Arizona Department of Corrections launches program to fight opioid addiction in prisons

PHOENIX - The Arizona Department of Corrections launched a new drug program this week which aims at fighting Opioid abuse head-on.

Some inmates, nearing the end of their time in prison, can now become eligible for a Vivitrol shot. Vivitrol is an injectable drug — taken once a month — that blocks the brain's Opioid receptors. The drug is designed to keep an Opioid user from having the ability to get high for roughly a month.

Vivitrol is an extended-release and injectable form of Naltrexone.

"It can't be abused, which is a huge benefit when you're working with addicts," said Karen Hellman, the Division Director for Inmate Programs and Reentry with the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Back in January, Governor Doug Ducey called for a Vivitrol program at the State of the State address. That is coming to fruition this week.

Violet Rose, 27, was the first inmate at the Arizona Department of Corrections to receive the shot. She was given the shot on Monday and scheduled to be released from Perryville's Piestewa Unit on Friday.

"I was doing meth, heroin, really anything that I could get my hands on," Rose said. She is serving out her time on a drug charge, and on Friday will be released to parole until March. Rose told ABC15 she has battled drug addiction for years and started taking heroin last summer. She also told ABC15 that's around the time she violated probation and wound up at Perryville Prison.

"The low point was losing my kids, my children," she said.

Rose is optimistic about the Vivitrol shot. She has a job lined up and says she is determined to lead a sober life.

Over the next two years, the Arizona Department of Corrections hopes to find 100 willing and eligible inmates to start on the Vivitrol shot as part of the pilot project. Staff put interested inmates through a screening process to ensure they are physically and mentally ready to commit to this type of treatment. The Department of Corrections is considering inmates already in their employment centers as potential candidates.

"(The) hope ideally is, to reduce recidivism, to keep them from coming back to the prison system and to have them remain clean and sober for a lifetime," Hellman said.

Hellman told ABC15 she hopes the program helps improve the department's recidivism rate, or the rate in which criminals re-offend, which currently stands at 39.4 percent.

"This is a huge deal for ADC," Hellman said. "Until recently, we never considered medicated-assisted treatment, so this is part of our whole initiative about reducing recidivism."

Hellman said the initial dosing of Vivitrol provided in the prisons is provided at no cost by the drugmaker Alkermes. Once inmates leave prison, they can seek the Vivitrol shot by way of AHCCCS, the state's Medicaid program. Inmates selected for the Vivitrol program are pre-screened and deemed eligible for AHCCCS. The number of Vivitrol shots each patient will receive varies, and treatment providers will determine if, and for how long, they are medically needed.

If you were to buy the drug wholesale, it costs around $1,300. However, you can seek coverage for Vivitrol through your health insurance company.

While state officials are optimistic about Vivitrol as a part of treatment, they stress counseling must come with the medication.

"Otherwise all you're doing is putting someone in a shot you're going to continue for the rest of their life, but they're not learning to make better choices, they're not learning to deal with their triggers," Hellman said.

Inmates in the Vivitrol program are setup with counseling services, to ensure as seamless a re-entry as possible once they leave prison.

After taking the Vivitrol shot, Rose is optimistic she can couple that with counseling, and a job, and stay sober. She hopes to have a chance to see her kids again.

"I really don't want to say anything to them, I just want to show them, because I've done all that talking before," Rose said. "I just want them to see a better me."

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, heroin killed 92 people in Arizona in 2012. In 2016, that number jumped all the way to 308.

Vivitrol is now connected to more than 500 criminal justice programs in 39 states, according to a representative for Alkermes, which is the drugmaker behind Vivitrol. 

Click here for a comprehensive look at how Vivitrol works.

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