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UMass: Researcher Helps Oversee Innovative Opioid Addiction Treatment Program in Western Massachusetts Jails

In what could serve as a model for tackling one of the nation’s top public health crises, University of Massachusetts-Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, Dr. Elizabeth Evans is teaming up with two Massachusetts sheriff’s offices to design, implement and study an opioid treatment program for jail detainees. Funded with a $1.5 million Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant, the 3-year project aims to deliver medications to some 500 detainees who agree to treatment, and connect them to follow-up care through a comprehensive community reentry program.

Dr. Evans says the project reflects a shift in the approach to addressing the opioid crisis. “Evidence supports the use of medications to treat opioid use disorder. This model signifies a willingness of the sheriffs to deliver care to reduce recidivism and to save people’s lives,” she says.

An estimated 40 percent of inmates report having an opioid problem, she says, and most are willing to receive treatment. For many of the detainees, it will be their first opportunity to receive evidence-based care for their disorder.

“People who experience withdrawal develop a fear of ever experiencing that again,” Dr. Evans says. “We recognize that the period after release from jail is a high-risk period for overdose. The inmates’ tolerance changes and their bodies cannot withstand the same amount of substances as they could pre-incarceration. They often return to use at the same level, which becomes a lethal dose.”

That’s why connecting people to medication providers and social services after their release from jail is a crucial part of the program, she says. Data gathered from the three-year project may inform the Commonwealth’s plan for future programs.

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