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My Thoughts on MAT in Jails
By Jeffrey E. Keller MD
Published: 05/13/2019

Drugabuse I recently ran across this news article on NPR about the problem of treating the large number of opioid addicted patients who are coming to our jails. There is a growing movement that all opioid addicted patients should be offered Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) while in jail–meaning one or more of three drugs: methadone, Suboxone or Vivitrol. The article does a good job in pointing out that this is a complicated problem. Having been on the front lines of this problem for many years in my own jails (and so having that great teacher–experience), I would like today to present my own thoughts on using MAT in jails. (MAT in prisons is a separate subject that I will address later).

First, it is important to recognize the distinction between treating opioid withdrawal (also called Detox) and the long term treatment of addiction. These two are often confused–and that is a mistake. Treating withdrawal is not the same thing as treating addiction. Take, for example, a patient who has been using heroin and then comes to jail. He is going to go through heroin withdrawal, which typically lasts for around 5-7 days. He needs to be treated for this for this. It is inappropriate, bad medicine and dangerous to allow him to suffer through a “cold turkey withdrawal! While the MAT drugs methadone or Suboxone can be used to treat withdrawal, they are not better in this setting than alpha-blockers like clonidine or lofexidine and are much more tricky to use. The Cochrane review analyzed the available literature on this subject and concluded:

“We detected no significant difference in efficacy between (opioid withdrawal) treatment regimens based on clonidine or lofexidine and those based on reducing doses of methadone over a period of around 10 days . . .”

Cochrane Review. Clonidine, lofexidine, and similar medications for the management of opioid withdrawal. 6 May 2016

I use clonidine to treat opioid withdrawal in my jails. It works very well. But having treated the symptoms of withdrawal, the patient still has the problem of addiction. When he is released from jail, there is a strong likelihood that he will relapse into heroin use. Treating the patient’s addiction is different than treating the withdrawal. Treating the addiction is a long term process that may take takes years and typically involves MAT, counselling and AA style group meetings. When the NPR article says “(MAT) is now considered to be the most effective method of treating opioid abuse disorders,” it is talking about the long term treatment of addiction.

I agree with this. However, the average length of stay in a typical county jail is less than a month. Many are released within days. This means that MAT in a jail must be coordinated with a community based MAT program on the outside that patients can transition to when they get out. The ideal situation is this: If a patient is in a community MAT program before they come to jail, their MAT medication should be continued while they are in jail and then again seamlessly continued when they are released. This requires a lot of communication between the community MAT programs and the jail.

Once a strong relationship is developed between the community MAT program and the jail, then–and only then–can the jail develop a program to begin MAT treatment of heroin addicted patients while they are in jail. Then, the patients who begin MAT therapy in jail can continue that treatment at the community program when they get out of jail. But the relationship with the community MAT program must precede such a program. In my opinion, it does no good to start someone on MAT in jail when there is no possible way to continue it when they get out.

Why would it not be possible to continue MAT when a patient is released from jail? There are two big reasons for this. The most common reason is that there is no community program! Big cities usually have one or more community MAT programs, but little cities and towns–where the majority of county jails are located–often do not. And if there is no program in the community, it does no good to start short term treatment in a jail that is discontinued immediately when patients are released.

The second reason why patients may not be able to continue MAT after release from jail is that they cannot afford it. MAT programs charge their patients. While insurance may cover opioid treatment programs, many, if not most, of the opioid addicted patients in a jail do not have insurance and cannot afford the fees of a community MAT program. Once again, in my opinion, it does no good to start someone on MAT in a jail just to leave them hanging once they are released because they cannot afford to continue.

The bottom line is that MAT opioid treatment programs have to be community based. Jails should be part of the community program, by cooperating and coordinating closely with the community program, but small jails especially cannot effectively function alone. In the meantime, all jails, even small jails in rural communities, can effectively treat opioid withdrawal.

As usual, what I have written here is my opinion, based on my training, research and experience. I could be wrong! Feel free to disagree but please say why in comments. This particular article deals with jails, not prisons. MAT use in prisons is a separate subject for later discussion.

Do you use MAT in your facility? Please comment!

Corrections.com author, Jeffrey E. Keller is a Board Certified Emergency Physician with 25 years of practice experience before moving full time into the practice of Correctional Medicine. He is the Medical Director of Badger Medical, which provides medical care to inmates in several jails throughout Idaho. He is also the author of the "Jail Medicine" blog

Other articles by Keller


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  24. hamiltonlindley on 05/14/2019:

    Thanks for posting this important article, Jeff. It's important that we understand some of the inmates aren't just prisoners. They are patients too. Hamilton Lindley

  25. david123 on 05/14/2019:

    I think considering drug addiction is a disease as much as diabetes or cancer that if a person is seeking treatment they are seeking treatment. In jail, or prison no matter the place, a diabetic gets the treatment they need, a cancer victim same thing, a person with asthma and a person with a B-12 deficiency, they all get they're treatment while under the responsibility of the state. regardless of if they have insurance, or didn't attend to it while not in custody, and have no plan after custody is done to how they intend to follow up with treatment, the bottom line is that when a person is released there is always a release plan. just as a release plan is made for a diabetic, cancer victim, then yes a "drug addict" should have the same consideration, rights and the state should have the same responsibility and enthusiasm that finally a person afflicted with addiction to drugs has been finally given medical treatment during custody, and now they have as well a plan to continue they're treatment and finally able to be released into society with a healthy viable and productive chance at a normal life with a significantly reduced chance of relapse, overdose, and re-offending, the cost will pay for itself if done right. and anyhow, if you cant afford the medical expenses of prisoners in your jails then it is very simple, don't imprison them and see where that gets everyone. but to hackle with a person's right to good and proper medical treatment when the state has a responsibility to so is stupid

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