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New program aims to help people with substance abuse issues after prison

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Posted at 7:53 PM, Nov 17, 2021

DENVER — Eighty-five percent of the U.S. prison population has an active substance abuse disorder or were incarcerated for a crime involving drugs.

Despite receiving treatment in prison, it's estimated that 95% will return to drug use.

However, there's a new program that is trying to connect people to treatment options outside of the prison walls.

“There’s a term in there, it’s called 'frequent flyers,' for those who return and come back, those who return and come back. I didn’t want to be a 'frequent flyer,'” said Stephanie Harvey

Harvey said she's grateful to have her freedom back.

“My story is a long, convoluted story and it involves some not good decisions,” she said. “I was arrested for a DUI and I did 90 days in Denver County.”

It wasn't her first DUI or her first attempt at treatment. She says, at first, her mindset was the same— do what she always does.

“My head was fear, confusion, how can I get out of it, how can I skate through it, do the minimal, check the boxes, be done,” she said.

But when she went to jail, this time, she was given a new opportunity— out-patient rehab, also known as medically assisted treatment (MAT).

“Suboxone, or Naltrexone or Vivitrol, which we use for opioid use disorder and alcohol use disorder, so just introducing them to these medications, starting them on these medications, then wanting them to continue on these medications,” said Valencia Peterson, psychiatric physician’s assistant with Denver Health.

Peterson spends her time working with patients in Denver city and county jails. The medications she listed are given to patients and can help them break addictions.

“We help get patients started on medication and start counseling while they are in the jails with the idea that they’ll follow up outpatient after the release for continuity of care,” said Peterson.

Drug treatment in the prison system is not a new concept, but the use of the MAT programs is new. In 2019, there were only 43 adult drug courts that approved of MAT programs. There are more than 3,500 drug courts in the U.S.

Another difference from the status quo is partnering with outside treatment programs once inmates are released.

“We know the risk is high when they release. Their tolerance decreases while they are in the facility and so we definitely want to help save lives and so we start them on the medication while they’re with us and then we connect them to an outpatient clinic to continue that care and give it that warm handoff,” said Peterson.

“Through the MAT program, I come to Denver Health, I see a peer support specialist who completely exceeds all expectations as far as encouragement, support, shared stories, consistency. I get just a little teary-eyed because I’ve never had this before,” said Harvey.

Harvey says she knows that this is just the beginning of her recovery and that tough days are ahead. But she wants to make the most of this opportunity and take advantage of the resources she’s been given and the people she meets along the way.