Health Commissioner Wen Presses Need to Treat Baltimore’s Opioid-Addicted Inmates Now

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The visitor’s entrance to the Baltimore City Detention Center. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen says Gov. Larry Hogan’s planned study about whether to turn the shuttered Baltimore Men’s Detention Center into a drug treatment facility is unnecessary, as plenty inmates are already suffering from opioid dependence.

“Of course we should be providing medication-assisted treatment to people in our jails and prisons,” Wen told Baltimore Fishbowl on Thursday. “We don’t need another study to tell us that.”

Earlier this week, Hogan’s office announced the state would hire a consultant to explore whether it’s possible to convert part of the Civil War-era building inside the correctional complex off of I-83 into a “therapeutic detention facility” to treat inmates with substance abuse disorders and behavioral health issues.

Hogan himself closed the men’s detention center in 2015, calling it a “deplorable facility.” It’s now one of 39 structure being targeted for demolition inside the complex.

Wen did not criticize Hogan’s idea to explore converting the detention center, but rather pressed the need for the state to treat inmates for opioid dependence now within existing facilities.

“This is actually a constitutional requirement, that we provide medical care to inmates,” she said. “Right now, Governor Hogan has the ability to provide medication-assisted treatment with all three forms of FDA-approved medications” — methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone – “to every individual in our jails and prisons who needs it. That should be done. We don’t need a study, and we don’t need a separate facility.”

Gerald Shields, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, told Baltimore Fishbowl the city’s prison complex actually does offer methadone and injectable naltrexone under partnership programs with the Friends Research Institute of Baltimore.

Buprenorphine, known also under by its brand name, Suboxone, isn’t available to inmates because the strips can be sold as valuable contraband. Shields called it “our biggest problem right now.”

“It’s a major illegal market in our facility.”

But inmates can receive methadone to treat opioid dependence at the pre-trial complex through a first-of-its-kind program initiated in 2001, Shields said.

Naltrexone, meanwhile, is available in injection form in a pilot program to 250 inmates re-entering society. The drug (also called by its brand name, Vivitrol) is a so-called opiate antagonist that blocks the effects of opioids in the brain, and decreases a user’s desire to take them.

After inmates receive their initial injection and leave prison behind, the Friends Research Institute of Baltimore works with community partners to administer five additional treatments to them in subsequent months, Shields said.

The program is being studied as a way to prevent outgoing inmates from overdosing on drugs bought in city streets, he said: “When inmates leave, that’s when they’re most susceptible to overdose.”

Sixty percent of the inmates in Baltimore’s correctional complex are estimated to have a substance abuse disorder, the governor’s office said on Tuesday.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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