Prison can be the worst place to be for a person struggling with addiction, but the devastation of mass imprisonment and the burden of drugs are inseparable today, as the two scourges pervade the same communities. In New York, where a massive prison population intersects with an exploding opioid crisis, authorities hope to turn a place of crisis into a seedbed for rescue. A new pilot project aims to equip incarcerated people with tools and skills to act as emergency responders for overdose victims. The hope is that they will return to their neighborhoods to help people in their communities stay safe, while they stay free.
Though the opioid epidemic swelling across the country is typically associated with white rural regions, it has permeated both cities and suburbs in New York. Opioid-related overdoses hit thousands of people each year (statewide, deaths linked to opioids rose from about 1,600 to 2,100 annually from 2013 to 2015), including those related to prescription medication and others from heroin or its even more deadly cousin fentanyl. Additionally, thousands of overdoses lead to hospitalizations annually. The lucky ones will be saved by emergency doses of naloxone, a medication that alleviates overdoses rapidly and can be administered by anyone with simple training and equipment. Since the fatality risk in an overdose situation may depend on the seconds it takes to get medical aid, public-health authorities have been bringing the emergency response straight into the most affected communities, and, not surprisingly, the same populations at risk of overdose are also besieged by the criminal-justice system.
In an effort to combat the crisis, state correctional and public-health authorities have begun collaborating on a unique harm-reduction initiative to equip people released from state prisons with naloxone kits. After undergoing voluntary training and education on their rights as “Good Samaritans,” the formerly incarcerated, many of them out on parole or conditional release, are positioned to intervene when they encounter an overdose in their family or neighborhood.
So far, according to research by the Vera Institute of Justice, the trainees have more than risen to the challenge. While the state works to expand naloxone-distribution programs in communities, the formerly incarcerated population is a unique experimental group because they are often so close to the opioid epidemic. Some might even have struggled with addiction themselves. And many come from impoverished areas isolated from public-health institutions.