The Vermont Department of Corrections is expanding treatment for inmates battling opiate addiction following a November 1 Seven Days article that examined the department’s practice of limiting such treatment.
Inmates at all state prisons who have prescriptions for methadone or buprenorphine (aka Suboxone) will be able to receive those medications, which diminish cravings and temper the side effects of heroin withdrawal, for up to 120 days, Commissioner Lisa Menard confirmed in an email Tuesday. Previously, inmates at two facilities received a 90-day maximum of medication-assisted treatment, while MAT was only available for 30 days at the other state jails.
The department’s revised policy stipulates that inmates won't be taken off their medications simply because the DOC doesn't know how long they'll be behind bars.
Inmates, Menard wrote, will receive "their full dose as long as possible, less the expected duration of a medically compassionate taper," which gradually reduces the dose of Suboxone or methadone over a period of days or weeks.
The new policy won’t formally take effect until next week, according to Menard, but several inmates have told Seven Days that they're already seeing a difference.
The only thing keeping 26-year-old Sam Blatt behind bars in the Northern State Correctional Facility is a lack of housing — he needs to find a place to live that meets DOC requirements. Less than a month into his prison stay, Blatt reported that corrections staff were reducing his Suboxone dosage because he didn’t have a specific release date. He received what staff told him would be his final two milligrams on November 2.
But, the following day, he wrote to tell a Seven Days reporter that he — and other inmates who were also in the midst of detoxing — had been put back on their meds.
"This is a great thing that happened today and will only help so many more in the future," Blatt wrote.
William McGuinness has been held at Northwest State Correctional Facility since October 12 — also for a lack of housing. He told Seven Days that he came in with a Suboxone prescription, but a corrections nurse told him two weeks into his stay that he would soon be tapered off the medication.
On November 4, however, he called a reporter with good news: He’d been told he could stay on Suboxone for up to 120 days.
Inmates aren’t guaranteed the full 120 days, however. In most cases, the DOC will begin to taper people as soon as it determines they will be in prison for longer than 120 days, according to Menard. Additionally, inmates who test positive for drugs or who have been caught diverting their medication may still be taken off.
Tom Dalton, the Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform executive director, called the changes a "great step forward" but added that there is "still more work to be done." His organization plans to continue to push for unrestricted access to medication-assisted treatment in Vermont prisons, Dalton said.