Laura Levine says she never smoked a cigarette or touched a drink until age 35. Then the mother of five tried heroin, and she was hooked.
After some brushes with the law — petty larceny to support her habit — she was booked into Nassau County jail and withdrawal started kicking in. As the nausea, shaking and sweating grew worse, she began pleading with guards for help.
“They kind of laughed and said, ‘You’ll be fine. Nobody dies from heroin withdrawal,’” said Levine, who is in recovery and now works to help others struggling with opioids. “I would rather give birth to all five of my children again without medication than go through withdrawal again.”
More help for people like Levine could be on the way, as lawmakers in New York are considering a measure to make medication-assisted treatment such as methadone or suboxone available to all prison and jail inmates struggling with opioid addiction.
States across the country are considering similar approaches amid research that shows that the drugs along with behavior therapy can help addicts reduce the withdrawal symptoms and cravings that drive many addicts to relapse.
Federal statistics suggest more than half of all inmates in state prisons nationwide have a substance- abuse problem. New York officials say that percentage could be as high as 80 percent in state and local lockups, which at any given time have about 77,000 inmates.
Drug policy experts point to the success of a similar program in Rhode Island, which has seen a sharp drop in the number of former inmates who died of overdoses, from 26 in 2016 to nine last year.
Other successes have been reported in local jails in Louisville, Kentucky; Sacramento, California and in Massachusetts.
“It makes no sense that people who have a public health issue don’t have access to medicine,” said Jasmine Budnella, drug policy coordinator at VOCAL-NY, a group that advocates on behalf of low-income New Yorkers on such issues as criminal justice, drug policy and homelessness. “In the U.S., we talk about human rights but we are literally torturing these people.”
Two years ago, 24-year-old Matt Herring died of a drug overdose after years of struggling with addiction and bouncing in and out of correctional facilities. His mother, Patricia Herring, said Matt once tried to smuggle suboxone into jail in order to avoid the horrors of withdrawal. Guards found the medication and took it away.
Patricia Herring has now become a self-described “mom on a mission” to push for greater resources for addiction treatment in correctional facilities.
“If he had been given medication-assisted treatment when he entered, I don’t know, maybe things would have been different,” she said.
With no organized opposition, the debate over supporting medication-assisted treatment in correctional settings comes down to dollars and cents. Some counties have paid for programs in their jails; others have not. A total of six state and local lockups in the New York City area, for example, have limited drug-assistance programs for opioid addicts.
Albany County became the first county in the state outside of New York City to offer medication-assisted treatment. Sheriff Craig Apple said he’s become a believer.
“It took me a while to get on board with this, but we’re already seeing early success,” he said.
A state budget proposal from Democratic Gov. Andrew would spend $3.75 million to expand access in county jails, and use more than $1 million to expand its use in state prisons. Democratic leaders of the state Legislature have called for more, and advocates say they want to see at least $7 million in the annual budget.
A decision is expected before April 1, when the new budget is due.
“Addiction is a disease,” said New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who is sponsoring the drug-treatment legislation. “We should treat it like a disease.”