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Pilot program at Erie County Holding Center aims to help inmates battling opioid addiction

Thousands of inmates have some level of addiction, and many are hooked on opioids when they are arrested.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Erie County Sheriff's Office just wrapped up the first year of a pilot program at the holding center that aims to get inmates on the path to getting clean.

The addiction assistance program is a combination of counseling and medication while in jail and addiction services once they are released.

Those in charge of the voluntary program say inmates are away from their drugs while locked up, but this approach is to help them stay away from drugs later.

According to the sheriff's office, there were nearly 12,000 inmates at the holding center throughout 2018. Half of them required some form of detox, and of those, more than 27 percent had some level of opioid addiction.

When inmates are booked, the jail works to identify those with an addiction. They are given flyers with information about drug treatment programs. There's also group and individual counseling at the holding center.

Inmates who are detoxing are housed together in a special unit close to the medical unit. Registered nurses check on them several times a day, and doctors can provide medications to help with withdrawal if needed.

Those hooked solely on opioids are eligible for a special shot that can help prevent cravings and relapses. The Vivitrol is administered three days before an inmate is released. The drug blocks the receptors in the brain, so those who receive the shot don't get high.

"We have to go through and get a history and physical, and blood work to make sure their liver function is capable of handling the shot. We then have the counselors coming in to discuss it. They have to sign a commitment letter," said Christa Cutrona, director of Correctional Health Division.

Time is of the essence. The average stay for an inmate is just two weeks, and detox can take seven to 10 days. There is a small window to reach inmates and offer help before they are released.

The maker of Vivitrol is donating the drug to Erie County, and that partnership will continue into the future. Jail officials say Vivitrol isn't a miracle drug, but it can help those looking to beat addiction. 

Deputies also drive people to their first counseling appointment post-release, so there's no excuse to miss it.

In 2018, 32 inmates got the Vivitrol shot. Four of them were re-incarcerated.

"If we are the start or the match that lights that fire, to stop their addiction, that's a wonderful thing," Cutrona said. "I said if we can save one life, that is worth an unlimited amount of money. One life changes everything."

Those who get the shot and counseling outside of jail have to have some type of insurance to cover the costs.

Mike Reardon is the First Deputy Superintendent of Compliance and oversees correctional health for the Erie County Sheriff's Office. He said years ago there were no programs to help addicted inmates and certainly nothing in place to worry about people once they were released.

Reardon says the pilot program makes people more accountable and hopefully keeps program participants from getting arrested again. Reardon says many who are jailed got there because they committed a crime, such as theft, to feed their addiction.

He hopes the program helps lower the recidivism and crime rates.

"These people are in a cycle of getting out of jail, doing petty crimes so they can support their habit. And hopefully that is broken so crime should go down," Reardon said.

The sheriff's office says the annual cost to treat addicted inmates is roughly $1.5 million — that covers the cost of doctors, nurses, and medication to help with withdrawal.

"Taxpayer wise, the medication for this specific program, is free. The discharge planner, the money was provided through grant money. That's not costing our county taxpayers either," Reardon said.

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