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Redmond: Treating Addiction

02/15/12 5:55PM By Marybeth Redmond
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(Host) Last week the Shumlin administration announced a plan to create five opiate treatment centers throughout the state. Writer, journalist and commentator Marybeth Redmond is hopeful that the long-term impact of an addictions treatment system for Vermont will be fewer offenders returning to prison.

(Redmond) I witness revolving-door incarceration first-hand as some of the women prisoners I facilitate a writing circle with each week cycle back to jail.

Recently, one long-term writer returned to our group just nine weeks after we celebrated her departure from Chittenden Correctional Facility. This shy, blue-eyed 20-something had been released to a transitional housing facility. But, despite the substance-free environment in that residence, she began using prescription meds again and was re-incarcerated after several "dirty UAs." That's code for a urine analysis indicating drug use, a violation of her probation.

"How are you doing?" I asked her quietly at the end of the session. "I'm really bummed," she said. "I was clean for a couple of weeks then started up again. It was everywhere, all around me," she said of the neighborhood beyond her doors, with dealers dishing out opiates like OxyContin. "I'm an addict, you know" she reminded me.

About half of incarcerated Vermonters return to prison eventually. That figure mirrors recidivism rates nationwide. The vast majority of this population are low-level offenders re-incarcerated because of violations such as illegal drug use. Many of their initial crimes occurred while high on drugs, and while that doesn't excuse behavior that's harmed persons or property, imprisoning low-level offenders with long track-records of substance abuse is not an effective strategy for reducing crime or rehabilitating lives.

That's why the Administration's plan to create five addiction treatment centers around the state is hopeful news. Shockingly, Vermont's per-capita ranking for people seeking help for prescription opiate addiction is the second worst in the country.

Each proposed treatment center, or "hub and spoke" facility as they are being called, would provide wrap-around medical, mental health, family, and substance abuse services for those ravaged by addictions. These centers would also add distribution points for methadone and buprenorphine-replacement therapies used to treat opiate addiction. Hundreds of Vermonters are currently on wait lists for access to these medications.

The state has long been in need of an integrated system for addictions treatment, where doctors, clinicians, caseworkers and databases are all coordinating. Vermonters need a model of care that treats chemical-dependency as a chronic disease like diabetes or depression, where daily medication and relapse-management are the norm not the exception.

As anyone knows who's watched a loved one start using again, or has relapsed themselves, it's an experience of "brought-to-your-knees" helplessness. And many of the worst addicts admit the deepest shame at their inability ‘to willpower' themselves clean.

...Like my writer-friend. She's still incarcerated. She waits for another sober residence to materialize. I stay hopeful that the comprehensive, long-term addiction care she needs will become a reality soon, and her prison writing days will eventually be a distant memory.

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