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MAT in Jails: Response to Reader Questions
By Jeffrey E. Keller MD
Published: 06/03/2019

County jail My last post about MAT in jails generated a lot of excellent responses–so many, in fact, that I realized that my discussion of MAT in jails was incomplete. I would like to enlarge the discussion about the proper role of MAT in jails by responding to these comments. Before I do, I want to make sure that we are all looking at the issue from the same perspective. Please consider how MAT should be used in three different jails.

Jail 1 is a 1000+ bed jail in a large city. Medical staff (mainly nurses) are on-site 24/7 and the practitioner(s) work at the jail full time. There are one or more Opioid Treatment Programs (OTP) in the community.

Jail 2 is a 250 bed jail in a smaller community. Nurses are at the jail daily, but not overnight. The doctor has a full time practice elsewhere (let’s say an ER) and does a jail medical clinic twice a week on the side. Since the county employs the practitioner as a part-time contractor, there is frequent practitioner turnover. There is no Opioid Treatment Program in the community.

Jail 3 is a 50 bed jail in a remote rural community. There is a nurse at the jail weekdays 8-4 but the deputies pass meds. A practitioner comes to the jail once a week to do sick call. There is, of course, no OTP within 200 miles.

Let’s keep in mind that there are even smaller jails (I am aware of several in Idaho with less than 20 beds) and in some of these very small jails, no medical professionals ever come to the jail. Any inmate needing medical care must be transported to a local clinic or ER. Let’s also keep in mind that there are many, many more small jails in the United States than there are big jails. In fact, if you were to add up all of the inmates incarcerated in jails with less than 100 beds, I suspect that the total number may well exceed the number of inmates incarcerated in big, urban jails.

And now to the responses and comments regarding MAT in jails. The first point was brought up independently by both Hsein Chiang and Jill NcNamara: even if MAT cannot be continued upon a patient’s release from jail, it still has the benefit of decreasing the risk of overdose post release because it prevents deterioration of tolerance that comes with other forms of treatment. This is an excellent point, and I believe that it is probably true. However, the evidence for this is limited and we don’t know how big this benefit is (more on this evidence later). It may be that in Jail 1 (a big jail in a big city), the benefit of MAT, including overdose risk reduction, may well outweigh the risks of using MAT–even if the jail has no community OTP to hand the patient off to upon release (importantly, Al Cichon points out that even when there is an OTP in a community, sometimes they are not willing to cooperate with the jail). There is no question in my mind that when it can be properly implemented, preferably in cooperation with an OTP, MAT is the best therapy for opioid abuse disorder. The question is using MAT with no integration with an OTP.

Consider MAT in Jail 3, the small jail with limited medical presence. MAT, whether methadone or Suboxone, simply cannot be legally done in jail 3. Jail 2 also would have a hard time using MAT without the support of an outside OTP. My point is that MAT is simply not going to be used at most small rural jails at the present point in time. However, even a small jail can properly treat patients for opioid withdrawal–using clonidine. There is a broad misconception that if a jail is not able or willing to use MAT, then there is no other treatment for opioid withdrawal out there, so “Let ’em go cold turkey!” I want all patients–every single one–going through opioid withdrawal to receive medical treatment. If a facility can’t or won’t use MAT, then, please, use an alpha-blocker, like clonidine!

Martin Krsak points out that one study done in Rhode Island showed that MAT prevents many post-release overdose deaths. I was aware of this study and it was a great preliminary study! But it has limitations, as the study itself pointed out in the discussion section. First, the average length of incarceration among those studied was 23-40 months so this was essentially a prison study. Would the results hold up if the average length of incarceration was less than one month, like a typical jail? Second, the average length of time from release until the overdose death occurred was 4-6 months. How do we interpret that data if the way MAT works to prevent overdose deaths is by preventing tolerance deterioration while in jail? Third, this study took patients who were enrolled in an OTP before incarceration, continued their MAT “without tapering or discontinuing their medications” throughout their incarceration and then transitioned all of them back into an OTP after release from prison. What they did not do in this study is initiate MAT to treat opioid withdrawal for patients who had not been in opioid treatment before coming to prison. That is different from what Hsein and Jill were talking about, which is to use MAT to treat withdrawal even if MAT cannot be continued after discharge, in order to reduce the risk of post-release overdose. The Rhode Island study was also done in an urban area, in large facilities with dedicated medical staff, with OTP cooperation and with acceptance of all patients into an OTP guaranteed after release. How that translates to a rural jail where none of this is true is problematic. Bottom line, this was a great preliminary study. More studies need to be done, specifically in jails and specifically addressing the issue that we are talking about here–using MAT for opioid withdrawal in order to prevent tolerance deterioration.

Charles Lee points out that MAT is expensive and underfunded both in the community and in corrections. He is right! Besides being monetarily expensive, MAT in a jail is costly in many other ways, as well. It is time expensive–getting the appropriate certifications takes a lot of time as does administering the program. Also, MAT has substantial security concerns. Methadone and Suboxone are, to put it mildly, highly sought after whenever they are found in a jail facility. Preventing diversion and abuse of these drugs is not a small issue. Do the benefits of using MAT instead of clonidine to treat withdrawal outweigh the cost and risks of having these drugs loose in the facility? In my opinion, the answer is “Yes” for some jails (say Jail 1) and clearly “No” for other jails (jail 3 and many jails like jail 2).

As always, what I have written here is my opinion based on my training, research and experience. I could be wrong! I would like to hear your opinion in COMMENTS!

Corrections.com author, Jeffrey E. Keller is a Board Certified Emergency Physician with 25 years of practice experience before moving full time into the practice of Correctional Medicine. He is the Medical Director of Badger Medical, which provides medical care to inmates in several jails throughout Idaho. He is also the author of the "Jail Medicine" blog

Other articles by Keller


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