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White House drug official visits Rhode Island prison program

By MATT O'BRIENJuly 26, 2016
FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2016, file photo, Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on attacking America's epidemic of heroin and prescription drug abuse, on Capitol Hill, in Washington. A new Rhode Island prison program that provides medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction is getting attention from the Obama administration’s top drug control official. Botticelli toured the state women’s prison in Cranston on Tuesday, July 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2016, file photo, Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on attacking America's epidemic of heroin and prescription drug abuse, on Capitol Hill, in Washington. A new Rhode Island prison program that provides medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction is getting attention from the Obama administration’s top drug control official. Botticelli toured the state women’s prison in Cranston on Tuesday, July 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

CRANSTON, R.I. (AP) — A new Rhode Island prison program that provides medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction is getting attention from the Obama administration’s top drug control official.

Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, toured the state women’s prison in Cranston on Tuesday.

The state budget passed last month adds $2 million to a pilot program treating inmates with methadone and other medications that can reduce their dependence on opioids.

“We know that if we provide good treatment for people who are incarcerated that they are less likely to recidivate in the criminal justice system,” Botticelli said. “They are much more likely to stay engaged in treatment. And they are less likely to experience an overdose.”

He said he wants Rhode Island’s program to be replicated nationwide, describing it as innovative and evidence-based.

Botticelli spoke after listening to four inmates at the Gloria McDonald Women’s prison talk about their experiences battling drug addiction. All of the women said that being allowed to take methadone or another addiction-fighting treatment while incarcerated makes it less likely that they’ll relapse into drug abuse and other illegal activity upon release.

The state Department of Corrections has had a limited medication-assisted treatment program since the early 1990s, but it’s being significantly expanded this year in an attempt to combat a crisis of fatal overdoses of prescription painkillers, heroin and other substances.

“We’ve lost 1,000 Rhode Islanders in the last five years,” said state Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts. “That’s more than gun deaths and car deaths combined.”

The state also is pairing the treatments with better screening of inmates when they arrive in state prisons and connecting them to re-entry programs upon release.

Botticelli said Rhode Island’s correctional system is one of just several around the country taking the lead in providing methadone and other medications for opioid addiction, such as buprenorphine. Others he mentioned as models were in California and neighboring Massachusetts, where Botticelli was a longtime director of the state’s Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.

Botticelli has been emphasizing treatment over arrest and incarceration since the U.S. Senate unanimously approved him as the nation’s top drug control official last year.

The role has been informally known as the “drug czar,” but he told CBS’ “60 Minutes” last year he doesn’t like that term because it connotes the failed and punitive policies of the past. He has described the nation’s longtime “war on drugs” as inhumane, costly and ineffective.

Botticelli, who is in the 27th year of his recovery from alcohol addiction, has also sought to diminish the shameful feelings that prevent people from seeking help by telling his story.

“Part of what we need to do as people in recovery is make sure that we’re talking openly and honestly about our journeys,” he said Tuesday after listening to the inmates. “We’ve seen this recovery movement here in Rhode Island and across the nation take root because people fundamentally understand the role that silence can play in continuing to perpetuate stigma.”

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