A Shot at Life: DA Allen and Law Enforcement Introduce Vivitrol-Based Treatment for Incarcerated Opioid Addicts

District Attorney Charme P. Allen, in conjunction with her partners at the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the Knoxville Police Department, and the Helen Ross McNabb Center, has obtained grant funding through the Trinity Foundation for a Medication Assisted Treatment (“MAT”) program for incarcerated opioid addicts in Knox County.  The MAT pilot program will begin in early 2017 and will utilize monthly Vivitrol injections to treat persons who are currently incarcerated for committing low-level crimes to support their opioid habit.

Vivitrol is an opioid antagonist, meaning that it blocks the brain’s ability to feel pleasure from opioid or alcohol abuse.  Simply put, Vivitrol users are physically unable to get high from either opioids or alcohol.  And, unlike opioid substitutes such as Methadone or Suboxone, Vivitrol is not itself addicting, nor does it have the potential for abuse or a value on the streets.

The Knox County grant funds Vivitrol-based treatment for 30 participants for a period of one year.  To be considered for the program, a candidate must be a Knox County resident, cannot have a prior conviction for a violent crime, must be facing a considerable jail sentence for a non-violent offense, and must be suffering from an opioid addiction.  Most importantly, the candidate must truly want to participate in the program and must have a support system outside of the jail that includes an acceptable residential plan.

Once a candidate is accepted into the program, he/she will be released to the care of the professionals at the Helen Ross McNabb Center, who will administer the Vivitrol injections, provide outpatient treatment, and conduct random drug screens.  Once the participant completes the 12-month regimen, Helen Ross McNabb will provide an additional six months of aftercare.  MAT participants who fail to abide by the terms of the program will be reported to the D.A.’s Office.  Their release will be revoked, and they will return to jail.  Measures will be taken to ensure that MAT is only available to criminal defendants who truly want to change their lives.

The impetus for the MAT program occurred in July 2016, when General Allen and representatives from KCSO and KPD traveled to Barnstable County, Massachusetts, to see firsthand the results of the Vivitrol program in that jurisdiction, the first of its kind in the nation.  Since the Barnstable County Sheriff introduced its Vivitrol program in 2012, 82% of program participants have avoided reincarceration at a Barnstable County facility.  This means that their total recidivism rate for MAT participants is an unheard-of 18%.

“The possibility of trading an 85% opioid-relapse rate for an 18% recidivism rate is what we desperately need as we battle this scourge locally,” General Allen stated.  “If we could bring these results to Knox County, we could truly ‘flip the field’ in the opioid battle, drastically cut the local demand for these drugs, and focus all of our efforts on prosecuting the gangs and criminals who push these drugs into our neighborhoods.”

The program comes as a complete windfall to the taxpayers of Knox County.  The Trinity Foundation grant includes $150,000 for the services provided by the Helen Ross McNabb Center.  Alkermes Incorporated, the manufacturer of Vivitrol, is donating 360 doses to the program, at $1,100 per dose.  The total value of the grant is well over $500,000.

“The costs to the Knox County taxpayer are zero,” General Allen noted, “but the benefits could be immeasurable.”

In the short-term, the program will relieve the costs of housing 30 inmates in a crowded jail for 12 months and give those 30 inmates a better chance of living normal, productive lives.  In the long-term, General Allen believes that the pilot MAT program could be the beginning of an approach that turns the tide of the opioid epidemic in Knox County.