Ohio’s Jails and Prisons Are Fueling Crisis-Level Opioid Overdose Deaths
By David Carey and Joseph Longley
Although Ohio is among the states hardest hit by the nationwide opioid epidemic—with the incarcerated population particularly at risk—numerous county jail authorities are failing to provide even the most basic medical care needed to blunt this ongoing crisis. This denial of treatment to people suffering from opioid use disorder (OUD) is making it far more likely that Ohioans will remain captive to this disease—and even die of a drug overdose.
After a review of public records for jails across the state, the ACLU of Ohio has found that approximately half of Ohio jails are denying all forms of medication assisted treatment (MAT) to prisoners who are in need of it. And of the jails that provide it, many have only extremely restrictive, limited programs that fail to address the problem. The ACLU of Ohio is continuing to study county jails closely and is considering legal options to expand access to this life-saving medicine for people impacted by the opioid epidemic.
MAT is standard medical care for people who have OUD. There are three FDA approved drugs that constitute MAT: methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. These three drugs are available in a number of FDA-approved prescription products, such as Suboxone and Vivitrol, offering OUD sufferers an effective, sustainable recovery option. It is critically important that all three drugs are available to incarcerated people, since the appropriateness and effectiveness of each drug varies based on an individual’s circumstances.
Nearly all Ohio jails fail to provide the necessary range of treatment options, but the fact that so many provide no MAT at all is profoundly disturbing.
“MAT now constitutes the therapy of choice—indeed, the standard of care—for the treatment of opioid use disorders,” notes Dr. Skip Leeds, a clinical specialist in chronic pain management at Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine. “To interrupt or deny this life-saving intervention to a patient in need, simply because that patient has been arrested or incarcerated, is unconscionable.”
It is no exaggeration to say that Ohio jails’ practice of denying MAT to their incarcerated population, and of stripping away access from those who were receiving it before their incarceration, is fueling the number of opioid deaths throughout the state. Studies conducted throughout the United States and abroad show that MAT saves lives. One found a 74% decrease in all-cause mortality among currently incarcerated people receiving MAT and an 85% dip in all-cause mortality amongst people recently released from incarceration. Another study showed that formerly incarcerated people are 56 times more likely to die of an overdose than the general population, while yet another study showed that they were 129 times more likely to experience a fatal overdose.
Similar policies to Ohio’s have come under attack across the country. Lawsuits in Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, and Washington have resulted in granting prisoners access to MAT. Further, legislation has been enacted in Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont that has increased access to MAT for people suffering from opioid use disorder (OUD) in jails and prisons. It is long past time for Ohio to follow suit.
If you know of someone who recently has been, or is being, impacted by the unavailability of MAT in an Ohio jail, please contact the ACLU of Ohio through our Legal Intake Form: https://action.aclu.org/legal-intake/ohio-legal-intake