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Study: Risk of drug overdose deaths increases after incarceration in Knox County

WATE 6 On Your Side staff - KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) -- Sixty-seven percent of fatal overdose victims with incarceration history within the last five years died within 18 months of their release from custody, according to a report by the Knox County District Attorney's Office.

The report comes out of the office's involvement with the Drug Related Death Task Force. The task force is a multi-agency investigation and prosecution team that looks into overdoses in Knox County in order to combat the opiate epidemic.

"We can see that the most dangerous time for an individual living with addiction to relapse is during the period shortly after their release from incarceration because their tolerance is lower," said District Attorney Charme Allen. "As prosecutors, we have an opportunity to intervene and engage high-risk individuals in treatment programs or halfway houses as part of their sentence. There is also an opportunity for community agencies to partner with law enforcement to create a cross-sector plan to overcome this epidemic. If we can curb recidivism and prevent crime by treating addiction while saving lives at the same time, that will be a successful prosecution."

The county is currently working with the pharmaceutical company Alkermes and the Trinity Foundation for a trial of the Vivitrol program, a shot that keeps addicts from feeling the effects of the drugs.

"We're offering them a better deal, a chance to get out, to possibly be on probation, shave some time off their sentence and take a Vivitrol shot and they have to commit to taking that shot for 12 months," said Allen.

Allen says the study shows treatment is a crucial step but it isn't an easy one to provide.

"The problem with treatment is it's costly," said Allen. "You've got to pay for it and we don't have the money to pay for the treatment so what it's causing us to do trying to be really creative with funding for this treatment."

In 2016, there were 224 drug-related deaths in Knox County.

The report says the risk of a drug overdose increases significantly following a person's release from incarceration.

"Their bodies are no longer used to these medications," said Karen Pershing with Metro Drug Coalition. "But they go back to the same amount the were using at the peak of their addiction and so basically their body and their respiration shut down and they overdose."

Forty-five percent of people who died in Knoxville last year had an arrest or incarceration history in the five years before dying. Fifteen percent of the total number of people who died in 2016 died within 6 months of being released.

Thirty-four percent of those who fatally overdosed in 2016 had at least one interaction with law enforcement in the 12 months leading up to their death. The office believes this statistic suggests an opportunity for intervention.

Pershing says the big take away from the report is treatment is important but being in jail alone isn't a treatment. Addicts need to learn why they use, what their triggers are and other outlets for coping.


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