Based on data from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Inmate Survey, more than half of state prisoners met criteria for drug dependence or abuse — and among female prisoners, it’s more than three out of four. Through a $2 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, faculty at Augusta University are developing a program for both male and female offenders to overcome challenges with substance use disorders as they return to their communities.
The grant will fund the Augusta Area Comprehensive Offender Re-entry Program, which partners with existing local organizations, such as the Augusta Transitional Center, Serenity Behavioral Health and Hope House to integrate people back into their communities.
There are existing programs that help find jobs for offenders once released from the criminal justice system. What makes this grant unique is that it will begin treatment services for substance use disorders (SUDs) while offenders are still incarcerated and help transition them to community-based services upon release.
“The program is very practical and has an intention to serve people and improve people’s lives,” says Dr. Aaron Johnson, interim director of the Institute of Public and Preventive Health and principal investigator. “This fits perfectly with the mission of our institute: to improve health and address health disparities in Georgia.”
Through this grant, offenders will receive counseling services and, if appropriate, FDA-approved medications treatment to treat SUDs while still incarcerated. Dr. Bill Jacobs, associate professor at the Medical College of Georgia and chief of Addiction Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior, will provide training and mentoring on medication-assisted treatment to providers in corrections and in the community.
“Medications to assist treatment are underutilized in this country and even more so in Georgia compared to the national average,” Jacobs says. “They are not a ‘cure,’ but are clearly beneficial to act as a splint or cast to help support sobriety until the patient’s recovery program is strong enough to support them without these medications.”
Prison-based case managers will work with local community-based providers, such as Serenity Behavioral Health and Hope House, to ensure treatment services continue to be provided once offenders are released.
Dr. Lufei Young, associate professor in the College of Nursing and co-investigator, says the program provides an opportunity to establish best practices and expand existing services. Nurses are particularly poised to provide a continuum of care, she adds. Young will help develop a curriculum to train the health care professionals, such as nurses, in coordinating and transitioning care across various settings.
Although the grant provides funding for five years, the goals are even longer term. Through efforts such as training health care providers the program intends to establish an infrastructure that serves this population for well into the future.
“If we could set up a sustainable system within the Augusta Transitional Center, where we are able to identify men with substance use disorders while they are still there and get them started on treatment before they ever leave, then I think their prospects for long-term recovery and a successful transition back into the community look much better,” Johnson says.
“The overall goal is to develop and establish an interdisciplinary team providing evidence-based care to offenders with substance use disorders,” Young says. “The grant funding will help expand and sustain our existing health care service, break down clinical silos and maximize resources by bridging the gaps and reducing duplicate services. It’s critical. We can help these individuals reconnect with their community.”