Suboxone, in pill and strip form. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine Department of Corrections inmates struggling with opioid addiction will soon have broader access to a treatment program aimed at helping them.

The expansion of the department’s medication-assisted treatment programs comes nearly two years after a pilot program was launched at three facilities in 2019. Since then, the program has expanded to all of Maine’s adult correctional facilities. However, access to the programs have been limited to inmates who are nearing release.

Over the next year, the Maine Department of Corrections will work to expand access to the program to all inmates who are identified as medically appropriate to receive the treatment, regardless of the duration of the sentence they have left to serve.

“The key to beating this opioid epidemic is to offer quality treatment as soon as it’s needed. MDOC’s [medication-assisted treatment] program does just that, ensuring that individuals incarcerated can find recovery too,” Maine’s Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith said.

Medication-assisted treatment is the use of synthetic analgesics, such as methadone and suboxone, in combination with counseling or therapy to treat opioid addiction. Research shows that medication-assisted treatment is a more effective way to treat opioid addiction than counseling alone.

About 60 to 85 percent of inmates in Maine prisons struggle with some kind of addiction, whether it be alcohol or opioid. Additionally, the number of inmates entering correctional facilities because of drug-related offenses has increased nearly every year since 2014, according to DOC data.

When the pilot programs began in 2019, they were targeted at inmates who were within six months of release. The idea was to provide the treatment in order to help the individuals have a more successful reentry into the community upon release.

Under the first phase of the expansion, which will begin this month, inmates within 12 months of release who are eligible for medication-assisted treatment will have access to the program. The threshold for eligibility will then increase every three months, expanding next to individuals with 18 months left on their sentences and then to individuals with 30 months or less left.

By November 2021, anyone residing in a Maine Department of Corrections facility who medically needs medication to treat opioid use disorder will be able to receive it, according to the department.

“This is the right thing to do,” Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said. “We’re so pleased with the partnerships and dedication among so many to make this happen.”

The department has partnered with the statewide recovery organization, Groups: Recover Together, to help make community connections so individuals can continue with their treatment after release.

This partnership will continue under the expansion to help with continuity of care, which experts say is key to successful recovery.

The department will also work on better continuity of care at the beginning of a person’s sentence by allowing them to continue use of medication-assisted treatment if they were using the treatment prior to incarceration.

“When we talk about a comprehensive approach to addressing [opioid use disorder], this is what we’re talking about,” Maine Office of Behavioral Health Director Dr. Jessica Pollard said. “A coordinated system ensures people receive the support they need, without gaps.”

Since launching the program in 2019, 500 men and women formerly incarcerated within the department of corrections have been released after receiving medication-assisted treatment while serving their sentence.