California is fighting fentanyl with a new tactic: addiction treatment in prisons (2023)



Powered by


In response to the increasing number of overdose deaths in state prisons, California launched a comprehensive substance abuse program. But getting people to take medication during and after serving their sentence can be difficult.

  • 26

California is fighting fentanyl with a new tactic: addiction treatment in prisons (1)

AlreadyNoah Weiland

Photos by the authorRachel Bujalska

Noah Weiland and Rachel Bujalski visited the prison in Chowchilla, California, and met with inmates being treated for opioid addiction.

In the sweltering 100-degree heat of last afternoon at Valley State Prison in Central Valley, California, inmates gathered around small windows in the prison yard to take their daily dose of buprenorphine, an opioid addictive drug.

At the window, Quennie Uy, a nurse, scanned the prisoners' ID cards, then took strips of medication and slid them through a sliding panel under the window. One by one, the prisoners put the strips in their mouths and then flashed them with their hands - proof that they had not pocketed the drug to satisfy their cravings.

The daily ritual is part of a large-scale health experiment in California to reverse the often lasting harm of opioid use before, during and after incarceration. The state's efforts also reflect the beginnings of a potential shift in the nation's approach to addiction treatment in an often-overlooked section of American society.

"For the first time, there is a trend towards increasing access to treatment in prisons and prisons," said Dr. Justin Berk, an addiction medicine physician at Brown University and former medical director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. "There is a better understanding that if we are going to treat the opioid overdose crisis, one of the highly targeted populations for treatment is those in prisons and jails."

The federal government estimates that most incarcerated Americans have substance use disorders, many of whom are addicted to opioids, which can be difficult to manage in an era of potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Deaths in state prisons due to drug or alcohol poisoning increased by more than 600 percent between 2001 and 2019.the Department of Justice reported.


But addiction treatment is still only available sporadically in the country's prisons and prisons. By 2021, only about 630 out of about 5,000 correctional facilities in the U.S. dispensed opiate drugsThe Opiate Project in Prisons and Prisons, a group led by Dr. Berk, who investigates the treatment of prisoners.

The Biden administration is trying to change that, aiming to increase the number of detention centers and prisons offering treatment for opioid dependence and to introduce treatment programs in all federal prisons by this summer. There are representatives of both parties in Congresslook for a range extensiontreatment in the weeks preceding the detainee's release.

Lack of treatment for opioid addiction in correctional facilities, said Dr. Ruth Potee, medical director at the Franklin County Prison in western Massachusetts, "is like running a psychiatric hospital without treating mental illness."

Prolongation of treatment

In 2019, California prisons registered theirshighest overdose mortality rateand the highest overdose fatality rate in the nationwide prison system. In the same year, state legislators enacted amulti-year planGovernor Gavin Newsom, Democrat, for drug treatment in prisons.

Today, the state is one of the few in the country to have a comprehensive treatment program for the entire prison system, which has led tosignificant reductionin case of death from overdose. The program is expensive, with a budget of $283 million for the current fiscal year. But in January, California became the first state to receive approval from the Biden administrationuse Medicaid for correctional health care, allowing officers to use federal funds to pay for opioid treatment.

Prisoners have a constitutional right to health care. But standards of care can vary from state to state, said Regina LaBelle, who served as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Biden. Some prisoners can only receive treatment if they received it before the prison, while others move between prisons and jails without ongoing treatment. A short stay in prison often leads to withdrawal symptoms.

At Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California, near the vast almond fields northwest of Fresno, inmates are screened for substance use upon entering the facility, allowing staff to prescribe buprenorphine to inmates at the start of their sentence.

Drugs, inmates say, have enabled them to become more involved with students or prison staff. But some who need treatment are still reluctant, said Alberto Barreto, an inmate who advises others on substance use.



Prison staff and inmates should "help them get to where they feel comfortable enough to at least listen to someone talk about their addiction," he said, leaning against a bathroom in a cell he shares with several inmates.

Current and former California inmates have said in interviews that visitors can sometimes smuggle opioids into state prisons. Some inmates said that smells such as vinegar or smells coming from machines could trigger memories or drug cravings.

Some have argued that the punitive culture of incarceration can also lead to suspicion of drug use, which discourages inmates from seeking treatment. Carlos Meza, a Valley State Prison inmate who recently did push-ups in the prison yard, said he overdosed on fentanyl twice at another prison, leading prison staff to suspect he was suicidal. He just wanted drugs, he told them. They eventually started treating him for addiction, Meza said.



At Valley State Prison, addiction treatment is combined with group behavior therapy. The same morning while Mr. Meza was doing push-ups, a group of inmates stood against the walls of a small classroom to practice apologizing, which included a scenario where an inmate had stolen some of someone's daily phone time.

Across the hall, textbooks strewn across tables, a sophomore was discussing the science of substance use, trying to understand the roots of addiction.

Some inmates say that without treatment, an inmate may become vulnerable to re-offending when released. "They go hand in hand - they're linked," says Trevillion Ward, an inmate who works in the prison canteen, explaining how drug use can increase the risk of incarceration. Mr Ward said he went back to drugs and returned to prison about three years after serving his first sentence.

"I didn't have the skills to go out and deal with the stress of life," he said. "As a result, as soon as things got serious and hectic, I went back to drugs."

Risks after discharge

People in prisons and prisons areParticularly vulnerableto fatal overdose soon after release when tolerance to strong opioids such as fentanyl may be impaired.

When inmates leave Valley State Prison and other California state prisons, they are offered naloxone, and people undergoing treatment for opioid dependence are also given a 30-day supply of buprenorphine. This continuity is necessary for treatment to be effective, said Dr. Shira Shavit, a physician at the University of California, San Francisco, and executive director of the Transitions Clinic Network, a group of clinics that provide health care to people released from prison or detention.

The transition to the outside world can be excruciating, and parole activities are sandwiched between work, moving to an apartment, securing benefits, and going to doctor's appointments.



Robert Banuelos, who was released from a California prison in June, said that when his supply of buprenorphine ran out 30 days after his release, an emergency clinic near San Diego was unable to confirm his insurance status. With the help of Sharon Fennix, who runs the Transitions Clinic Network hotline after nearly 40 years in prison, he confirmed he had Medicaid. Recently, Mr. Banuelos moved to Los Angeles and was fighting for a new prescription for buprenorphine, worried that any interruption in treatment could lead to a relapse.

"Loneliness is terrible," he said of his attempts to find friends and work. He added: "I feel like I can't move, even with daily buprenorphine tablets. I feel like my hands are tied behind my back."

This afternoon, Delilah Sunseri, a wedding waitress who spent some time in prison and now lives in her car, checked into a mobile health clinic in San Jose where health professionals were administering buprenorphine injections to patients who had previously been incarcerated. Mrs. Sunseri was there with her monthly dose of medicine.

Ms Sunseri said she chose to live in her car because she was concerned about living around other drug addicts, whether at a friend's house or in a temporary apartment.

"There are people who say, 'Oh, you did it to yourself. You know, you got yourself into this mess. You have to get out of it,” she said. "But it's a disease."

Just before arriving at the clinic, her daughter Blaise Sunseri received the same injection, determined not to go back to fentanyl. She said the younger Ms. Sunseri had spent some time in a string of California prisons. Both women required treatment to stabilize their drug use after release. Delilah Sunseri said addictive drugs were not available during her time in prison, where she said inmates overdosed in the yard and died.



Post-release treatment is like a "safety net," said Nicholas Brady, a recent inmate who received a buprenorphine injection at a San Jose clinic.

He said that while in prison, he saw prisoners at risk of instant relapse. He said some people plan their drugs after they get out of prison, thinking they can avoid an overdose. The prisoners spent their time "thinking about it, fantasizing about it," Brady said.

Karen Souder, a former food truck owner, put her life back together after serving a prison term with the help of buprenorphine, which she continued to use after her release with the help of Dr. Shavit. The drug "really gets me through the day," said Ms. Souder, who now clears roads for the California Department of Transportation.

She was stable on buprenorphine and said she found joy in the freedom to bathe or put on makeup.

The day she was released this year, she went to lunch with a woman who helped run a gardening class she was taking in prison. At the Red Lobster where they ate, Mrs. Souder saw the flowers and plants outside the restaurant and marveled at their beauty. The sky was blue. They took pictures in front of the plantation. There were no fences around them, Ms Souder said. "We sat there for a minute," she added, "just taking a deep breath."


Noah Weilandis a health reporter in the Washington office. He was part of the team that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Covid-19. More about Noah Weiland

A version of this article appears in print at, Section


, side


New York edition

with the title:

Rehabilitation starts from within: California heals prisoners' addictions.Order reprints|Today's newspaper|Subscribe


  • 26




Did Governor Newsom release a master plan for tackling the fentanyl and opioid crisis? ›

The Governor's Master Plan for Tackling the Fentanyl and Opioid Crisis provides a comprehensive framework to deepen the impact of these investments — including through a CalRx effort where California will allocate $30 million to support partners in developing, manufacturing, procuring, and/or distributing a naloxone ...

What Senate bill is fentanyl in California? ›

SB 10 focuses on stopping youth fentanyl overdoses through prevention, response, and awareness. The bill mandates that every public school in California provide training to school employees on opioid prevention and life-saving response under a formal plan known as a Comprehensive School Safety Plan, or CSSP.

How is the opioid crisis being combated? ›

Combatting the Opioid Overdose Epidemic

CDC's work focuses on: Monitoring trends to better understand and respond to the epidemic. Advancing research by collecting and analyzing data on opioid-related overdoses and improving data quality to better identify areas that need assistance and to evaluate prevention efforts.

What is the opioid response in California? ›

California Youth Opioid Response (YOR California) is a partnership between the California Institute for Behavioral Health Solutions (CIBHS) and Advocates for Human Potential, Inc., (AHP) which provides funding to organizations to implement and expand MAT and opioid use disorder prevention, treatment, and recovery ...

Is fentanyl decriminalized in California? ›

Fentanyl Possession

Possessing fentanyl in California is illegal, and is punishable under California Health and Safety Code 11350. This statute prohibits the possession of a host of drugs, including fentanyl.

Who was sentenced to 20 years for fentanyl? ›

Arizona Man Sentenced to More Than 20 Years in Prison for Trafficking Counterfeit Fentanyl Pills Into Ohio. CLEVELAND – Solomon Odubajo, 37, of Tempe, Arizona, was sentenced to 248 months of imprisonment on August 3, 2023 by U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster.

What is the new fentanyl law in California? ›

The legislation referred to in this statement is AB 701, which increases sentences and fines for fentanyl dealers based on the weight of the drug if carrying more than a kilo of fentanyl (half a million lethal doses).

What is the punishment for fentanyl in California? ›

According to the fentanyl laws of California, any person who is arrested with fentanyl in California while transporting, importing, selling, furnishing, administering, or giving away fentanyl without a prescription will be imprisoned for three to five years if found guilty.

Where does fentanyl in California come from? ›

The majority of fentanyl is mass-produced in Mexico using chemicals from China before being pressed into pills or mixed with other counterfeit pills made to look like Xanax, Adderall, or oxycodone. The counterfeit drugs are then sold to unaware buyers.

Can you still get OxyContin? ›

Did Purdue Pharma file for bankruptcy? Yes, facing a multitude of lawsuits, Purdue Pharma sought bankruptcy protection. Is OxyContin still available in the market? Yes, OxyContin remains on the market but is now subjected to stricter regulations.

Why is OxyContin still prescribed? ›

It's primarily prescribed for moderate to severe pain due to injuries, chronic conditions, or cancer.

Is the opioid crisis declining? ›

Overdose Mortality Declined During the First Nine Months of 2022. New federal provisional data suggest that drug overdose deaths dropped modestly in the first nine months of 2022, compared to the same period in 2021. In 2021, a record 106,699 lives were lost.

What is the new opioid settlement? ›

The agreement stipulates that $1.6 billion will be provided to states to use for opioid abatement, with approximately $14.7 million of those funds awarded to California. Additional bankruptcies from other opioid manufacturers, including with Endo Pharmaceuticals and Purdue Pharmaceuticals L.P., are still pending.

How much is the opioid settlement in California? ›

California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a historic $26 billion settlement that will help bring desperately needed relief to people in California and across the country who are struggling with opioid addiction.

Could California receive more than $500 million from Walgreens opioid settlement? ›

If approved, California stands to receive $470 million from the CVS settlement and up to $510 million from the Walgreens settlement. There is a Walmart settlement also in the works.

What is the presidential plan for the opioid crisis? ›

WASHINGTON, D.C. – To advance the Administration's plan to beat the opioid epidemic as part of his Unity Agenda, President Biden released his FY 2024 budget request to Congress, which calls for a historic investment of $46.1 billion for National Drug Control Program agencies.

Did California receive $470 million from CVS in opioid settlement? ›

Lawsuits by numerous states accused CVS and other pharmacy chains of fueling the opioid crisis by filling prescriptions that should have been flagged as inappropriate.

What were the recent federal responses to the opioid crisis? ›

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 appropriated $1.5 billion in block grants for the prevention and treatment of substance use disorder and $30 million for community-based funding of harm-reduction services, including naloxone distribution and syringe services programs.

Who is to blame for the opioid crisis in America today? ›

Most people blame the epidemic on pharmaceutical companies and illegal drug dealers, though many also place blame on users themselves, as well as on doctors and the FDA. Most Americans agree that there is currently an opioid epidemic in the United States, which many describe as part of a larger mental health crisis.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Barbera Armstrong

Last Updated: 09/03/2023

Views: 5943

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (79 voted)

Reviews: 86% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Barbera Armstrong

Birthday: 1992-09-12

Address: Suite 993 99852 Daugherty Causeway, Ritchiehaven, VT 49630

Phone: +5026838435397

Job: National Engineer

Hobby: Listening to music, Board games, Photography, Ice skating, LARPing, Kite flying, Rugby

Introduction: My name is Barbera Armstrong, I am a lovely, delightful, cooperative, funny, enchanting, vivacious, tender person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.