Guest Op-Ed : Re-Entry Services for Ex-Inmates are Crucial to Combating the Opioid Crisis

By State Rep. Jon Santiago

The intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard is ground-zero for the opioid epidemic in Boston. It’s an area I know well, given my work as an emergency room physician at nearby Boston Medical Center, my experience as a resident of that neighborhood, and my new role as the state representative.

During a regular shift in the ER, it’s almost guaranteed that I will care for multiple patients in the throes of addiction. Among the most vulnerable of these patients are men and women who have been recently released from incarceration, often without a place to live, a job to work, or access to treatment which can mean the difference between life and death.

As the opioid crisis has reached all corners of our society, it has become especially devastating inside our corrections system. From 2011 to 2015, one-quarter of Massachusetts prison inmates received substance use treatment. Recently-incarcerated individuals are 120 times more likely to die of an overdose than the general public and in 2015 alone, almost half of all deaths of formerly incarcerated individuals in Massachusetts were opioid-related.

That’s far too many lives lost and second chances missed.

Community-based residential reentry centers are among the best tools we have to connect these individuals with treatment during that critical point in their transition. However, resources have been scarce and as a result, thousands of individuals return to our communities with inadequate support each year.

We need to change that.

Investing in quality reentry programs can help curb the opioid epidemic’s devastating toll by preventing gaps in treatment that begin inside our jails and prisons once someone is released. Maintaining that continuity of care is critically important to maximizing someone’s chances for beginning a sustainable path toward recovery. In addition to serving as that crucial link to substance use counseling, reentry centers help individuals find housing, employment, and other support services. These programs benefit not just the individuals who spend time in them, but their families and entire communities by reducing recidivism, improving the quality of life in neighborhoods, and promoting greater public safety.

The Legislature included $5 million for residential reentry centers in this year’s state budget, up from $90,000 the previous year. The tremendous investment is already bolstering the network of programs that had been shrinking due to a lack of funding. This year, we have an opportunity to go further and increase funding, allowing for access to these life-changing programs to expand beyond pockets in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield.

Starting over after incarceration can be enormously difficult even under the best of circumstances. For individuals also battling addiction, the challenges of reentry are exponentially harder. We know that community-based residential reentry centers can help these individuals and strengthen the communities that we all share. Let’s invest in what works.

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