 2 is a 250 bed jail in a smaller community. Nurses are at the jail daily, but not overnight. The doctor has a full time practice elsewhere (let’s say an ER) and does a jail medical clinic twice a week on the side. Since the county employs the practitioner as a part-time contractor, there is frequent practitioner turnover. There is no Opioid Treatment Program in the community.

Jail 3 is a 50 bed jail in a remote rural community. There is a nurse at the jail weekdays 8-4 but the deputies pass meds. A practitioner comes to the jail once a week to do sick call. There is, of course, no OTP within 200 miles.

Let’s keep in mind that there are even smaller jails (I am aware of several in Idaho with less than 20 beds) and in some of these very small jails, no medical professionals ever come to the jail. Any inmate needing medical care must be transported to a local clinic or ER. Let’s also keep in mind that there are many, many more small jails in the United States than there are big jails. In fact, if you were to add up all of the inmates incarcerated in jails with less than 100 beds, I suspect that the total number may well exceed the number of inmates incarcerated in big, urban jails.

And now to the responses and comments regarding MAT in jails. The first point was brought up independently by both Hsein Chiang and Jill NcNamara: even if MAT cannot be continued upon a patient’s release from jail, it still has the benefit of decreasing the risk of overdose post release because it prevents deterioration of tolerance that comes with other forms of treatment. This is an excellent point, and I believe that it is probably true. However, the evidence for this is limited and we don’t know how big this benefit is (more on this evidence later). It may be that in Jail 1 (a big jail in a big city), the benefit of MAT, including overdose risk reduction, may well outweigh the risks of using MAT–even if the jail has no community OTP to hand the patient off to upon release (importantly, Al Cichon points out that even when there is an OTP in a community, sometimes they are not willing to cooperate with the jail). There is no question in my mind that when it can be properly implemented, preferably in cooperation with an OTP, MAT is the best therapy for opioid abuse disorder. The question is using MAT with no integration with an OTP.

Consider MAT in Jail 3, the small jail with limited medical presence. MAT, whether methadone or Suboxone, simply cannot be legally done in jail 3. Jail 2 also would have a hard time using MAT without the support of an outside OTP. My point is that MAT is simply not going to be used at most small rural jails at the present point in time. However, even a small jail can properly treat patients for opioid withdrawal–using clonidine. There is a broad misconception that if a jail is not able or willing to use MAT, then there is no other treatment for opioid withdrawal out there, so “Let ’em go cold turkey!” I want all patients–every single one–going through opioid withdrawal to receive medical treatment. If a facility can’t or won’t use MAT, then, please, use an alpha-blocker, like clonidine!

Martin Krsak points out that one study done in Rhode Island showed that MAT prevents many post-release overdose deaths (this study can be found here). I was aware of this study and it was a great preliminary study! But it has limitations, as the study itself pointed out in the discussion section. First, the average length of incarceration among those studied was 23-40 months so this was essentially a prison study. Would the results hold up if the average length of incarceration was less than one month, like a typical jail? Second, the average length of time from release until the overdose death occurred was 4-6 months. How do we interpret that data if the way MAT works to prevent overdose deaths is by preventing tolerance deterioration while in jail? Third, this study took patients who were enrolled in an OTP before incarceration, continued their MAT “without tapering or discontinuing their medications” throughout their incarceration and then transitioned all of them back into an OTP after release from prison. What they did not do in this study is initiate MAT to treat opioid withdrawal for patients who had not been in opioid treatment before coming to prison. That is different from what Hsein and Jill were talking about, which is to use MAT to treat withdrawal even if MAT cannot be continued after discharge, in order to reduce the risk of post-release overdose. The Rhode Island study was also done in an urban area, in large facilities with dedicated medical staff, with OTP cooperation and with acceptance of all patients into an OTP guaranteed after release. How that translates to a rural jail where none of this is true is problematic. Bottom line, this was a great preliminary study. More studies need to be done, specifically in jails and specifically addressing the issue that we are talking about here–using MAT for opioid withdrawal in order to prevent tolerance deterioration.

Charles Lee points out that MAT is expensive and underfunded both in the community and in corrections. He is right! Besides being monetarily expensive, MAT in a jail is costly in many other ways, as well. It is time expensive–getting the appropriate certifications takes a lot of time as does administering the program. Also, MAT has substantial security concerns. Methadone and Suboxone are, to put it mildly, highly sought after whenever they are found in a jail facility. Preventing diversion and abuse of these drugs is not a small issue. Do the benefits of using MAT instead of clonidine to treat withdrawal outweigh the cost and risks of having these drugs loose in the facility? In my opinion, the answer is “Yes” for some jails (say Jail 1) and clearly “No” for other jails (jail 3 and many jails like jail 2).

As always, what I have written here is my opinion based on my training, research and experience. I could be wrong! I would like to hear your opinion in COMMENTS!

8 thoughts on “MAT in Jails. Response to Reader Questions

  1. MAT in jail not prison is uncalled for! I am a LADC and for years I have seen inmates come to the realization that they can live without MAT and they experience a clearer thought process vs the foggy thought process by being on MAT. I believe we as a country have an addiction crisis. I believe it is so sad that opiates only get the attention, when in fact addiction has been a crisis for years. 20 years ago I worked with people who were addicted to alcohol. Yes the detox was very hard and yes if they chose to drink after treatment there was a very good chance that they would die. One night of drinking could turn into alcohol poisoning and that kills also.

  2. Why so quick to vilify detox and promote MAT as the Emperor’s new clothes? The benefits of properly detoxing users and re-setting their brains, psyche, immune system, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to health without narcotics far exceeds the mostly unknown number of fatal ODs directly attributed to reduced opioid tolerance. If and when we ever tease out an unbiased number of these ODs, I suspect it will be small. Probably smaller than the number of patients who go on to a drug-free life. If a person spends three detoxed months in jail, followed by 5 months drug-free out of jail before they OD, will the study attribute that OD to the evil detoxed jail time, their “free world” clean-time or to other variables such as depression? Considering the number of confounding variables, conflict of interests and qualitative factors involved, I see more politics and virtue signaling than science in these “studies.” I’m not anti-MAT; it helps, just saying it’s not the cure. MAT was introduced as Medication ASSISTED Therapy but now seems to be; Medication AS therapy. Despite MAT, and the recently alleged down tic, the ~72K/yr OD rate is projected to keep climbing until at least 2025 by our best models.

    In my MAT addiction practice the “clean” time associated with corrections has consistently served as a crucial landmark of reference and game-changing motivation for many patients. Many SUD pts avoid using for months and even years after incarceration having learned valuable coping skills and/or properly addressed their underlying mental un-health. With a clear and wiser mind they learn the value of the company they keep and healthy connections. Many of my patients have not experience an adult life without drugs b/c they’ve been using since teenagers; they can only guess what’s normal (healthy). Corrections sans MAT gives them a glimpse into that healthy state. Is it our dis-coping patients who benefit when big pharma et al keeps their chronically deceased brains (ASAM’s definition) bathed in opiate during this critical window of opportunity?

    • Totally agree with all of this. We have our Inmates go at least 90 days with no meds so their brains have a chance to heal. During this time they are offered mental health treatment in the form of counseling and groups. Almost all of them are feeling the best they have ever felt at 90 days and have no need for MAT or mental health meds because they learned to use coping skills for mental health symptoms. Those with opiate addictions and given Vivitrol the day of release at Community mental health and set up with continued counseling and groups, etc…We do give meds to assist with detox-No controlled substances.

  3. I support the response of the jail. People who have been incarcerated are approximately 100 times more likely to die by overdose in the first two weeks after their release than the general public.

  4. The statement that the incarcerated are 100 times more likely to die from OD in two weeks after release is concerning. Yet, at least in the experience here, it does not appear to be supported by evidence. Mayhap, because access is fairly easy and the reduced tolerance is common knowledge.
    Much has been noted about self medication and substance use disorder. While that certainly accounts for a meaningful proportion; it seems there is less acknowledgement of the role of a trauma history

  5. Why is nothing being said regarding the likelihood of inmates who began a MAT in jail, remaining in a MAT program upon release? I am both an opiate addict who has had some success with MAT as well as an individual who goes to jail approximately once a year. Without a doubt if the jail would start me on an MAT program, I would most definitely continue upon my release.
    Why does that not seem to be being talked about here?

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