Treat Opioid Users In NC Jails, Prisons

March 22, 2022. News & Observer. By. Meghan Pavelka.

NC Schweitzer Fellow Meghan Pavelka

Deaths from opioid overdose have skyrocketed in recent years and drug overdose is a leading cause of death among those recently released from incarceration.

As a rising physician at UNC’s medical school, I am dismayed that while overdose deaths are preventable many people continue to die due to lack of treatment, especially in the first two weeks post-release.

Despite the increasing number of opiod users jailed and imprisoned each year, most N.C. detention settings fail to adequately support recovery efforts during incarceration. Scientific evidence supports that medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) improve recovery efforts by mitigating withdrawal symptoms, inhibiting the effects of opioid drugs, and saving lives.

Treatment consists of one of three medications — naltrexone, methadone and buprenorphine — which alleviate cravings. A 2020 Brown University study showed that expanding access to these medications in prisons and jails can reduce overdose deaths by 31.6% in certain circumstances.

Durham County Jail is one of the few N.C. detention centers that allows individuals to continue MOUD treatment while detained. It also allows users to begin treatment while incarcerated. In other parts of the state, individuals may be required to discontinue treatment while incarcerated, increasing their risk of overdose or recidivism once released.

Detention centers can play a key role in curbing the rates of opioid misuse in communities by connecting individuals with life-saving treatment and breaking the cycle of recidivism for drug-related offenses. Stopping the cycle of opioid misuse and recidivism would benefit the public health and safety of all of us. It’s time to do something about it.

Meghan Pavelka, Chapel Hill 

2021-22 NC Schweitzer Fellow