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New drug treatment to combat inmates' addictions stirs controversy

Posted at 3:56 PM, Oct 18, 2018

Some jails across the country are treating inmates with controversial medication to help them battle their addictions. Critics argue the method is just trading one drug for another. But authorities, health officials and former inmates argue it’s a step in the right direction.

For inmate Matthew Bardier, huge life changes led him to become an IV heroin user at the age of 23.

“My father passed away,” Bardier recalls. “I ended up going through a separation, going through a divorce."

Bardier had previously been a successful electrician.

At the Franklin County Jail, two hours west of Boston, inmate Nelson Lacap has a similar story. After serving in the military, Lacap spent years fighting a different type of battle. His addiction to pain pills led to him to heroin.

Both inmates have tried to beat addiction, but they ended up using again and finding their way into handcuffs.

But now there's a new sense of hope, thanks to a combination of two drugs: Buprenorphine and Naloxone. One is an opioid that help cuts heroin cravings and give addicts a sense of calm.

However, the medication is stirring controversy, with critics saying the patients aren’t quitting opioids all together. Instead, they argue it’s trading one drug for another, because Buprenorphine does give someone a high.

Does it work?

Sheriff Christopher Donelan with the Franklin County Sheriff says there have been benefits.

"Well, it's working here by some of our measuring standards,” says Sheriff Donelan. “For example, fewer discipline."

The sheriff says experts need to study how patients do long-term and once they’re out of jail. But in his county, results look promising. His jail is one of about 30 prisons and jails nationwide that offers programs with the drugs.

"Think about the cost of an overdose, the cost of police, the EMS, the human cost, the cost of the emergency room,” says Sheriff Donelan. “You know, financially the community has a vested interest in us trying to deal with this issue."

In two years, Franklin County has treated more than 200 inmates at a cost of about $12,500 per inmate per year. Public and private insurance pays for the drug after patients are released from jail.

"They will not overdose, they will not die,” says They will be able to hold the job and take care of their family responsibilities."

Former inmate George Ballentine can attest to the strain addicts put on the system.

"I've overdosed three times and been hospitalized and had to be NARCAN’ed 15 other times in a 2-year period," Ballentine recalls.

Ballentine was prescribed Buprenorphine and Naloxon while in the Franklin County Jail, and he says he’s certain he'd be dead without the drugs. He's been free for four months and not using heroin.

For recovering addicts, many of them say the once-a-day drugs amounts to the best chance they have at finding a path back to the life they loved, with the people they love.

"I'm an amazing father when I'm sober,” Ballentine says. “All that attention that goes to drugs goes to my kids, goes to myself and my family, and I just want to be back to the that person. And I believe it all starts now."

The drug is not a simple fix. With the drugs comes counseling. The cost is covered by insurance, including Medicaid or state funded public health programs.