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Vital Stories

Getting Lifesaving Buprenorphine and Methadone to People in Pennsylvania Jails

Medications for opioid use disorder are proven to save lives.

Vital Strategies

By Kate Boulton JD, MPH 

Overdose deaths are soaring across the United States, and the rates of fatal overdose in Pennsylvania have risen significantly. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are disproportionately affected by the overdose crisis and, after their release, are up to 129 times more likely than people in the general public to die from overdose.  

Medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD), particularly buprenorphine and methadone, are proven to save lives and are the gold standard of care for people with opioid use disorder. When people in prison have access to medication assisted treatment, or MAT, the risk of fatal overdose dramatically decreases. Yet, despite its lifesaving impact, the full spectrum of medications for opioid use disorder is not available in many correctional settings in Pennsylvania and across the country.   

To address this issue, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, with support from Vital Strategies, recently hosted a statewide roundtable: “MOUD/MAT in the Criminal Legal System.” More than 50 people representing diverse sectors from across the state participated in discussions focused on efforts to advance access to medications for opioid use disorder in Pennsylvania jails. Panelists and attendees strategized about how advocates and stakeholders can work collaboratively to expand access to medications for opioid use disorder for incarcerated people across the state.  

This discussion comes at a crucial time, as overdose deaths continue to rise and there is heightened awareness that denying access to medications for opioid use disorder for people in the justice system constitutes illegal, disability-based discrimination.  

Building on a partnership formed in 2021, Vital Strategies and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project offer legal support and advice to incarcerated people seeking medications for opioid use disorder, including through litigation, and conduct research to accurately depict the provision of medications for opioid use disorder in county jails in Pennsylvania. As part of this initiative, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project also established a MOUD in Jail Statewide Advocacy Network, which comprises lawyers, advocates, currently and formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, and other stakeholders. 

A recording of the presentation featuring the panelists below can be found here.  

  • Lara Weinstein, M.D., Associate Professor, Program Director, Addiction Medicine Fellowship, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA  
  • Sara Rose, Esq., Deputy Legal Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, PA  
  • Adrienne R. Abner, Esq., RN, NE-BC, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Philadelphia, PA  
  • Stuart Fisk, CRNP, Director of Strategy, Center for Inclusion Health, Allegheny Health Network, Pittsburgh, PA  
  • Jerome Maynor, formerly incarcerated person, Pittsburgh, PA  

Kate Boulton, JD, MPH, is Senior Legal Technical Advisor for Overdose Prevention Program at Vital Strategies.