Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Opioid addiction – deemed a national public health emergency – is tied to some of Albuquerque’s most pressing issues, including soaring crime rates and homelessness.
Now, Bernalillo County hopes to help those battling the addiction, and, in turn, the community, through a new program.
The county is joining only a handful of jails in the country that allow inmates with opioid addictions to start a methadone program while behind bars.
Recovery Services of New Mexico has been providing medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, with methadone since 2005 for inmates who are already enrolled in a program when they enter the Metropolitan Detention Center.
Inducting new patients is a new, and groundbreaking, concept for the jail.
“Although we are very experienced at doing methadone inductions in the community, this is an altogether different scenario,” said Evan Baldwin, CEO of Recovery Services of New Mexico.
Of the nation’s 5,100 jails and prisons, fewer than 30 offer opioid users medication-assisted treatment, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance.
In any given month, around 365 inmates at MDC detox off opioids while at the jail without MAT.
Detoxed prisoners are eight times more likely to die of a drug overdose in the first week of release, according to a study done by the Maryland Department of Health.
The new induction program begins Wednesday, exactly 12 years – to the day – after the first dose of methadone was given to an inmate at the jail.
The initiative was made possible through a partnership between Recovery Services, the Metropolitan Detention Center, state Health and Human Services Department, and includes assistance from the Behavioral Health Initiative and the county’s Addiction Treatment Advisory Board.
Baldwin said plans are to start the pilot project at a slow pace, while Recovery Services identifies any potential obstacles and liabilities. That way, the county, patients, MDC staff and anybody else involved are working in an appropriate manner.
“Furthermore, we are reducing the human suffering within the jail because we are avoiding what we deem to be unnecessary withdrawals, when really it’s an opportunity for treatment,” he said. “There’s no shortage of potential positive benefits.”
Supporters of the program hope this will address a multitude of issues, both in and out of jail, including recidivism, crime rates and community wellness, among others.
A University of New Mexico study conducted in 2013 found that inmates with substance abuse disorders who are treated with methadone are less likely to be re-booked into jail, have longer periods between bookings, are less likely to go back to illicit drug use and are more likely to continue treatment after release.
Bill Wiese, former co-chair of the Bernalillo County Opioid Accountability Initiative, said these changes can reduce crime rates at a time when Albuquerque is seeing a spike in property crimes like burglary, theft and larceny.
“The majority of that kind of crime is driven by exactly the need to get money to pay for drugs,” he said.
And fewer people in jail means lower incarceration costs – which can amount to over $60 a day in savings per inmate – not to mention costs associated with police, courts and judges.
The addition of induction will come with no added cost to Bernalillo County. It will be included in the $10,000-a-month the county is already paying for maintenance at the jail.
“It makes no sense from an economic point of view not to be doing this, let alone the human point of view,” Wiese said.
Wiese applauded the efforts of the county and, in particular, Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins – calling Stebbins a “humble, but determined, force” behind many opioid treatment advances.
“If you don’t have a champion lawmaker in your corner, it’s nearly impossible to make progress,” he said.
Stebbins helped launch the county’s Opioid Accountability Initiative and has highlighted the need for a coordinated system of care throughout the years.
Wiese said induction at MDC represents one piece of that puzzle.
“Getting on methadone is just a step,” he said. “Ultimately, we have to pull this together as a system.”
Inmates often have underlying needs that require attention once in treatment, Wiese said, such as mental health, housing, education and employment.
“There are going to be people that are going to relapse for a whole bunch of reasons, that comes with the package,” he said. “The gain is huge for those who do succeed.”
Often that road to success is not smooth, but for Christine Imperial it was well worth it.
“Thirty years of addiction and look at where I’m at,” the 57-year-old woman said, as she approaches four years of sobriety for the first time since her 20s.
“I’m living proof that this works,” she said.
A mother of five and grandmother of 12, Imperial has spent much of her life behind bars for shoplifting, forgery and countless other crimes to feed her addiction. Throughout the years, she experienced overdoses, relapses and the treatment of methadone.
“It helps you live a normal life, it helps you get a job, it helps you maintain,” she said. “You don’t think like that addict anymore.”
Imperial cautions against viewing methadone as a crutch, but rather as more of a stepping-stone to be used in conjunction with therapy.
“What I think, my personal opinion, instead of incarceration they should put more into rehabilitation,” she said.
It took Imperial losing her brother, mother, father, sister and partner – all while in jail – before she said enough is enough.
“I didn’t want to get high anymore,” she said. “I was done.”
Now, Imperial credits methadone with saving a close relative she says had slipped into the same pattern of substance abuse.
She added, “I don’t want that for my kids. You do not have to follow in my footsteps.”
Imperial said she plans to open a business doing what she used to love before drug addiction: breeding and raising dogs.
“Everything is falling into place,” she said. “You don’t have to change the person that you are, you just change those habits.”